With Martin G. Moore

Episode #297

Making Yourself Indispensable: Will it protect your job?

For as long as I can remember, the business media has been awash with stories about the job market… how to get a job, how to keep a job, how to juggle your job with other demands, and how to climb the corporate ladder.

Since the Covid pandemic, it seems as though the volume of this advice has grown exponentially.

 The most recent article to catch my eye, from the Wall Street Journal, discusses the concept of indispensability… it exposes the startling revelation that being indispensable might not necessarily provide you with the bulletproof job security that you thought it would.

For leaders, the indispensability landscape is very different. How should you approach this conundrum? What does it mean for you and your team?

In this episode, I take a look at the WSJ article, bringing some practical balance and perspective, and then I give you my 3 hot tips for making yourself invaluable, without trying to be indispensable.


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Episode #297 Making Yourself Indispensable: Will it protect your job?


For as long as I can remember, the business media has been awash with stories about the job market: how to get a job; how to keep a job; how to juggle your job with the other demands in your life; and, how to climb the corporate ladder.

Since the COVID pandemic, it seems as though the volume of this advice has grown exponentially.

The most recent article to catch my eye, from the Wall Street Journal, was about the concept of indispensability. And (shock horror!), the startling revelation that this might not necessarily provide you with the bulletproof job security that you were hoping for.

Of course, anyone who’s been in a senior leadership role, or lived through an M&A transaction will have learned this truth firsthand. There’s no such thing as an indispensable employee, as ruthless employers have been trying to teach us for decades. We should probably start to listen to them.

Interestingly, the indispensability landscape looks very different, depending on whether you are a technical specialist or a leader. Assuming that, if you’re reading this, you’re already a leader, how should you approach this conundrum? What does it mean to you and your team?

I begin this newsletter with a brief summary of the Wall Street Journal article. I then give you some observations and perspectives about what it might mean to be indispensable, and I finish with my three hot tips for how to make yourself incredibly valuable… without trying to be indispensable.


In what I’m sure was expected to be a groundbreaking revelation, The Wall Street Journal recently published an article that uncovered a not-so-surprising truth: that being indispensable won’t save your job.

Anyone in senior management has known this for years. But apparently, the penny is just dropping for many people who are learning this lesson the hard way. And, as much as this has always been the case, it’s even more the case today.

The primary tenet of the article is that there’s really no such thing as being indispensable. If you strive to be untouchable, it can backfire, and in some cases it can even invite exploitation. Although it seems counterintuitive, consistently doing more than what’s expected won’t make a difference when the cost-cutting begins.

One woman who was interviewed for the article, described her experience of having lost several jobs, and she resolved that she wouldn’t let that happen again. So, she took another job (working remotely as it turns out), and adopted the strategy of trying to make herself indispensable by picking up additional tasks that she knew bogged other people down.

But when the head count in her department was reduced from 13 to 3, she got her marching orders all the same.

The article points to the fact that managers have become much more aware of indispensability techniques, like knowledge hoarding. If you don’t share your knowledge, you’re putting a flashing neon sign over your head that says, “I am a risk to the ongoing performance of my team.” If you get hit by a bus, the team is screwed because no one else can easily step into your role. This is detrimental to the team, and it’s really obvious to everyone. The article concludes that bosses prefer team players.

Knowledge hoarding is a symptom that informs the broader category of key person risk. Good managers are aware of this issue, and they seek to reduce the risk to the team that’s posed by key people potentially leaving. And although many key people are happy to share what they know, they may have still built up rare knowledge and expertise over a lifetime in their field.

Leaders have an obligation to minimize the risk of skill loss, but this is harder than it might seem. If you’re managing key person risk really well, it should be difficult for anyone to make themselves indispensable. All of this says to me – don’t rely on perceptions of indispensability to keep your job safe. When push comes to shove, you’re going to be in the crosshairs no matter what.

One woman interviewed for the article suggested the solution of not relying on a single income stream – to diversify your sources of income. But this, too, has its risks.

I think we can safely say that trying to build up any level of indispensability is unlikely to have the desired effect, and it may even work against you.


I want to make a couple of practical observations about this article. As I said, I’ve never really believed that trying to make yourself indispensable was a good idea, even if you could theoretically do that.

