Becoming indispensable: a pandemic power move

Would you work 16 hour days, 6 days a week, for 6 months to protect your job during a pandemic?

That’s a very personal question. But to my friend Jim, the answer was yes. And as the world and markets were falling apart, in early March he made a conscious decision: he was going to use everything in his power to not get laid off.

He was going to make himself indispensable.

And that came with a price. It meant raising his hand and requesting more work. Jim is in Private Equity and lends money to private businesses. His original job description is making loans to companies. And in March he raised his hand to start “working out” these loans; which meant fixing (or restructuring) loans that weren’t performing because of the pandemic.

So Jim worked the jobs of two people, with only enough time for a pre-dawn jog and a quick bite with his kids.

Then the layoffs came. 15% across the board. No seniority, no job function, no office was spared. Jim dodged the bullet (for now). Those strategic 16 hour days had been “worth it.”

In Seth Godin’s book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable Godin describes Jim’s intentional pandemic strategy:

The linchpin is an individual who can walk into chaos and create order, someone who can invent, connect, create, and make things happen. Every worthwhile institution has indispensable people who make differences like these.

But what does it mean to become indispensable? What steps can you take today to pandemic-proof your career?

Linchpins deliver unique value

There’s an old saying that 80 percent of drivers think that they are “better than average.” Might this statistical impossibility be at play in assessing where you stand versus your industry peers?

Before the pandemic began, we surveyed 323 RadReaders in our Anti-Fragile Assessment. The first question asked: If you sampled 100 people with a similar skillset and level of expertise, where would you rank yourself?

One way to become indispensable is to be a top performer in your industry. And the results show that RadReaders felt like they were close to that top decile. And for those who didn’t feel like they were there yet, here’s a playbook: develop unique skills, turn into Tylenol and become an information conduit.

Develop unique (yet adjacent) skills

Jim has a unique skill that was laying dormant. He knew how to restructure bad loans, which he had learned at a previous company. Learning new skills is a surefire path to becoming indispensable. But it’s also a long game (i.e. fast tortoise) approach that can feel impossible in the midst of 24/7 Zoom calls and (futile) attempts at homeschooling.

When it comes to learning new skills, we default to extreme (or orthogonal) examples. We think about coal miners becoming coders or Elon Musk going from payment processing to space travel. But instead, we should look closer to home: adding adjacent skills.

Jim had an adjacent skill. And it proved damn valuable. Adjacent skills are quicker to learn and deliver more bang for the buck – and are a great step towards diversifying your overall base of skills. Here are a few examples of adding adjacent skills:

  • A marketing associate learning about the Psychology of Influence
  • A technical sales person improving their writing skills
  • A stock picker learning how to read legal documents around “events” (mergers, spin-offs)
  • A financial analyst learning Python scripts

In Brianne Kimmel’s post the 7 builders who will thrive in the new world, the VC describes another adjacency: designers who code. She points to the founders of several tech unicorns: Ivan Zhao (at Notion), Dylan Field (Figma), and Rahul Vora (Superhuman). What makes this combo indispensable? According to Brianne:

Technical designers bring aesthetics to computing and create products that draw people in and keep them engaged in a thoughtful and inherently more intuitive way.  

Turn yourself into Tylenol

“People don’t buy vitamins, they buy pain-killers.” It’s one of the oldest aphorisms in the book of marketing. Why? Because consumer psychology is actually quite predictable. This marketing is easy post nails the difference between the two:

Tylenol products solve a specific problem a customer is looking for a solution for. Vitamin products try to make a customer’s life better in some way when they didn’t even know they had a problem to solve. It is MUCH easier to sell a new Tylenol than it is to sell a new Vitamin. 

So back to becoming indispensable. How can you become your boss’ Tylenol? This is a question I asked myself every single day while I was on Wall Street. Even during normal times, it was a great hedge against layoffs. Would my boss really put his Tylenol on the chopping block?

Here are a few easy wins:

  • Be your boss’ second brain. Track their tasks, deliverables, and deadlines. Send them smart reminders to keep them on track (think: administrative assistant on steroids)
  • Organize your team’s information. Knowledge workers spend 4.5 hours a week looking for files. If that’s not Tylenol, I don’t know what is.
  • Create dashboards. Your boss is struggling for a centralized place containing the team’s metrics, goals and KPIs. Create this doc in a simple spreadsheet (or more advanced no-code app), and constantly remind them where they can find it.
  • Teach your boss using smart curation. Everyone wants to be smarter. No one has the time to navigate Twitter to find the top 5 articles on Remote Work. One you’ve found them, summarize the key takeaways in a format that’s friendly for your boss to consume.

Become a conduit (to unique information)

Access is hot. Whether you’re the A&R exec who can spot the next Lil Nas X, the VC who invested in Stripe’s seed round or the journalist who scoops LeBron’s next landing spot – you hold a lot of power.

But accessing unique information is not limited to the Maverick Carters of the world. Once again, the secret lies in adjacency.

When I worked as a hedge fund investor, our “Stripe seed round” was discovering the next big hedge fund launch – and getting there first. Now surely, when Larry Fink and Lloyd Blankfein get together, they talk about talent moving around. But you know who always had the inside scoop on the hot fund launch?

  • The real estate broker who found them office space
  • The designer who made their pitch decks
  • The IT firm who set up the compliance systems
  • The lawyers who drafted up the partnership agreement
  • The wealth managers who helped them manage their first few big bonuses

To be clear, no one was violating any confidential information. These “weak ties” just served as the forcing function for win-win connections that needed to happen. A startup will never know of all the possible investors – a bridge to a new source of capital is typically welcomed.

In the epic post 10,000 hours with Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha describes one approach to garnering unique information, respecting the shadow power:

The point to those seeking to do business with poo bahs is to not underestimate the influence of shadow power—advisors, assistants, consultants, and most especially spouses. To be rude to them is to doom your chances at making progress with the man or woman at the center of the circle. The more powerful the person, the broader the circle, and the more the shadows loom.

While there are countless ways to develop this sort of access IMO they center around generosity-first networking (which BTW is one of the most popular modules from Supercharge your Productivity). The secrets of superconnectors details many of these approaches including:

  1. Having a system
  2. Following-up methodically
  3. Leading with generosity
  4. Connecting the dots

And if we return to Godin’s original description of a Linchpin, the playbook to getting there becomes quite obvious:

Someone who can invent, connect, create, and make things happen.

The keys to $10,000/hour work

Becoming indispensable is the first step towards $10,000/hour work. But as Jim’s 16-hour days indicate, a lot of these tactics are high skill yet low leverage. And as we indicated in the $10,000/hour work manifesto:

This is a very very good place to be. Because you have a unique skill (law, software engineering, investment research) you’ll be able to collect defensible market rents over multiple cycles. And that’s a great life for most people.

But imagine what can happen when you introduce some leverage…

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