“Make yourself indispensable.”
Work long enough, and at some point, you’ll hear this pithy advice from well-meaning colleagues about how you can advance your career. It remains a top-searched topic on TikTok and a piece of so-called wisdom that executives will share in interviews.
Former CEO of PepsiCo Indra Nooyi, for example, said in a 2019 interview that it’s a mantra that helped her succeed at getting PepsiCo to accommodate her parenting needs.
“If you establish a niche for yourself, and make yourself indispensable based on competence, what can they do without you?” Nooyi said at the 2019 Women in the World Summit. In the interview, Nooyi said it was her indispensability that OK’d the corporate decision for her children to hang out with her in her office after 5 p.m.
The underlying message is that if you work hard and make your skillset unique, the company will reward your efforts, encourage your development and meet your needs.
Maybe it’s comforting to hear this because it gives you a sense of empowerment and control over your career. And if you’re a senior leader like Nooyi, maybe this advice works.
But there are glaring problems with this supposed wisdom. For one, the idea that you should make yourself indispensable rings especially hollow after mass layoffs of talented individuals that feel completely arbitrary.
“I think that this advice makes us feel like we have some control over what companies decide to do when we absolutely do not [have control] if a company decides to eliminate a product or shut down a division or scale down a department,” said career and leadership coach Phoebe Gavin. “They’re just going to do that.“
Similar to the advice that you should not job-hop too soon after taking a new job, career coach Jasmine Escalera said the “make yourself indispensable” advice feeds “this concept that corporate America is the one in charge. And so I think ‘making yourself indispensable’ is just another way of saying, ‘You’re supposed to focus on their wants and needs, not your own.’”
This mentality can also trap you in roles you don’t want or force you to stretch yourself thin.
For Escalera, internalizing the “indispensable” advice at a job meant she believed that “they make the decisions, and you have to adapt to that.” Eventually after five years, this belief led to her burnout.
“I was always focused on what the company wanted, and trying to make myself indispensable. And inevitably, what I started to realize was that what I was trying to do, and what I was trying to work within really wasn’t even what I wanted to do with my career,” she recalled.
Her wake-up call was “going through a divorce and realizing that committing to my job so intensely was one of the factors that led to that,” Escalera said. “It was really burnout. Like, I felt like I was burning myself out for a company that wasn’t paying me what I deserved.”
“‘Making yourself indispensable’ is just another way of saying, ‘You’re supposed to focus on their wants and needs, not your own.’”
Executive coach and career strategist Susan Peppercorn said “make yourself indispensable” is advice she’s heard all the time throughout her career, but being irreplaceable to a team can trap you into roles you’ve outgrown.
She gave the example of a career coaching job she had for laid-off professionals. After 13 years in that role, Peppercorn asked her employer if she could transition to a leadership role with workshop facilitation.
“I was very successful in that role. But I was getting tired of doing it. I was getting bored. And so I wanted to do something else. And the response I got when I asked to do something else was ... ‘No, we want you to keep doing what you’ve been doing,’” Peppercorn said. “The reality was, I had made myself indispensable.”
It’s a hard lesson that just because you deserve to be rewarded and promoted, doesn’t mean that it’ll happen. Peppercorn said as a result, she quit that job.
Alternative Career Advice To Follow Instead
This doesn’t mean, however, you just throw your hands up and believe that you have zero agency over your career. “Make yourself indispensable to your employer” without any caveats is bad advice, but being seen as reliable and a hard worker are good qualities to have on a team.
Peppercorn said making yourself indispensable is not bad advice if you have a clear expectation of what it means and if the colleague who believes in it has the power to advance your career into roles you want. “Are you learning new skills? Is that a pathway to a promotion? You need to know that,” she said.
But don’t assume that making your boss’ life easier will automatically help your career, though.
Escalera said being a solution-finder to your boss’ problems can help you advance, but before you start agreeing to their requests, you should take a step back and ask yourself, “Am I even doing the work that matches what I want to do?” And then you can use that answer to find the right environments, companies and jobs that actually connect to your personal mission.
There’s a better way to layoff-proof your career than this approach, too. Gavin said she thinks everyone receives this advice, “but folks from ... historically marginalized backgrounds are more likely to deeply internalize it, and also have it sort of turned into self-blame versus motivation.“
You cannot guarantee you’ll avoid being laid off, but you can prepare yourself for that scenario. Gavin said that instead of internalizing the message of becoming indispensable, professionals can focus on building their layoff resiliency. According to Gavin, there are three pillars on how to do that:
1. Build a financial cushion that allows you to say no.
“If you have money in the bank, then it’s easier to say no to demands and requests from employers that you aren’t interested in,” Gavin said. “It’s easier for you to step away from a role that’s not working for you.“
Actress Lucy Liu dubs this power move as investing in “‘fuck you’ money.” In a 2013 interview with “DP/30: The Oral History Of Hollywood,” Liu recalled picking up catering jobs in her 20s and working a lot to be able to say “no” to jobs that did not serve her.
“If you have it, and something’s not working out, and they say you have to take this job otherwise you’re fired, you can be like, ‘Fuck you,’” Liu said.
2. Research what skills make you marketable in your industry.
Gavin said it helps to make your skill set “really strong and up to date” to the needs of your industry. You can do this at your current job by taking on projects or initiatives that allow you to develop skills that you can demonstrate to a future employer, she said.
3. Invest in your professional network.
“Humans are social creatures, we tend to share information and give the benefit of the doubt to folks that we know, and we tend not to do that with folks that we don’t know,” Gavin said. “And so if you have great skills, but you don’t have a great network, it is still going to be much more challenging for you to step into another role.“
Once you break away from the mindset of serving your boss and your company’s bottom-line, you start to be in service of yourself. Under capitalism, you cannot be indispensable to an employer, but you can make commitments to yourself that last you past any one job.