Leadership Science: 3 secret ways to become indispensable at work

When I first met Carrie, she was looking for a way to make some extra money while finishing the final semester of her masters degree in public health at Texas A&M. We only had one other employee at the time and we needed some more help. I was a little worried that if we hired Carrie she might stay with us for a few months until her semester wrapped up, and leave us for an opportunity in public health. We agreed to a trial run - a few weeks to see how we both liked working together.

Within a short period of time Carrie became like a co-founder. When she graduated she committed to seeing how things would go for her at a tech startup. Over the coming months and years she became crucial to our business. At one point, while working through some personal issues, I even asked Carrie to step into my role until I was able to get things sorted out. Time and time again she has proven herself indispensable. 

As I look back at the many hires I’ve made, as well as cutting edge research - which we’ll get to shortly - there are three vital behaviors that make an employee indispensable. These behaviors help employees become more influential within their organization and also helps them gain the respect of their colleagues, which leads them to get more promotions and raises.

Note: We’re not talking about attributes. Attributes can be slippery; whereas behaviors are more concrete and measurable. Attributes, like integrity, humility, and passion are important, but if you want to gain an attribute you’ll need to focus on the behaviors that a person possessed of that attribute practices. Hence the focus on behaviors.

The Research

In interviewing thousands of employees - including bosses - the researchers at Vital Smarts asked people to give them the names of three colleagues whose opinions, work, and abilities they most admired. I’ve conducted my own less formal research along these lines and found similar results. I also found that that doing a little research like this in my organization helped me identify key influencers that I ought to get to know. Sorry to my colleagues at Q2 that are constantly getting surveyed by me on things like this. I promise, I do not secretly work for HR! 

Once the colleagues that were most admired had been identified, the researchers from Vital Smarts set about trying to understand what made these people stand out. Across industries, responsibilities, or levels within an organization, the top performers consistently practiced the same three vital behaviors.

The three vital behaviors these researchers identified are 1) know your stuff, 2) focus on the right stuff, and 3) build a reputation for being helpful (see “Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success”, pg. 138, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler). As I look back on my experiences with Carrie, and other admirable colleagues, I see the same consistent behaviors.

Know your stuff

Soon after my arrival at Q2, I remember sitting in a meeting with a guy named Scott McCormack. Someone in the room asked a question about how debit cards worked. Everyone turned to Scott and waited for an answer, despite the fact that the question was not addressed specifically to him. Notice how Scott already had established himself as someone who could be looked to in these moments. In that conversation with Scott for 10 minutes I learned more about debit cards than I had learned in 4 years running my own FinTech startup. I said to myself, “That guy knows his stuff.” 

Now, I’ll admit that “knowing your stuff” doesn’t initially sound like a behavior, but bear with me. Knowing your stuff means you don’t stop with a superficial understanding - you’re intellectually curious, which I believe can certainly be traced to behaviors. People that know their stuff tear into their role with a voracious desire to know everything they can. That earns our respect and makes us listen when they have something to say. It also makes them more valuable to the organization.

Focus on the right stuff

Soon after Carrie joined us at Unbill I noticed her desire to track things. When we would sit down for one on one’s she would have specific metrics to share and she could tie them directly to our goals as a company. As her team grew, she developed KPI’s (key performance indicators) to help her team understand the key priorities and then reported those to me on a regular basis. 

By doing this Carrie helped me see that she understood our priorities and that she in turn made them a priority for her team. Knowing she put her effort toward the most important things made her someone I could rely on to get the right things done for our business.

As someone that has been a leader at companies large and small I can promise you that great organizations are constantly on the lookout for people that know the best place to focus their time and energy.

Build a reputation for being helpful

Top performers must also be team players. I’m not advocating that you help everyone that comes your way. Focusing on the right stuff comes before building a reputation of being helpful for a reason. I’ve seen some people that were so busy helping others that they couldn’t complete the basic requirements of their actual job. 

When you can help, and it’s associated with what you work on, make it a point to do so. People remember your generosity and they can’t help but admire you for it.


I have found I am most successful at achieving great results when I have identified a few vital behaviors that, if changed, would yield the highest rewards. I then constantly measure my progress at practicing those vital behaviors. 

When it comes to pushing your career forward it’s been shown time and again that knowing your stuff, focusing on the right stuff, and building a reputation for being helpful are the vital behaviors that will help you get ahead. What will you do to improve how you practice these vital behaviors today?

Practical tips

If you’ve made it to this point in the article, odds are you’re interested in pushing the envelope on what you can accomplish in your career. You probably felt motivated to make improvements while reading this - unless I failed miserably - but you’re wondering where to start. Consider the following practical ways you can begin to level up your career today.

  1. Take note of each time you don’t know the answer to a question related to your role, then spend a little time each day finding the answers to those questions - sometimes this comes in the form of homework for me.
  2. Ask a boss what they think your priorities ought to be. You might say something like “I’ve been assessing how I spend my time and working on focusing on the things that can have the biggest impact. From your perspective, what are the things you’d most like to see me focusing on?” Consider developing KPI’s for yourself that you can report to your boss based on his or her feedback.
  3. Make it a point to help someone every day. If you see someone working like crazy while everyone else heads out to lunch, consider asking them if you can pick something up for them. Offer to take new employees to lunch with a group of their new colleagues so they can get to know a few people.
  4. Develop a tracking system for your vital behaviors. I have created a nightly survey that I take that helps me remember what’s most important to me. I can’t get too far off course when I’m checking in on my progress each night.