Four Ways to Make Yourself Indispensable

ahead-of-the-curve2Honk if this sounds like you: You’re rushing from meeting to meeting putting out fires. You’re multi-tasking, texting, and counting the days till vacation. Lately you’re noticing a trend: job automation. Airport ticket counters staffed by fewer and fewer agents. Parking garage attendants replaced by self-pay machines. Once hot jobs like data center manager disappearing into The Cloud. Could your job be next? Read on for my four ways to make yourself indispensable

Call it the Great Restructuring — a megatrend that’s gaining momentum by the day. From accountants to X-ray technicians to lawyers, jobs are vaporizing, replaced by software, algorithms and robots. By 2025, predicts McKinsey Research, 140 million knowledge worker jobs could be replaced by office automation, and 75 million jobs by robots. What can you do, not just to ensure your employment, but your employability in the years ahead?

As a futurist and innovation expert, I approach the automation challenge much the same way that I approach industry disruption. If you are willing to embrace its imperatives, this brave new world of work can become your opportunity. If you’re willing to study up on the issue, and take action daily to adapt, you’ll ride this wave into the future. Here are four ways to ensure your viability going forward:

1. Do an assessment. If your job can be “routinized,” it’s probably going to disappear. Begin by asking yourself some questions: How can this trend be approached with an Opportunity Mindset rather than a Defeatist Mindset? What are other forward-thinkers doing to make this trend their friend? And what will the workplace look like in 10 years and what might you do starting now to prepare?

According to much-cited MIT research, if a job involves learning a set of logical rules or a statistical model that you apply to task after task, day after day, that job is ripe for replacement. What jobs will be left, in high demand even? In my work with “high potential” managers in companies like American Express, Johnson & Johnson, IBM, Cisco and others, I observe the qualities that are much needed, but that most companies are desperate for.

After interviewing 43 standout managers and contributors from a variety of organizations for the book Innovation is Everybody’s Business, I have identified what it takes to be successful in the emerging non-routine world. These contributors don’t just master the functional and technical skills that got them hired in the first place. They go beyond. They develop subtle aptitudes and abilities that enable them to get new things done. I call them Innovation Skills, or I-Skills for short. For example, can you lead a cross-functional team tasked with doing something the organization has never done before? Can you sell your ideas to superiors, to colleagues, to your reports? Can you challenge assumptions that hold back fresh unfettered thinking? Do you see the big picture? Can you empathize with the end user? To assess your I-Skills, I’ve developed a simple survey that will give you a quick idea of where you stand.

2. No matter what lies ahead, your I-Skills will differentiate you.

While constantly looking for ways to reduce headcount, organizations are in need of people who know how to add value no matter where they’re placed. Paulette, a facilities manager in a large Canadian tech company, described her I-Skills this way:

“A lot of people in this profession think what we do is provide space for people to work in. They leave it there. But it’s really much more: it’s looking at the life cycle management of buildings, looking for greater cost savings and green buildings; it’s finding new and better ways of doing things.”

Whether you’re in facilities management, human resources, manufacturing, or brand management, things are changing so fast that you’re confronted daily with situations you’ve never faced before. So it’s how you deal with them that matters.

3. Developing and deploying your I-Skills daily is the path to not just surviving the next round of layoffs, but to becoming indispensable.

At the moment, if you’re a data scientist, you can write your own ticket. But hot jobs come and go like so many teenage pop stars. What doesn’t come and go is your reputation for having spotted and seized an opportunity that benefited the organization, for critical thinking, for being comfortable with ambiguity, and for completing important projects. Here’s the new reality: employers care less and less about where you worked and even how long you were there, and more about the types of projects you were involved in, and the results you achieved. What did you do to differentiate yourself in that position? What did you do that showed your Opportunity Mindset at work? As one manager expressed it in our interviews: “I’ve got a lot of autonomy in my job and I get to work on some really neat projects. I also get to work with some really smart people who keep me on my toes. It’s something new every day. I never thought I would enjoy work the way I do now.”

4. Lifelong learning is essential to future employability.

What’s your “information diet,” and how is it giving you an early warning system on the future? What articles or books did you read recently that gave you new insights into some important topic? Jobholders a decade hence will encounter and will be asked to solve problems with nothing to guide them, and which have management at least temporarily stymied. We’ll constantly need to do research and master new technology and adapt to ever more rapid changes. Those most likely to succeed will be those who are, by nature or self-discipline, eager and constant lifelong learners, autodidactic, and voracious readers. They will need to teach themselves more than they will be taught. With information at the touch of a smartphone, the valuable and rewarded skill will be to make sense of it all, to connect the dots, to form a point of view, and to be able to communicate clearly, concisely and persuasively.

The Upshot: You have a choice to make everyday. You can continue to do the job you were hired to do and leave it there. You can hope these hurricane-force winds somehow leave you unaffected. Or you can choose to participate in the world of work in a fresh way. I wish you all the best in your journey ahead.