How to Make Yourself Indispensible to Your Boss

Tne skill is named over and over by top executives as the key to their success: the ability to build lasting relationships. “I used to think I was the star of my department because I worked harder and faster than everyone else,” recalls Paul, a valued executive at an IT firm. “I was. But I didn’t know what it was like to be indispensible until I began spending more time coaching and encouraging others in the department. I became the glue that held our team together.”

The careers of fast-track executives show a consistent evolution from being recognized as a superstar performer to being recognized as the one everyone turns to for help, encouragement and validation. From their experiences we can distill six guidelines.

1. Become the Keeper of the Flame.

In the rush of deadlines and emergencies, it’s easy to lose sight of an organization’s purpose and mission. In confused and stressed times the most important voice is the one that restores a sense of purpose by holding up a clear picture of the ultimate goal.

A compelling goal is one that everyone on the team would agree is worth attaining. One that is too modest isn’t exciting and won’t engage the emotions and get the team excited. One that is too ambitious would merely provoke skepticism and undue discouragement. Ideally the goal should be one that can be reached with consistent effort and enthusiasm.

When it comes to articulating your team’s goal, go for clarity and simplicity over poetry and refinement. “1,000 renewals by Thanksgiving” is much better than “Love the client and and they’ll love us.” The goal must be one that isn’t subject to different interpretations by different team members.

Fancy phrases and slogans won’t save a goal that is not compelling or unclear. So rather than wasting time trying to carve out a catchy slogan, focus on the substance of the goal and reduce it down to a simple number or other objective indicator.

2. Recognize the Value of Each Member

The key to forming an efficient team is to recognize the key contribution of each member so they can be utilized most efficiently. That allows the team to achieve a given result with the least effort devoted to coordinating the efforts of individual members. It also lets you keep down the size of your team.

The amount of communication needed to coordinate a team’s efforts rises geometrically with the size of the team. An 8-person team requires 87% more communication than a 6-person team. That means that beyond a certain size (usually between 5-7), each added team member may increase the team’s coordination time nearly as much as its productive time. That is why a team of 12 or 14 may actually end up being less productive than a team of 5 or 6.

Clear recognition of each member’s contribution also lets the structure stay as flat as possible. In the classic organization, team members are forced to go up and down the chain of command in order to communicate with the leader or other members of the team. In a flat-structured team each member has direct access to every other, including the leader. A flat structure generally allows the leader — often the most productive and knowledgeable team member — to devote more time to productive tasks.

3. Be Flexible in Your Expectations

A common mistake in teambuilding is trying to enforce overly rigid areas of responsibility. Even experienced teambuilders can’t anticipate how each member will grow into new responsibilities. Some highly credentialed team members may have trouble adapting to a role on a new team while an inexperienced worker may come to thrive on taking on new responsibilities.

To become an effective leader stay open to adjustments to optimize the evolving capabilities of your team members. One who finds her responsibilities overwhelming must be shifted to a lesser role and while one who finds little challenge in her job must be given enough new responsibilities.

4. Put a Premium on Stability

A team’s effectiveness is usually directly proportional to the length of time it has been together. A mediocre team that has been together for a year is far more effective than even the most talented team trying to rebuild after substantial turnover. It takes weeks or even months for team members to adjust to their responsibilities and begin interacting efficiently. The longer a team has been together, the better it knows how to utilize the capabilities of its members and cover for their weaknesses. It also develops procedures to handle sustained or complex tasks with an efficiency not attainable by less seasoned teams.

Turnover of even the most junior member severely compromises a team’s effectiveness. The routines of other team members are disrupted as they take time away from their duties to fill in for the departed member. The orientation of each new member costs the team lost productivity and efficiency as team members take time to make themselves available to the new member for consultation and familirization.

An indispensible leader is one who instills a strong sense of commitment and loyalty approaching that of a closely-knit family. But instilling the “One for all and all for one mentality” that marks strong families and winning teams takes more than catchy slogans. Each member of the team must be made to feel that her success depends on the team’s success. All available means must be used to reinforce this message. Have everyone from the team leader on down share the same working conditions. Make sure that every member feels that, regardless of mistakes or shortcomings, he is an important member of the family.

5. Be There to Coach and Cheerlead

Parents create a sense of security by being available to their children. A team leader must create that same sense of security in essentially the same way — by always showing her availability to encourage, coach and reassure team members. “I was both mother and father to my team,” recalls Mariel L. “In some ways, that was the most difficult thing about building a team. You don’t realize how important being available is until you make the mistake of putting up barriers between you and them. There should be no “me” and “them”, just “us”.

One step that proved helpful for Mariel in breaking down the barrier and creating a sense of family was making a point of requiring the team to have lunch together on Mondays and Fridays. Those lunches served as opportunities both to catch up with work-related developments and to bond on a personal level.

“Those were probably the two most important hours of the week,” she says. “I would strongly suggest that every team leader do something like that if she wants to build loyalty and cooperation.”

6. See Teambuilding as Your First Responsibility

The demands of daily production often takes precedence over the less urgent demands of teambuilding. Letting that happen would be to sacrifice the your central role as an employee who is indispensible to the boss. Unlike a bridge or a building, a team is a living organism that is constantly growing and evolving. From year to year or even month to month, everything about the team may change — mission, responsbilities and capabilities of individual members, the environment in which the team operates. A team leader must constantly recognize, address and even anticipate these changes. This requires making time at regular intervals to go over an organizational checklist, both alone and in the presence of the entire team. This is when decisions would normally be made about shifting responsibilities, modifying goals or operating procedures, addressing problems or obstacles appearing on the horizon.