Have you ever worked on a project with other people, really felt like you gave it your all, and then were passed up or received less recognition then you thought you deserved?

This happened to me early on in my career.

I had been on a project with 5 people, and after the feature shipped the VP stood in front of everyone to recognize the achievements of the organization.  He got up and said “Great work to Jeff and his team.”  So who is Jeff?  Well he was my teammate, but the thing is that my contributions were almost twice his.  And at a moment where I should have been happy I sat there in wonder – if success wasn’t determined by the work you do, then what exactly do you need to do to be recognized?

Working hard is not enough.
None of us come to work to do a bad job.
And most of us would like to be really awesome in our role.

In my own experience, it took me a while to figure out how to stand out.  And through my own experience and the wisdom of many other mentors, coworkers, and colleagues and I can say that one of the key components of success is becoming indispensable to your organization (and I don’t mean in the way that hiding the passwords, or writing documentation-free software, makes one critical to a team).

I’m talking about taking initiative and doing much more than you are asked to do – and having a great attitude about it. More and more it doesn’t matter that you just do your job well. You need to go above and beyond to be a critical member of your team.

Why is being indispensable important?

Making yourself indispensable to your team doesn’t just mean job security if the company should fall on hard times. What is really means is being someone other people know as indispensable. When people in your office or your network think of you, what are the images in their minds?

If they see you as the person who takes charge and gets things done, you’re more likely to be thought of when it’s time to choose someone to lead the new project. If you are the go-to person who can be counted on to be in the trenches when it really matters, you become not just an employee, but a key player your company can depend on.

Being indispensable is about taking control of your career and your professional reputation, and making sure you’re not just another face in the crowd.


Build Relationships

I used to get so frustrated when my long hours of work went unnoticed in favor of someone who seemed to be doing less but succeeding more. I was working late nights and every weekend, fixing bugs and writing lines of code until I was bursting with pride with each of my checkins. Yet for years it felt like what I was doing didn’t matter to leadership.

What it took me a long time to learn was that the person getting favored over me was usually the person who had a relationship with our boss and was in touch with everyone on the team. Whereas I preferred to let my work speak for itself, the people who were getting noticed were (along with working hard) also making an effort to be engaged members of the office.

What your team and boss thinks about you matters – and when it is positive can make a difference in what opportunities and recognition come your way. Professional relationships are all about trust; writing beautiful code is one thing, but having people who want to help you and work with you is another. The stronger your relationships, the greater impact your work will come to have.

And remember: if you recognize the people that you work with, they’ll recognize you too.

if opportunity doesn't knock, build a door


Go The Extra Mile (then go a little bit farther)

Give all that you can, all the time.

Being the person who will always be there the night before launch getting everything done matters, because many of your peers won’t be willing to put in the time to do it all. But this isn’t just about working long hours, it’s also about making sure your hours at work are well-spent.

A lot of being an indispensable member of your team has to do with preparation and willingness to work when others won’t. It’s a mindset; if you’re always looking to step up, you’ll be prepared to seize opportunities to succeed.  How are your drive, attitude, and dependability?

Here are a few ways try to put “going the extra mile” into practice:

  • Always have a new idea in your pocket.  This means keeping up with what is going on in industry such as new technology, products, or even competition.  It means thinking in a larger context of the whole team, not just your assignment.  What are potential pitfalls?  How could they be prevented or handled? Give your ideas freely, there is no such thing as thought ownership and so don’t worry about credit; what goes around comes around.
  • When you notice a problem, fix it. Don’t assume it will get taken care of.  And if you are worried about stepping on someone’s toes talk to them and ask how you can help – build your relationships.
  • Speak up. Give your honest opinion (without “calling out” peers).  Stand up for what you believe, and then if the decision goes the other disagree and commit.  Don’t commiserate or back talk others – including your boss and leadership.  Doing so will only undermine relationships and future opportunities.
  • Become an expert at what you do. If you can offer a specific, necessary skill that exceeds what others are able to do, you’ll always be in demand.  And sometimes this means doing extra work or building new skills in your spare time, but doing so can pay large dividends if done thoughtfully and purposefully.
  • Seek out challenges. Don’t wait to be asked to do something.  Find the gaps and come up with a way to build the bridge.  Don’t be afraid to stretch out of your comfort zone.
  • Learn new skills whenever you can. Read blogs, consult with a mentor, and ask friends what they’re working on to get ideas and help.  And ask for feedback it is the best way to improve your skills and grow in your role.


