Be a linchpin

13 July, 2015

A blueprint to become indispensable to your organisation

As you know, to achieve our growth aspirations, we need to be more agile, be more innovative and connect better with our consumers. Our success will depend on each of you raising your personal bar and taking your contributions up a notch. So, I want to ask you to reflect on the role that you want to play in building the Godrej of the future. What will make you stand out? What are the unique capabilities that you bring to the table? How will make yourself essential to our success? How will you make sure that people really count on you? How do you become the one that holds your function or team together?

In his bestselling book Linchpin, which some of you may already be familiar with, author and marketeer Seth Godin, talks about a type of person that he calls the ‘linchpin’. A linchpin, in everyday terms, is the part that holds a wheel in place and keeps it from coming off its axel. For Godin, linchpins are the building blocks of great organisations. “These are the people who invent, lead (regardless of title), connect others, make things happen, and create order out of chaos. They figure out what to do when there is no rule book. They love their work and pour their best selves into it.”

Drawing from this, my message today focuses on what it means to be a linchpin, how you can become one and what this could mean, both for you and the organisation. Why is this important for you to know? Quite simply, because linchpins are the people who make themselves almost indispensable to their organisations. And this means that they end up getting the best roles and arguably, the most freedom.

Four things that you should know about linchpins.

1. Indispensable is not irreplaceable

People often make the mistake of assuming that being indispensable and being irreplaceable is the same thing. It is not so. Everyone can be replaced. And you must have the humility to accept this. Being indispensable means that you are so good at what you do, that people do not want to think of a situation where they have to replace you.

2. You don’t need to be a CEO to be a linchpin

Being a linchpin isn’t something that is restricted to senior leaders. These are people across all levels, who have found a way to make a marked difference. As Godin puts it, a linchpin is “…someone more human, connected, and mature. Someone with passion and energy, capable of seeing things as they are and negotiating multiple priorities as she makes useful decisions without angst. Flexible in the face of change, resilient in the face of confusion.” This is the competitive advantage that is needed. And it has nothing to do with seniority.

3. Being a linchpin is a choice that you make

No one is born a linchpin. Nor is it a special talent that you need to be predisposed to. It is a choice that you make. To love your work, go the extra mile, look to make connections, offer support and create your own playbook. So, treat this like any other skill.

Choose to take it up and then work at it.

4. It is all about the work

For linchpins, knowing that they do great work, is greatly rewarding. Godin sums this up very aptly: “The job is what you do when you are told what to do. The job is showing up at the factory, following instructions, meeting specs, and being managed. Someone can always do your job a little better or faster or cheaper than you can. The job might be difficult, it might require skill, but it’s a job. Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it. Your art is the act of taking personal responsibility, challenging the status quo, and changing people. I call the process of doing your art ‘the work.’ It’s possible to have a job and do the work, too. In fact, that’s how you become a linchpin. The job is not the work.”

What you need to do (differently) to become a linchpin.

If you want to become a linchpin, here are seven things that you could do to start out:

1. Fight your “lizard brain”

According to Godin, one of the biggest barriers to innovation and people being willing to take a risk, is the “lizard brain”: the primitive part of the human brain that is adapted for survival. The lizard brain loves being a cog in the system, because that is a safer and tested option. But to make a change and stand out, you need to fight this urge. Do watch this video, where Godin explains this idea, when you get a chance:

2. Learn to thrive in uncertainty

Like it or not, our world is constantly changing and becoming more complex. Our success, to a large part, will be determined by whether or not we are able to become more agile and thrive in the uncertainty around us. There is no rule book for this. You simply have to find your way around. Linchpins don’t look for maps. They make their own. And this holds them in very good stead.

3. Be generous

The one thing that you won’t hear linchpins saying is “It’s not my job”. What sets them apart from people who are just great functional experts, is that they are happy to share. They want to go the extra mile, even when it isn’t asked of them. So, look to offer solutions, not just identify problems. And be a sounding board when needed.

4. Find your unique talent

Having strong domain expertise is a given. To be a linchpin, you need to step it up and have a strong, unique talent as well. It could be a particular area of work that you build expertise in, a technology that few have familiarised themselves with, relationships with key customers to suppliers etc. It is very important that you stay relevant; more so with how quickly things are changing. So, keep building new skill sets and work on them. Irrespective of what you choose to excel at, concisely deliver on it. Ensure that you are at the top of your game and a thought leader in your own right.

5. Be humble without being compliant

There is a line between being compliant and being humble. Compliant mean that you stick to the rule book and you have an easy way out when things don’t go according to plan. Humility helps you understand that while everything will not be in your control, you can approach a situation with kindness and not arrogance.

6. Be a great team player

A team at rest tends to stay at rest. Linchpins understand that their job is to ‘make something happen’. This attitude is what pushes them to do work that matters, not work that’s easy. They also understand that this is not something that they can do alone. To really help the organisation grow, they need to get other people to feel and act in the same way. So, linchpins inspire and encourage their team members. They are also your go-to people; trustworthy and reliable at all times. This is part of being great team players and mentors. Not just that, linchpins also manage up really well. By taking the onus they do, they make their manager’s jobs easier as well.

7. Above all, love what you do

Great organisations need their people to have a sense of their mission. And this comes with a lot of heart and ‘emotional labour’. Not from merely following a job description that is handed down to you. Linchpins love what they do and they bring their passion to their work, every day. This is why they are so valuable and sought after. Zappos, the online shoe and clothing company, has a very interesting way of sifting for linchpins. They offer graduates from their two-week training school USD 2,000, to quit their new jobs. Why? Because they want to be sure that the people joining them are doing so for the right reasons and not because they are getting paid to.

Take some time off to think through this over the week. It really is worth evaluating what your ‘linchpin status’ is. How committed are you to making yourself indispensable? For those of you who are managers – are your team members linchpins? And what is your role in inspiring them to feel that way? This is a very powerful concept. If we are able to leverage it well, it could really help us build on how committed and engaged we are as a team. And in turn, the agile and high performing culture that we want to nurture at Godrej.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


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