The best career advice I ever received came from a mentor I had more than 15 years ago. Her advice was a bit counter-intuitive. She told me that if I want to be able to take advantage of the best career opportunities I should make sure to not let myself become essential in my current job.
At first her advice may seem to not make any sense. Everyone wants to be essential, right? In fact, I was in a career development course last week that included "be essential" as one of its core pieces of advice. I had to fight every urge to argue with the instructor about it.
My mentor wasn't suggesting that I shouldn't make myself valuable. If your contribution to your organization is so insignificant that no one would miss you if you left that's probably not good for your career potential. Her point was that I should avoid the extreme opposite of that: being essential in the sense of being impossible to live without.
You have likely worked some place where there was something that only one person knew how to do or information that only one person knew how to find. That person with that unique knowledge was essential to getting certain things done. If that person was gone for a day you were told that certain things would have to wait until he or she came back. That person was essential.
Being that person is good for your career only if you want to keep doing the same thing for the foreseeable future. However, if you aspire to grow and move on to new opportunities being essential is a trap.
You may want to volunteer for a special project that will give you visibility across your organization. Perhaps you want to pursue a new position, either a promotion or an interesting lateral move. Maybe you just want to be able to take a vacation without having to haul your laptop along. In order to do any of those things it is helpful, if not necessary, to have the support of your manager.
If your manager considers you essential to the department he or she may not be willing to give you up. Your request may be met with excuses about how "I really want you to be able to do that at some point, but right now I really need you because [insert deadline, major project, or anticipated crisis here]."
Being essential can hold you back even if you try to pursue opportunities without your boss's support. Your potential new boss or project lead may not want to hurt a relationship with your current boss by taking a person noted to be essential.
Of course, you could always apply for a job at another company, which would remove you from those internal political battles, but your past knowledge-hoarding can still catch up to you.
In a world where everyone seems to change jobs every few years it is hard to know in what context you may cross paths with a former coworker. If that person's last memory of you is the mess you left behind because no one knew exactly how to do what you did or where your files were, that legacy could come back to haunt you.
Ideally, none of this should be your problem or mine. Ideally, there is at least one well-trained back up for every job making no one person essential. Unfortunately, with a lot of organizations trying to run lean workforces that doesn't always happen.
Here are a few ways to build your exit strategy of non-essentialness.
Keep information accessible and well-organized. Sure, it's great for you that you kept that important document in your email archives, but that's not helpful for anyone else who may need it. Same goes for your computer hard drive and personal network drives. Instead, store things on shared network drives, team Sharepoint sites, or other places where someone else can access the information without having to go through you. For paper files use a labeling system that can be easily understood by your coworkers.
Document what you do and how you do it. It doesn't have to be a fancy manual. A series of to do lists is often fine. If you do too many things to document them all focus on the things that would be hardest for someone else to figure out.
Don't judge your value by the knowledge that only you have; judge your value by the knowledge you share. Be a person who leaves a trail of knowledge in your wake instead of a trail of chaos.
This career advice has served me well. There have been several times that bosses told me they need to keep me until something was done, but I was able to show them how easy I made it for someone else to pick up my work.
Just remember that not letting yourself become essential is different that not letting yourself become valuable. There should be more to what you do than can be stored in a well-organized file system or documented in a procedure. Those are the things that make you marketable for new opportunities.
Just because you aren't essential doesn't mean you will succeed, but not being essential can give you the freedom to try. Similarly, just because the department didn't fall to pieces when you left doesn't mean you won't be missed.
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