Do you work for or aspire to work for a C-level executive? Maybe you enjoy having the patronage of a powerful leader or maybe this is part of your master plan to gain a seat at the table. In either case, gaining and maintaining the trust of a high-powered executive can be a daunting task. If you succeed, you will be well-positioned for the future. Being indispensable to a powerful leader enhances your job security, professional cachet, and opens up future opportunities.
On several occasions at different companies, I sat in the same area as the C-suite. I’ve gotten to know executives not just in meetings, but via informal conversations in the hallways, the parking lot, and on occasion even in the bathroom. Yes, sometimes even the CEO uses a bathroom in the common area and not the one in his or her office. I’ve seen a parade of executive assistants and top lieutenants come and go as they serve their corporate overlords. Inside voice, Joe, inside voice! Ahem, I mean these most esteemed corporate leaders, pillars of society, and captains of industry. Too much?
It doesn’t take long to see that not everyone fares well under the red-hot spotlight of executive demands. When the stakes are high, so too are the consequences.
I remember one time when a long-time executive assistant informed a brand new executive they weren’t going to change a process because “that’s NOT the way we do things around here.” The assistant was let go shortly thereafter. I’ve also seen people who consistently deliver the right stuff and rise through the ranks.
What can you do to become indispensable? How do you become the one an executive relies on, confides in, and rewards handsomely with loyalty as well as generous remuneration?
There are five qualities leaders in the C-suite value most in the employees they interact with directly. I call them the 5 A’s of Indispensability. Let’s explore them in turn.
“What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It’s the gift of anticipation. And I’m a good servant. I’m better than good. I’m the best. I’m the perfect servant. I know when they’ll be hungry and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.”
Mrs. Wilson, played by Helen Mirren in Gosford Park
Leaders are looking for employees who anticipate their needs. Like a concierge at a 5-star hotel, the best employees anticipate what is needed even before a leader asks for it and sometimes even before a leader realizes it is needed. It’s the difference realizing it might rain and having an umbrella ready vs. fetching one (plus towels) after it has started pouring. Whether it is travel plans, meeting kerfuffles, or miscellaneous shenanigans, the best employees anticipate what a leader will need and position themselves to provide it.
Leaders are looking for employees who boldly act when action is needed. They don’t have the desire or inclination to spoon feed someone who sits on their hands until a command is issued. In “The Dichotomy of Leadership,” by Jocko Willink and Leif Garret, this is called being “Default: Aggressive.”
The best employees don’t wait to act. Rather than wait passively, they proactively take steps to further the leader’s strategy. This doesn’t mean they run amuck. For decisions they are not authorized to make, they make recommendations. In a way, making the recommendation itself is a valuable action. Executives value operators, not order takers.
Leaders are looking for employees who aren’t afraid to ask the right questions. I’m not talking about asking questions for the sake of asking questions. Nobody enjoys that. Rather, the best employees ask questions that improve understanding and decision-making. This is tempered by professional judgment because timing and context is everything.
I learned in “The Aladdin Factor,” by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen that one of the main reasons we don’t ask is fear. Mainly fear of rejection, but also fear of looking stupid, being humiliated or punished, and fear of endless obligations, among others. A problem with never asking is you never learn what you need to improve. It’s not always helpful to ask directly what someone wants. It’s about asking to improve the understanding of everyone in the room.
The pace of change in today’s market is considerable. The needs of the market are changing all the time, even though we might not notice it until it’s too late. Leaders are looking for employees who can thrive and survive in the V.U.C.A. conditions of the modern world – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.
There is a secret that can help us improve our ability to adjust. In “The Power of Now,” by Eckhart Tolle, I learned that the key to thriving no matter what is to “accept what is.” This is not about being okay with the status quo or being passive. Rather, it’s about the most productive use of your energy. When you spend a lot of emotional energy wishing things were different, it makes it harder to perceive and address reality. Only when you clearly see what you have without resistance, can you bring your full resources to bear on addressing it effectively.
Especially when we first start working for powerful bosses, there is a tendency to just assume that everything they say is amazing and we have little to offer. While it makes sense for junior people to primarily listen and learn from people with more experience, this doesn’t mean you should never provide leadership. Leaders are looking for employees who can provide insights that improve results.
I learned in “The Challenger Sale,” by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson that while building relationships be helpful, the key to being picked by clients is the ability to challenge the client by providing valuable insights that they would not otherwise have. While you may not be equal in a hierarchical sense with the executive, to be valued you must be a partner, not a valet. By understanding needs on a deep level, providing insights and being able to provide solutions, you make yourself indispensable.
Again, here are the 5 A’s of Indispensability — Anticipate, Act, Ask, Adjust and Advise.
These qualities may not be recognized consciously by an executive, but they register strongly with them when they are present. This is because these qualities in combination help you match the needs of the executive with your own capabilities to deliver maximal value with a minimum of guidance. There is no algorithm or manual for being indispensable and what fun what that be if there was. Also, it makes no sense to ask an executive how to please them. It’s an odd and vaguely unprofessional question and in any case, unlikely to generate a truly useful response. A better approach is to cultivate qualities like the 5 A’s to make yourself indispensable. Now go forth and grasp that golden ring!