If you want a career book so compelling it could persuade you to run through a wall, look no further than Seth Godin’s 2010 page-turner, Linchpin. When he asks us if we’re indispensable, Godin invites us to think outside the box and become so necessary to our organization that our presence shifts power dynamics and bucks the system.
I pursued this approach throughout my twenties as an employee and racked up gold stars with various employers. When I made the move into consulting, however, being a linchpin promptly backfired. Clients felt they had to work with me and only me, rather than my framework or my employees, and every entrepreneur knows time is a precious and fleeting resource. I had become immobilized, a linchpin rusted in place. Not cute.
Being irreplaceable sounds pretty sweet right now amid the recent tidal wave of pandemic-related unemployment. But if you’re wanting to move to the next level in either management or entrepreneurship, you’ll have to balance being both strategically necessary and an operations afterthought. Otherwise you’ll remain stuck, or worse . . . constantly needed.
Become the right kind of linchpin
Godin wrote a decade ago that “you can’t out-Amazon Amazon,” a prophetic passage that aged really well. Becoming a linchpin is an aspirational concept in many ways. We’re all looking to stand out, and employee recognition is a key factor for engagement. Some approaches are better than others. The key is to be indispensable with regard to the change you create, rather than possessing an actual skill that could later be gobbled up by the imminent automation dragon.
Most of your employees actually want a linchpin to come in and raise the bar. Ask young people what they look for in a job offer. Besides salary, their top desires are stability and growth. In fact, Deloitte’s most recent millennial study found that a larger percentage of the generation wants to stay with their existing employer for five or more years than leave in the next two years. Employees want mentorship and collaboration, and 71% of Fortune 500 companies have a corporate mentorship program in place.
How to be a linchpin without pinning yourself
Always be thinking of ways to create or improve SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures). Warren Buffett is famous for quipping that “One should invest in a business that any fool can run.” Yes, in Buffett’s eyes you can be a “good business” without a brilliant person running the show. Why? Say it with me: SOPs.
Chances are, eventually, “some idiot” (Buffett’s words, not mine) will be running the show. When that day comes the processes you have set in place will save the company. Many view SOPs as a straitjacket that limits their flexibility at work, but a clever use of standards can actually liberate employees and make it easier to tailor cost-effective customer experiences.
Anticipate creating change through others. Another book that slapped me in the face years ago is Ram Charan’s The Leadership Pipeline. In it, he notes that as we climb each rung of the corporate ladder our time priorities must transform. Linchpins who are acclimated to “doing” the work to elicit change will find themselves pinned to the floor when it’s time to angle for a promotion.
Charan suggests learning to value your managerial work rather than just tolerate it. Our society is so focused on having us be “producers,” but there comes a time when we must prioritize making others productive. View the time spent on coaching others as a critical component to your success.
Build a personal brand. And not a thirst-trap Instagram, though I guess you could also do that if you wanted. Project to your employer that your opinions are in demand and they need to keep you around no matter what. Third-party recognition and endorsement of your perspectives can supplement your reputation nicely. Testimonials, leadership projects, and media accolades cement your status as a true conduit for change and not just a shiny cog in the corporate machine.
Go on, then—be a star. If you’re looking to move up in the future as either an executive or an entrepreneur, however, ensure that your stardom isn’t rooted in what you do, but rather who you are.
Nick Wolny is a former classically trained musician and a current online marketing strategist for small-business owners, experts, and entrepreneurs.