If I ever saw one of my direct reports becoming a little arrogant or behaving with an air of indispensability, I would pull them aside quietly and ask them to take the test – my foolproof indispensability test.

I’d say, “Look, Harry, go home tonight and get one of those five-gallon plastic buckets you use around the house and fill it about halfway with water. Then roll your sleeve up to the elbow, make a fist with your hand, and put your arm into the water until your fist is resting on the bottom of the bucket.

“Now, pull your arm out really fast and look at the water. If you can see where your arm was, that means you’re indispensable.

No one is indispensable. I never was. No one who worked for me ever was. When some people leave the company, sure, it really hurts… but you get over it, and you move on.

What I came to learn over my years in large corporations is that they are unbelievably resilient to mistakes and mediocrity.

When I say mediocrity, I mean:

  • Ill-formed strategy that causes profitable customers to flee;

  • Self-interested politicians in very senior roles, who add little value;

  • Poor decisions that squander millions upon millions of dollars; and

  • A dearth of leadership, which results in the workforce performing at 60% of its potential capacity, at best.

I’m not saying this to be negative. It’s a clinical observation I made, after thousands of data points that I collected from years of being on the inside of large corporations. And, after all, I suspect your observations wouldn’t be too dissimilar.

So, when really good people lose their jobs, guess what? The company goes on. Maybe not as fast… maybe not as well… maybe leaving a bunch of upside on the table… maybe with a higher risk profile… but it generally survives just fine.

If you ever find yourself thinking, “How could the company possibly do without me?“, well, trust me, they’ll work it out.

I had my first exposure to the indispensability myth, very early in my executive career. I was working for a mining company that was the target of a semi-hostile takeover. As Chief Information Officer, I was running IT and technology, and the acquiring company had hired a bunch of consultants to assist with the post-acquisition restructure.

The first time I met with these consultants, they presented me with the hierarchy chart of my group and proceeded to walk me through which roles were going to be made redundant.

They had no idea who the people were…

They had no idea what value was being delivered by each department…

It was a desktop exercise that was about numbers, not capability – they just took a red pen to it!

Now, fortunately, they were pretty smart guys and they listened reasonably well, so I was able to influence them, just a little, over the course of the ensuing months.

But they were ultimately right. The restructure and redundancy program didn’t negatively impact the merged company’s performance. Sure, they lost some upside potential, and the risk increased – but the business ran really well, all the same. And the share price skyrocketed over the course of the next few years.


I want to make six key points that I hope will convince you to completely abandon the concept of trying to make yourself indispensable.

#1: Focusing on indispensability breeds a scarcity mentality.

In other words, “How do I not lose what I already have?” This puts you on defense instead of offense.

To have a successful and fulfilling career, you need the exact opposite. You need to adopt an abundance mentality.

I used to ‘flip the script’ on indispensability. My attitude was, “As long as I’m essential to the working of the team, I can’t be promoted or moved to another role. I want to make myself redundant as quickly as I can, so that I either get moved up, or find my next role somewhere else.”

This always put me in the headspace of abundance, not scarcity. And, the opportunities? Well, they presented themselves accordingly.

#2: It’s now even harder to be indispensable.

Working from home makes things so much more difficult and it magnifies an already vexed problem. The upside of work from home is that you can work flexibly, which means less hours, and doing the work when it suits your lifestyle.

But be careful what you wish for…

It also means you’ll have less personal connection with your boss. She won’t know you as well, because the contact is less frequent, and it’s less personal. And if your boss is a weak leader, he’ll likely hide behind the technology – which is why we’ve seen a spate of sackings and redundancies via email and Zoom.

#3 Trying to be indispensable pushes you to work below your level.

Let’s take this abundance posture a step further. If you were actually indispensable, it would imply that you had some knowledge or expertise that no one else had… which means you would have to control something really tightly… which means you probably wouldn’t be working at the right level.

As a leader, you need to be pushing up against the floor of your boss’s role, not crashing through the ceiling of your team’s roles. Indispensability requires detailed knowledge, so it’s likely to push you below the level that you’ve been hired to operate at. And if you do manage to become indispensable, guess what? That’s where you’ll stay!

#4: Indispensability breeds key person risk.

In individual contributor roles, deep expert knowledge can actually be a plus. But as a leader, it’s completely contrary to the mindset you need.

