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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Seth Godin, Nobody is Indispensable

by Mike Myatt

Nobody is Indispensable - A Rebuttal to Seth GodinThere is no shortage of information circulating of late espousing the benefits of making yourself indispensable to your employer. While this mantra has clearly gained some traction, if not actually becoming quite popular, popular thinking does not necessarily equate to sound thinking. Let me be as clear as I can - nobody, and I mean nobody is indispensable. I don't care who you are, what role you play, or what your title is. If you perceive yourself to be indispensable, you are setting yourself up for a very rude awakening. Furthermore, anyone who by design sets out to orchestrate a situation to make themselves indispensable is not operating in good faith. In today's post I'm going to share my thoughts as to why the myth of becoming indispensable is very dangerous thinking to say the least...

A well managed company does not allow itself to become dependent upon the performance of any single individual. Those individuals who attempt to hoard knowledge, relationships, or resources to attain job security should not to be valued or viewed as indispensable, but should be admonished as ineffective and deemed a liability. Corporate talent that cannot be shared, duplicated, distributed, or leveraged is not nearly as valuable as talent that can.

So, where has all this recent self-indulgent, misguided thinking come from? I believe much of it stems from the self-help types that proliferate the concept of self-promotion for self-benefit over the concept of service above self. More distressing is that this concept was recently validated in Seth Godin's new book "Linchpin".

Let me begin by stating that I'm a Seth Godin fan. While I agree with him more often than not, I will from time-to-time find myself shaking my head wondering what in the heck could Seth possibly be thinking? In his recent book "Linchpin", Seth Godin puts forth some great concepts that we should all aspire to. I wholeheartedly agree that each of us should become the best we can be, that our work should become developed and refined to the point where it is viewed as art, and we are seen as the artist behind the masterpiece. So much of what you'll read in between the covers of "Linchpin" is as close to inspirational brilliance as you'll find in a business book, which is why it pains me to have to point out the critical flaw in "Linchpin" that regrettably overshadows the highlights - namely the concept of the linchpin itself.

Seth describes a linchpin as somebody in an organization who is indispensable - who simply cannot be replaced because their role is just far too unique and valuable. Making things worse, he then goes on to say how important it is for all of us to become indispensable, for not to be indispensable is tantamount to economic and career suicide. Encouraging somebody to make the most of their talents and abilities is quite laudable - encouraging them to become indispensable is validating a new level of self worship that I find quite troubling.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who sets out to make themselves indispensable would be the one committing career suicide for two reasons:
  1. Anyone who is "perceived" as indispensable in their current role completely eliminates any possibility of promotion

  2. Any good leadership team who finds themselves dependant upon a linchpin will immediately move to mitigate the risk of finding themselves in such an untenable position

It is an organization's ability to collect and convert data into information, turn information into knowledge, and knowledge into an operating advantage that allows an enterprise to effectively address current needs as well as to strategically drive innovation and forward planning. This cannot happen if one person positions themselves as a linchpin. Put more simply, a corporation's employees must be able to acquire knowledge (learning), transfer knowledge (out of the head and into an information system), apply knowledge (from the information system into an actionable event), manage knowledge (execute with focus, timing and precision), and secure knowledge (keep it from evaporating or even worse from walking out the door to a competitor). Let's see if we can bring this issue a bit closer to home for some of you. Ask yourself the following questions:
  • Have you ever had a disruption in business continuity because someone who possessed a wealth of experience and/or information retired, quit or was terminated?

  • Have you ever lost a deal or had a major operational problem because somewhere in your organization you found yourself dependent upon a single person's expertise and they dropped the ball?

  • Have you ever found yourself in the unenviable position of desiring to terminate an employee only to be held hostage by the fear of losing the knowledge that they possess?

While I could go on ad-nauseum with day-to-day operating examples of how a linchpin can adversely affect a business, I think I've probably dredged-up enough painful memories for now. As a CEO or entrepreneur, the fact that you would allow an employee to become indispensable to begin with means that at a minimum you have a lack of transparency and continuity in your organization, and more probably that you lack depth of talent and are weak in process and knowledge management.

How would you answer this question... Is your company talent poor and linchpin dependent, or talent rich or linchpin independent? From my perspective there is a monumental difference between real tier-one talent and a primadonna who thinks of themselves as indispensable. Employees who represent true tier-one talent see themselves as part of the team seeking to make those around them more successful. Contrast this with those primadonnas who are interested solely in their own success without regard to those around them. Any company that bestows a primadonna with recognition as somehow being indispensable, is a company about ready to experience a completely avoidable disaster.

If you want to eliminate unnecessary dependencies, don't allow any individual to create ultimate domain over anything that is considered key or mission critical. Instead create a culture that values transparency, knowledge management, mentoring, coaching, and process. By doing these things you will add both depth and breadth to your organization and increase the overall level of talent across the enterprise. Bottom line... encourage people to be a valuable part of the team, to maximize their contribution to others and the overall enterprise, but under no circumstances allow someone be become the proverbial cog in the wheel.


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Mike MyattMike Myatt, is a Top CEO Coach, author of "Leadership Matters...The CEO Survival Manual", and Managing Director of N2Growth.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Seth Godin said...

As I said in the book, everyone is replaceable in the long run, the world revolves around no one.

At the same time, there's an epic battle going on between fitting in and standing out. If you work to fit in, you've signed up with the industrialists, and you're trying to be a replaceable cog. If you work to stand out, you've signed up with the artists and you're trying to give art.

I know who I want on my team.

3:01 AM  
Anonymous Graham Horton said...

This is the way I think about Seth's message:

Suppose that you have just announced that you are planning to leave your current job. What will your colleagues' reaction be?

1. Oh well, I guess we'll just have to hire a new secretary/engineer/manager/...

2. Oh no! What are we going to do now?

Seth's book is about being/becoming the person who generates reaction #2.

I don't think its about being indispensible because of possessing specific expertise in a given role (which might well make you unpromotable), but more about having a certain attitude (which makes you eminently promotable!)

1:27 PM  
Anonymous Louise Marston said...

My old boss used to say that your job is to make yourself unnecessary - meaning that you should strive to make much of your work automatic, or to enable your team to do it instead. That way you can move on to thinking about new or more important things, and expand your horizons. I think that attitude conversely makes you highly valued (not the same as indispensable, but as Graham says, somewhat similar).

2:06 AM  
Blogger Cameron Norman said...

Your treatment of Seth Godin's Linchpin argument is fair and appreciative, however I think it might miss a subtle distinction that I interpreted from Seth's message. I agree wholeheartedly that your business might be in trouble if you've designed the success of the operations is designed to rest on the shoulders of an individual. For reasons related to life circumstance alone, we cannot depend on people to stay the long haul and build everything around them.

However, Seth's message is that linchpins bring an intangible that can't be replaced over and above the core activities of the job and that is what is lost when people leave. It is this intagible, the 'art' that an individual brings by being sensitive to context and adding their own unique twist that can't be commodified into a package. Thus, you might be able to fill a post, but you cannot replace a linchpin with the same thing. Rather, one can only hope to find another who has different unique talents and passions that can transform a job into something more. That new linchpin (if they really are one) might make just as many sales or come up with just as many good ideas as the last, but the qualitative experience of this will be different. And it is that difference that can't be replaced. THAT is why they are linchpins.

7:06 AM  

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