When hard times hit, businesses tighten their belts. And when it comes time for layoffs, companies have to decide who’s dispensable and who adds value it can’t afford to lose.
If you think you might be in the first category, you’d better change strategies. And if you are’t quite sure which side you fall on, it’s just as bad. So how do you start reinventing yourself to be irreplaceable?
In his 2010 book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, Seth Godin asks his reader what their company would be like if they were replaced by someone better. His answer is as interesting as his question.
Godin writes that this is unlikely to happen because a worker’s competitive advantage isn’t measured by how many hours they work, how high they score on certain measures, or how much industry experience they have.
Instead, it’s about the passion and energy they bring to their positions, their ability to see things as they are, and how well they balance priorities without burning out.
Seems impossible, but the good news is that all those traits are matters of choice and practice, not talent. You become irreplaceable because you choose to be. That means making deliberate decisions to build your personal brand within your organization.
Iconic fashion designer Coco Chanel said that “in order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.” The odd one out always tends to attract attention. Whether it’s positive or negative, being different makes you stick out.
In her book Stand Out, marketing strategist Dorie Clark says this is key to personal brand-building, the reason others seek you out and want to be around you.
You don’t need to be different by virtue of a special knowledge or skill, either. You might just have a unique personality trait or characteristic. As long as you aren’t perceived to be trying too hard, faking it, or so eccentric you’re unapproachable, a little dash of difference can be like your workplace superpower.
Robots are programmed to follow a set of tasks and execute job descriptions to the letter—nothing more, nothing less. But people don’t work that way.
If you want to be irreplaceable, always remind yourself that you aren’t a robot, but a human being full of ideas who can use them to solve an existing problem efficiently and creatively. Become the person who offers solutions instead of the one who just carries out tasks or complains problems.
But listen out for the things other people in your company are complaining about, then look into how those issues might be resolved and propose a few tactful solutions. You don’t have to be an expert about it, and whether or not your suggestion is followed, you’ll be seen as someone who has proactive ideas.
You’ll also be making your boss’s job easier. And if your ideas work, the next time there’s a problem she’ll know where to go to find someone who might be able to help solve it.
Skills and talents are nothing if you haven’t nurtured your work relationships. Take time to interact with clients and colleagues. And remember you can’t do that if you spend all your time in front of the computer.
Interaction doesn’t just mean: “Hi, how are you?” It’s about building deep and meaningful relationships over time. Take the time to chat with the people you interact with most, and casually reach out to one or two who you interact with very little. Organize events and invite your co-workers to lunch or small get-togethers.
For clients, it can be as simple as sending them a small thank-you note or a “how are you doing?” to show you genuinely care about them and your relationship isn’t strictly about the business contract.
As you’re working on building your reputation and personal brand inside your company, though, don’t lose sight of the fact that there’s always a point beyond which no one is really irreplaceable.
So keep things in perspective. Incidentally, keeping a cool head and knowing where you fit on your team is another way to make yourself into the sort of person your company won’t want to lose.
James Richman is a business author, and much of what he writes about is based on his own experiences—both good and bad—as the CEO of the global online technology company 1stWebDesigner.