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Book review: how to become a linchpin at work

Today's great jobs are the ones where you create your own value, not merely follow instructions, claims the author of 'Linchpin.'

By Guest blogger / March 8, 2010

In the new world of work, blaze your own path to a great job, argues the author of 'Linchpin.'

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Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book or other book of interest to Simple Dollar readers.

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The entire argument of Seth Godin’s book Linchpin is that there are no longer any great jobs where someone tells you what to do. That’s not to say there aren’t great jobs out there – there are many – but they now require the ability to basically blaze your own path, creating things and building connections that are indispensable to those around you. That person, in Godin’s terminology, is a linchpin.

I think, to a degree, this general argument is spot on. We live in a globalized world where most jobs can be shipped anywhere, from Mexico to Indonesia. Jobs in which people are merely following instructions all day are among the easiest to ship and the few that remain in America aren’t going to be strongly financially rewarding. Success comes from making yourself essential to the operation – and simply following orders, even if you do it well, keeps you firmly in the “replaceable cog” camp.

How do you stand out? What kinds of choices can you make to turn yourself into someone indispensable? Let’s dig in and see what the book has to say.

The New World of Work
Most jobs where you simply follow instructions and do a faceless job demean the real value you provide. They’re faceless jobs, but you’re not a faceless person. You’re not merely a cog in the machine of capitalism – but your job might be. The biggest difference between a follow-the-instructions job and a linchpin is that a linchpin creates his or her own value, whereas an instruction follower doesn’t add any value beyond a specified task that’s completed. A linchpin works in ways that improves those around him or her, while an instruction-follower simply follows the tasks at hand. I like to think of it this way: what’s the difference between a mediocre administrative assistant and the best administrative assistant you can imagine? That’s roughly the difference between a person who is a linchpin and a person who is not.

Thinking About Your Choice
The choice that’s on your plate is simple: do you keep merely following instructions and counting the days until Friday or do you look for ways to make yourself transcend those roles and become a linchpin? This is an urgent question, because a global marketplace makes the instruction-follower role more dispensable than ever. Some people are content to fill the role of instruction-follower – and that’s fine. However, the career opportunities for such people are simply shrinking – that’s a fact of life.

Indoctrination: How We Got Here
Most of what we learn in school serves one purpose – to make you an effective person at filling an instruction-follower job. Schools do not encourage creative thinking (which is an invaluable part of being a linchpin) – instead, they encourage lots of rote memorization and repetitive tasks which are scored on standardized tests. It’s a pretty neat trick to make school funding tied to these standardized tests, isn’t it?

Becoming the Linchpin
Every workplace has a few people that are simply indispensable. They take very challenging situations and make them work. They seem to solve tons and tons of problems. They’re the ones everyone goes to when there are crises. Those people are the indispensable ones – if you’re not one of them, you’re a lot more dispensable than they are. The question really is whether or not you’re willing to work to become one of those indispensable folks.

Is It Possible to Do Hard Work in a Cubicle?
Being a linchpin means a lot of hard work. The biggest part of it is being willing to give all of what you have to doing a great job. This does not mean just filling your hours with whatever task you’re assigned. It means bringing all of your passion, your ideas, and your creativity to the table whenever you work. It means taking on the hard problems that might scare you a little bit (or more than a little bit).

The Resistance
Our brains typically work in resistance to those kinds of tasks – we’re biologically wired to look out purely for number one. We avoid risk. We avoid anything that might be perceived as a threat. We avoid generosity. However, all of these things – risk, taking on threats, generosity – are key parts of being a linchpin. We have to work hard to overcome these resistances in order to become something greater.

The Powerful Culture of Gifts
Giving of yourself to others opens countless doors. Our brains often expect immediate reciprocity – if we give something, we want something in return and soon. The world rarely works that way. Our generosity – going above and beyond the expectations of others – builds a strong reputation for us, one that secures our work and builds positive relationships and interactions for us in ways we often never directly see. Quid pro quos rarely work – but building a strong reputation for great work and generosity certainly does.

There Is No Map
How do you do this? Unfortunately, there is no road map – and that’s a big part of the difficulty of it. You have to seek out the challenges in your own situation and take them on head first. You have to seek ways to up the quality of whatever it is you’re doing. In other words, you have to go off the instruction sheet – and that’s the real challenge.

Making the Choice
Linchpin value is created by what you choose to do, not by what you’re born with. Anyone can become a linchpin – it’s not an inborn trait, it’s a sequence of choices to step beyond the instructions and do things that improve everyone around you. It’s a scary choice, but it’s still a choice, one that offers a lot of rewards if you’re willing to take the leap.

The Culture of Connection
In order to succeed as a linchpin, you have to build a lot of connections with the people around you. Indispensable work is work that’s connected to the work that others do. You build on their work and they thrive on the work you’ve done. A big part of this is personality and attitude and a big first step is to recognize that negativity towards others will never, ever get you to being a linchpin. Positive relationships are the ones upon which you can build great things.

The Seven Abilities of the Linchpin
Here are the seven abilities, in a nutshell, from page 218:

1. Providing a unique interface between members of the organization
2. Delivering unique creativity
3. Managing a situation or organization of great complexity
4. Leading customers
5. Inspiring staff
6. Providing deep domain knowledge
7. Possessing a unique talent

Linchpins provide at least one of the things on this list and often provide more than one. It’s key to remember that these things are there to provide value to the people around you and make their work better, because in doing so you make yourself indispensable.

When It Doesn’t Work
If you’re trying to be a linchpin and it isn’t working, blind persistence is usually not the way to go. The value of a linchpin isn’t in repeating things that aren’t clicking or working. Instead, they constantly seek out new approaches and ideas and try them, instead. No one has a 100% success rate with their endeavors and ideas, but it is the successful ones that provide so much that they more than make up for the failed attempts.

Is Linchpin Worth Reading?
If I were to hand a recent graduate or a twentysomething a book on modern careers and how to succed in them today, I’m pretty sure that Linchpin would be the first book that I would grab.

The ideas in this book are reflected in virtually every workplace I’ve ever been a part of, from entry-level work to highly technical work. The people that stepped up to help others and solve problems were the ones that were indispensable, while the others merely hoped to hold onto their jobs. I also noticed that the people who stepped up to the challenge tended to be a lot more positive about their job, whereas the people who were dispensable were negative about their job and the people around them.

There are a lot of great ideas about the modern workplace in this book. If you’re struggling in your career, Linchpin is probably well worth a read.

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