Knowledge needs to be shared, managed, and made available. Knowledge hoarding is the enemy of collaboration, and eventually it’s going to cause a problem. So, your job as a leader is to reduce risk, build capability, and ensure the profitability and growth of your team through superior value creation. Any single points of failure will threaten this position.

#5: Indispensability promotes a knowing culture, not a learning culture.

Your objective as a leader is to create a learning culture: a culture where people work together, share information, and collaborate. Where continuous improvement, robust challenge, and curiosity dominate. Where everyone wants the best result for the team, not just to be successful individually.

All of this, of course, exists within a framework of strong, single-point accountability.

In a knowing company, knowledge is power. This type of culture is characterized by perfectionism, opaqueness, and passive defensive behavior. And, in case you’re wondering, this isn’t good, and performance is almost always inferior.

#6: If you think you’re indispensable, it’s going to desensitize you to obvious risks.

I learnt quite early in my career that there’s an obvious risk in being an expert. A consulting firm I worked for many years ago trained, developed, and invested in me to become an expert in a new software development language.

All of this went absolutely swimmingly… for a while. I became one of the foremost experts in Australia in this particular product.

But when that product was no longer favored by the blue-chip companies who were my clients, guess what happened? My knowledge and expertise were devalued overnight. My stock plummeted, because those skills were no longer in such high demand.

That’s a risk I learned not to fall for again. So, just think for a minute about your unique skills and knowledge— how is technology going to erode your value in the market over the next 5-10 years?


As I like to do, I’m going to finish with some practical guidance for how to make yourself incredibly valuable… without trying to be indispensable. Here are my three hot tips:

TIP #1: Don’t be afraid to let your identity evolve.

You need to let your identity evolve from being an individual contributor to a leader. Just remember, your leadership skills are completely transferable. They never go out of fashion and they never lose their currency.

Once you learn how to identify and optimize value… to build a team culture of superior performance… to create a talent pipeline of future leaders… and to bring out every individual’s best performance? Well, there isn’t a company on the planet that wouldn’t benefit from your skills.

Don’t hold onto your technical identity with white-knuckled fear. Instead, let go of that and step into your mantle as a professional leader.

TIP #2: Build capability in your team, every single day.

The very best leaders do one really important thing – they develop other leaders. Your goal should be to create as many high-performers as possible… people on your team who could step into your role, sooner rather than later.

You should aim to have at least one ‘ready-now’ successor for your role at any given point – someone who you’d be confident could grow into the role within, say 6-12 months, if you were no longer there for any reason.

I got really good at developing ready-now successors. In fact, when I was CEO at CS Energy I knew that, on any given day, at least half of my executive team thought that they could do my job better than I could… and that is exactly what I wanted.

If you want team performance, you’ve got to build capability. And that means, no tourists and no passengers.

TIP #3: Instead of trying to be indispensable, make yourself redundant.

You want to open up opportunities, rather than trying to defend your position. If you’re really good at your job, and you lead your team to deliver extraordinary value, your company’s going to be lying awake at night, trying to work out how they can keep you.

I always thought that, if my company didn’t value my hard work, my skill, my talent, then I was in the wrong place anyway. I’d be happy to find a better, more suitable opportunity somewhere else. You shouldn’t be afraid of losing your job – you should be afraid of stagnating in the role you’re in now!


The whole concept of indispensability flies in the face of great leadership.

You want your company to fear losing you, but not because you have something they can’t replace. Rather, because they know you are a person for the future who’s going to grow, thrive, and have a greater impact on the company, the higher you go up… if only they can work out how to keep you.

You need to take on a mantra that reinforces this in your head every day. Of course, it’s going to be different for you, but my mantra went something like this:

I know exactly how much value I’m bringing to this company. If they don’t value my contribution, it’s simply not the right place for me… which means the right role is waiting just around the corner – and it’s going to be more challenging and more rewarding than anything I’ve done before. I’m on the fast track, and that means that, from time to time, I’m going to have to move on because I’ve outgrown the company, and the role that I’m in.

Now, to me, that sounds quite a bit healthier, and a hell of a lot more exciting than being dug in like a tick, to protect my current position.


3 Tips for Being Invaluable, NOT IndispensablE – Download PDF here


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