The Art of Being Indispensable at Work

by Bruce Tulgan

Becoming a go-to person is the key to real influence at work. But it presents challenges like the risk of overcommitment, endless meetings, and trying to get things done across ambiguous lines of authority. When do you say yes? How do you say no? Bruce Tulgan breaks it down. 

Work Smart: “You can’t be great at everything, so you need to build a repertoire of things you are known for consistently doing very well and very fast.” Tulgan writes about professionalizing your work by creating standard operating procedures and repeatable solutions. “Meanwhile, do not fall into the trap of being great at just the aspects of the job you like and slacking on the aspects you don’t like or consider ancillary. This is a very common mistake, and there are infinite examples, often to do with paperwork.”

“You also need to grow, change, and expand to make yourself even more indispensable. How? By steadily increasing, expanding, and professionalizing your repertoire of specialties into areas beyond your job… It is precisely among all those things that are as yet not your job where all the new opportunities are hiding.”

“Make yourself super valuable to others. The more value you add, the more truly invested others become in your success.”

Alignment: “Lead from wherever you are: up, down, sideways, and diagonal. The collaboration revolution has ushered in a huge increase in interdependent working relationships where lines of authority are not clear, along with the risk of ‘self-managed teams’ and the thinning out of management ranks in many organizations, all of which flattens hierarchies and widen the spans of control for managers… There is only one tool for leading others: communication.”

“Just remember, the order of operations is very important: start by aligning yourself vertically, with your boss and the chain of command by managing up, and down with your direct reports. That’s your anchor. Then you can go sideways—and diagonal.”

“The more people find you are in lockstep with your boss, the less likely they are to go over your head… The same goes for your direct reports. You must align with them so they understand their marching orders and have the authority to make choices and get their work done.”

How to Say No, How to Say Yes: “Decisions about yes and no are all about opportunity cost… Due diligence starts with insisting on a well-defined ask… Each human stakeholder tends to zero in on the data that rhymes with their viewpoint… Interrogate the ask… Turn every ask into a brief proposal by getting in the habit of doing intake memos.”

“No is how you protect yourself and others from making bad commitments, dedicating resources to trying to do things that cannot be done (not possible), are not allowed (against the rules), or that on balance, should not be done (a bad idea or not the next top priority).”

“Yes is the time to really pin down the commitment with a plan of action, especially for a deliverable of any scope. How do you move the conversation from yes to a plan? By asking the platinum question: ‘How can you help me help you?’”

Multitasking: “If you are always juggling, you will inevitably drop the ball… you have to execute one thing at a time. Keep a long to-do list and schedule. But break work into small doable chunks and find gaps in your schedule for focused execution time.”

Meetings: “One of the biggest favors you can do for yourself is becoming savvy about which meetings to attend and which ones not… The key is knowing exactly what your role in the meeting is: What information are you responsible for communicating or gathering? Prepare in advance any material you should review or read before the meeting. Are there any conversations you need to have before the meeting? … If you are not a primary actor, or you don’t have some other clear role in the meeting, try not to say a single word that will unnecessarily lengthen it.”

“What about communication that takes place outside the formal meeting? … The trick is to put some structure in those informal learnings. Just as you would note and apply what you learn during a formal meeting, you should capture and leverage as much informal information as possible. In fact, informal communication can be the ultimate tool when you’re asked to ‘work it out at your own level.’”

Interruptions: “When one of your regular interrupters next interrupts you, don’t dismiss the conversation, but after absorbing the interruption, then suggest scheduling a one-on-one meeting… What if you’re the person who regularly interrupts others? … Try, instead, asking those people for a one-on-one meeting.”

Working together: “The key to continuous improvement is capturing the lessons to be learned when things go wrong—instead of finger-pointing. But it also means capturing lessons when things go right and celebrating them. Because to get better at working together, you also have to acknowledge and understand your successes so you can duplicate and improve them.”

“Celebration and acknowledgement are the first step in the continuous improvement process because without them, people start feeling beaten down and disheartened. They begin to wonder what the point is and even question why they try so hard when no one seems to even notice their work.”

“When you go out of your way to demonstrate appreciation for someone’s valuable contribution, you make them want to work with you again and do a great job for you. It’s what Dale Carnegie describes in his class How to Win Friends and Influence People: ‘Give somebody a great reputation to live up to.’ And help create more go-to people in the process.”

Go-to-ism: “Go-to-ism describes an essential belief: that serving others very well is what being indispensable is all about. The greatest source of social power—real influence—comes from being a person others want to go to in order to get their needs met… This is not an exchange, but rather actions taken because others respect who you are and how you conduct yourself. As a result of your real influence, others want you to be powerful because your power helps them get their needs met and potentially makes them more powerful, too.”

“Go-to-ism could start to redefine the culture of your team, your department, maybe even your whole company.”

Bruce Tulgan is also the author of several other books, including: It’s Okay to Be the Boss: The Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming the Manager Your Employees Need, The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-Step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Problems, and Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent.

Tulgan, Bruce. The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2020. Buy from

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