Make Sure Your Extra Work Is Being Noticed

This is a sticky subject for a lot of people. Nobody wants to be running around the office saying, “Everyone look at this extra work I did!”, nor does anybody want to work with someone who expects to be patted on the back every time they do something well. But you do need to make sure the people in a position to advocate for you are aware of your contributions.

What more people need to do – and what I struggled with a lot – is to take steps to ensure the extra work you’re doing (to elevate yourself, the team, your boss, and the company) is noticed by the people who have the power to determine your future. If you’ve been secretly fixing all the bugs every weekend when no one else is in the office, and never telling the right people, they’ll never be able to do anything about it.

I used to struggle with finding projects that would make me visible to my managers. Even though I was working long hours doing fine tuning on lots of projects, none of those projects – and especially the small details I was perfecting – were even on their radar.

  • Seek out a mentor who can advise you on how they advanced.  Or ask your manager, or other successful coworker, for some tips on tricks on being successful in your company.
  • Communicate with your boss; ask for opportunities to lead projects or apply a new skill.  I send weekly status mails every week to my whole executive team.  I keep them short and try to only include the work that may not be obvious.  I send them every single Sunday like clockwork.
  • If you aren’t sure, ask.  It is much better to ask your manager if the extra project or the work you are doing is the best thing you can do to contribute.  A friend of mine once told me he would almost always rather you get your work done early, but asking these questions then gives you the chance to show them that you made this sacrifice.  If you just get your work done early, he may think that it was just easier than expected.  That dialog and conversation is important to recognition so make sure you ask and get feedback about priorities.
  • Focus your energy on high-priority tasks; don’t settle for low-priority work when you could be making impacts on a major project.

Tip: Don’t just work on improving the things you’re good at. Becoming the very best at your job is a great goal, but don’t let other skills fall by the wayside in pursuit of one sole expertise. Think of it like cross-training – working out two different areas actually makes you stronger overall.

If you’re at the top of your class as an engineer, try adding some writing to your skill set. Not only will you have a new skill to offer, but you may uncover ideas about engineering you didn’t even know you had just through the act of writing about it. Plus, building your communication skills in your field helps you connect with peers and increase your opportunities.


Apply Your Skills Outside the Office

The impact you make outside the office can be hugely influential on your success in the office.

Why? Because your company doesn’t operate in a vacuum.  If you become an active figure in your professional community as a whole, you can build your brand and grow your presence as an active leader in your field.   And this helps the company, and even more so, you.

This was a bit counterintuitive to me, actually and it took my manager to clue me in for me to make adjustments.  It used to bother me to see people who would network, blog, or engage in activities that seemed self-promotional on company time.  Then once I was so bothered I brought it up to my manager.  He said that it actually helped the company quite a bit, because he could reach customers and people in a way the company brand didn’t.   It opened doors like partnerships, and made recruiting easier, and was essentially a form of marketing.

I was resistant to the idea at first, I felt like if I had extra hours I should work on the product or the team.  However, I started dipping my toe in the water, blogging and coming up with proposals to pitch to conferences for speaking opportunities.  Then doors started to open.  Candidates would cite my blog as reason to interview.  I would speak on technical topics and people started to learn about who we were and how what we did was interesting.  Now I make these activities part of my work and job.  I still do most of the work on my own time – at night and on the weekends – but it has been one of the best professional investments I have ever made for my career and company.

Obviously what you do will depend on your job, but here are some ideas to get you started (and if you have others, please include them in the comments):

  • Blog about your work – either on your own blog, company blog, or pitch guest posts on other blogs in your field/niche
  • Pitch to speak at conferences; or even just attend conferences and network – and I bet that strikes fear in the hearts of some of you introverts. 😉
  • Attend, host or sponsor meetups for other professionals in your field.
  • Contribute to open source projects
  • Engage in social media – be active on Twitter, LinkedIn (go and answer some questions!), etc.
  • Volunteer or attend events that are related to your field – such as startup weekend

Become a known entity in your community, and your social capital will grow.

If you are out in the community representing your company positively, as the kind of place where people like you want to work, you’re doing them a huge service too! And that in itself can make you indispensable.


Being Indispensible Can Go The Distance

Even if your company disbands tomorrow, it will be your “indispensability” that will keep you afloat well into the future. What makes you indispensable – your hard work, your expertise, your positive attitude – are the same things that will make it possible for you to find new opportunities and expand your own career for years to come.

Being known as someone people can depend on is important, and that is what will take you far in your career.

What will people know you for?



If you liked this post leave your thoughts in the comments, and if you have other ideas and tips for others please leave those too!  We can all be better through helping each other.

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