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January 28, 2021

How to Become Indispensable: Our Expert Interview With Bruce Tulgan

Rachel Salaman


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When I was a student, I'd spend my summers working as an admin temp. A couple of times, my short-term assignments ended with the offer of a full-time job, which I'd respectfully turn down.

At the time, I felt proud and flattered, and wondered if I'd become indispensable. Looking back, I think I was just usefully plugging a gap. But that first taste of feeling truly valued is a powerful memory.

Author and consultant Bruce Tulgan has studied what makes some people more valued than others in the workplace, and he shares his insights in his latest book, "The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done."

It's a handbook for anyone who wants to be a "go-to" person, with clear advice that can be applied in numerous situations, including in today's virtual teams, as Tulgan reflects in this clip from our Expert Interview podcast.

The True Service Mindset

For Tulgan, a go-to person has a "true service mindset."

Specifically, this means: "You don't point fingers and blame – you go to people and say, 'Hey, how can we get better together?' It means you don't take credit. It means you thank other people effusively. It means you don't try to only work in the areas that you love. It means you focus on what people need."

In short, being indispensable is "not about you, it's about everybody else." But putting other people's needs first can quickly lead to over-commitment, so you have to be careful.

"You can't do everything for everybody," he points out. "That means you have to do the right things at the right times for the right reasons. You need to have a way of conducting yourself that's very professional and logical."

And, importantly, "you have to rethink 'yes' and 'no'. Every good no makes room for a better yes."

The Wrong "Yes"

A short time after speaking to Tulgan, I came to experience the truth of this firsthand.

I was editing the transcript of a video that mentioned a former senior executive with an unusual name that I couldn't hear clearly. I tried to check the name online but got nowhere.

So I sent the video to an HR assistant, Nadine, and asked if she could help. In due course, she reported back. It had been tricky, she said, but after an exhaustive search, she'd found the missing name. I'd never met Nadine, but her message had an air of triumph about it. She seemed proud to be a go-to person, someone used to helping out, who always delivered the goods.

When I listened back to the video, I realized with a jolt that the name she'd sent me was wrong. It didn't even sound similar. Nadine had not delivered the goods.

But she thought she had, and so did the manager copied into her email. I did another search myself and finally found the shy executive buried deep in Facebook, along with the correct spelling of her name.

Serving Others

This minor incident threw Tulgan's tips into sharp relief for me. Instead of focusing on the accuracy I'd requested, Nadine had made this little favor all about her. Delivering an answer quickly and efficiently – in sight of senior people – mattered more to her than getting it right.

Nadine had all the trappings of a go-to person – willingness, flexibility, prompt and clear communication – but when it came to actually serving others, she slipped up. And, as a result, she won't be a go-to person for me.

The importance of following through well, with honesty and integrity, is a consistent message in Tulgan's book. It's central to the true service mindset we need to become indispensable, and it can help us win influence, regardless of our position in the organization.

Listen to Our Interview With Bruce Tulgan

Discover fascinating insights from some of the world's leading business figures with our monthly Expert Interviews.

Mind Tools Premium and Corporate members can listen to the full 30-minute interview with Bruce Tulgan in the Mind Tools Club.

If you're not a Mind Tools member, you can join the Mind Tools Club and gain access to our 2,400+ resources, including 200+ Expert Interviews. For corporate licensing, ask for a demo with one of our team.

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