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Becoming Indispensable: Lessons from NASA and Oprah – by Robin Sparks

Every successful organization has at least one linchpin; some have dozens or even thousands. The linchpin is the essential element, the person who holds part of the organization together. Without the linchpin, the thing falls apart.

– by Seth Godin in Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? (2010)

Two American icons have been getting a bit of attention from the media lately: NASA’s space shuttle program, and Oprah Winfrey.

In NASA’s case, the agency is in its final countdown as it brings the current space shuttle program to an end. Manned space flight has been a reality for America since 1969; it has become a part of our lives in some way, even if it is just to pause and watch the takeoffs and landings with awe and appreciation. A fleet of space shuttles has served the program since 1981, with each one serving as an important component in its own right. If Space Shuttle Endeavour lands on time this week, for example, it will have spent 299 days in space and traveled more than 122.8 million miles during its 25 flights. It launched on its first mission on May 7, 1992. (Source: www.nasa.gov)

In an interview on CBS Sunday Morning this past weekend (see clip and article here: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/05/29/sunday/main20067174.shtml?tag=contentBody;featuredPost-PE), NASA Administrator Charles Bolden became emotional as he talked about the legacy of the space shuttle program and the important groundwork it has laid for future space exploration and discovery. Orion, the next spacecraft that NASA plans to use for additional exploration, has benefited from past explorations as well; it will have twice the capacity of the Apollo spacecraft that carried men to the moon in the 1960’s. Each decade of effort has built upon the last so NASA can continue to learn from its discoveries and carry out its mission effectively. From the standpoint of talent, the men and women who have worked on each element of the space program are clearly indispensable in their own way. The application of their knowledge and skills has had to evolve continuously in order to keep up with technological advances and stay aligned with NASA’s mission. There can be little doubt that NASA has several “linchpins” in its midst.

In Oprah’s case, she has been a fixture on daytime television for 25 years. In addition to her efforts to provide practical information for people to use in their daily lives, she has served as a one-woman wave of philanthropy for decades. Schools and scholarships are just two of the things she has supported through her commitment of personal wealth and time. Many people who have been featured in recent television interviews about her show have made a similar comment: “What will I watch at 4pm now, without Oprah? There’s nothing like her!” I suspect that as much as people will miss her show – and I am one of those people – the loss they are feeling goes to something beyond simple entertainment. Oprah has been seen as a linchpin by millions of individuals and on some level, a society, in terms of the differences she has made through her show.

I am predicting that somewhere, on some level, you play the role of a linchpin in your life too. You may or may not be an engineer who designs space shuttles; you may not be the CEO of a media organization that beams its way into millions of homes each day. But if you are playing a role in an organization you have an opportunity to be indispensable to the mission of that organization, no matter how far from the mission you may think you are. Here are some tips you can use to become a linchpin, too.

  1. What is one thing that only you can do in service to your organization’s mission? Think about this not just from your task list, but from the standpoint of your unique combination of knowledge, skills, experience and perspective. You may be uniquely qualified to solve a problem or advance a goal that will have an impact on your team, your department, your division, or the organization overall. Once you have identified at least one thing you are uniquely qualified to contribute to, look at your current job. Are you spending some percentage of time on that one thing? If not, why not? What will it take to make a shift so that you are dedicating some time to it?
  2. Make it a habit, not just a goal, to collaborate with others and exchange knowledge. It is easy to become so focused on your own task list that you lose sight of your organization’s broader needs. Something that you are working on could be the perfect complement to what a colleague has been staying up all night to figure out. Don’t go overboard with shameless self-promotion, but look for opportunities at the water cooler or the staff meeting to create connections and offer your insights. You may be surprised at how quickly this can become a lot like the game, Six Degrees of Separation.
  3. Carry a spirit of generosity into your work without undue worry that you will be taken advantage of. By “generosity,” do I mean you should give all of your knowledge and effort away without care for any credit or return? No…but that’s close. Many performance management systems reward us for results and sometimes, for innovation. I absolutely believe it is important to be rewarded and recognized, as appropriate, for what you bring to the table. I also believe you become indispensable not just for producing results, but for producing the type of environment where others are inspired to produce results, too. The efforts you make to create space for other people’s ideas, and the intentional way you support and encourage other people’s success, will add to your own.

These are just a few talent management strategies that I have used, and that I’ve coached clients to use, in an effort to become indispensable. What has worked for you? Write and tell me about your successes!

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Alicia Mazzara

Piggybacking off this, I’d also say developing expertise or specialized knowledge in a particular area can help make you a linchpin in your organization.

Andrew Krzmarzick

“Carry a spirit of generosity…”

…and I would add gratitude. So it’s one part what you give…and one part appreciation for what others share with you – especially honest feedback about your contribution so that you can solidify your linch pin role in a way that brings optimal value.

Dale S. Brown

I would add connect people to each other. It’s not only sharing what you know, but knowing what other people know. Often, person A works with person B. But they don’t know what person B knows – or has. If you make it a point to know the skills and talents of the people in your network, you can make a huge difference by saying things like:

“You need X done. Well Person Y is really, really good at that. She’d probably be thrilled to be asked.”

“Hey Person K is looking for X. Why don’t you volunteer? He’d be thrilled.”

“You know, Team P is at a crossroads with **** I think you could help. What do you think?

Sometimes, you can help by being a go between and assuring that when person J offers their help, it will be gladly accepted. Then both people appreciate you.