How to Make Yourself Irreplaceable at Your Job

Here’s the bad news: you’ll always be replaceable.

People at companies are replaced all the time. Sometimes they’re fired. Sometimes they take new opportunities and move on, and the company’s left scrambling to find someone to take their place. People who appear to be the backbone of a company schism and go elsewhere, and the company still carries on. Even Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, was fired from his own company and replaced. If that can happen, then it can happen to anyone.

Here’s the good news: you can create job security.

Your question is a good one. There’s even an answer. But it deserves slight reframing (and the answer to the question will start to become apparent as I lay out the mindset shift).

Instead of asking “can I be replaced?” (because the answer will always be yes), ask instead “how much does it cost to replace me?”

How expensive/time consuming is it for my company to find someone to replace me/train someone to replace me?

The higher that replacement cost, the harder it is to make the transition, the less the company will be inclined to incur that cost, and the more job security you’ll have.

In business, we talk a lot about being indispensable (the book Lynchpin talks about this in detail). That’s the goal — to be so valuable people want/need to keep you.

The progression of professional development:

  • To become so impressive people want to hire you
  • To become so valuable people want to keep you
  • To develop so much potential people want to promote you

Becoming indispensable is what drives those second two measures of success — maintaining your job and leveraging it into a better job.

So how do you do that?

  • The more knowledge you have of how the company works, the more valuable you are. A random hire who can produce the same numbers as you has the same monetary value as you (and the cost of your replacement is directly equal to their salary + hiring/onboarding costs), but knowledge of the company is harder to replace, because it takes time and energy to acquire, and a random hire won’t have it.
  • The more knowledge you have of your department, the better.
  • The more cross-department knowledge you have, the more valuable you become. Now you’re more valuable than an employee who has singular knowledge of either one of those two departments.
  • The more skills you have, the better — hard and soft both. A variety of skills exponentially increases your value, because the combination becomes harder to find/replace.
  • The greater your ability to do creative work, the more valuable you become. Fulfilling your job description is valuable; creating things that have a lasting impact at your company carries far more weight, because those things change the value of the company itself.

And the practical step-by-step process to get you there:

  1. First, focus on doing your job really, really well. Master your job description. Become the best at your company at fulfilling it. This is base-level competence/value, which is required for your company to keep you in the first place.
  2. Go above and beyond. Take on additional side projects, create solutions to solve problems you see within the company. This increases your value, because now replacing you requires not only fulfilling your job description, but other things too.
  3. Start to learn how to chip in within other departments. Once you’re going above and beyond in your own department, look elsewhere. Are there things you can provide the marketing team that help them create better content? Information you can help the operations department collect? A shift you can pick up manning the live chat for customer success? The greater your contextual knowledge of the company, the more valuable you are in your own department and to the company as a whole.
  4. Learn, learn, learn. This one’s underrated, but seriously valuable. The smarter you are, the more information you have to work with, the more problems you can solve, and the more value you have the capacity to create. Study. Research. Relentlessly pursue making yourself smarter. The raw information you carry becomes part of what you bring to the table at a job, and becomes something a potential replacement likely won’t have.

So, to sum it up …

Instead of becoming 100% irreplaceable (a losing battle, because you’ll never make it), you want to focus on making the cost of replacing you so high that it isn’t worth the bother. Becoming indispensable means that you’re so good that it will cost a company a ridiculous amount of time, money, and other resources to replace you. They won’t ever want to.

When you hit that point, you’ve become functionally irreplaceable.

[Photo by Studio Republic on Unsplash]


Quora Answer: How do Startup Employees Work for Such Long Hours?

There are two factors: stamina and ownership.

Let’s talk about stamina first.

Your ability to work, like a muscle, is built over time. Stamina is not inherent, but earned.

You could ask the same question about running a marathon — “how do runners consistently run for such long distances?”

The principles are the same. They start small, consistently push their limits, and build muscle and capacity over time. When you’re used to running 5 miles, 26 seems painful, near impossible. But when you consistently push your limits — go from 5 miles to 7, 7 to 10 — you build up your threshold for what you’re capable of doing. 10 to 13 is a small jump — and at 13 miles, you’re already halfway there.

When you’re running 5ks, a marathon seems impossible. When you’re running half-marathons consistently, it’s a reasonable stretch.

When you work 40-hour weeks, the 60+ hour work weeks of a startup employee seem ridiculously long, but they don’t feel like a stretch for people who are working those hours. It’s all about conditioning.

But as I said, that stamina is earned. Some people work long hours as soon as they start working at their first startup, but many don’t. You build your capacity over time, as your responsibilities within the company increase — and when you’re used to working 9 hours a day, what’s one hour more?

There’s an underlying principle in working at a startup, though, that defines the way a person interacts with their work. That principle is ownership (the second item I had on my initial list).

Ownership is both what pushes people to build the stamina of working long hours in the first place, and to embrace that as their reality.

A startup is a company that’s building things. It’s growing, and their products are growing too. There’s a lot of agency for creativity, and a lot of responsibility for each team member to be growing and improving too.

Work isn’t something you clock into and out of. It isn’t about filling a desk from 9–5. In principle, at the end of the day, your employer (probably — with the caveat that every employer is different) doesn’t care about when you work, or how much. They care about the results you’re creating and the impact you’re having. They care about the ways in which you’re making the company better.

That’s what startup employees care about too.

They want to be working long hours, because they want to creating the results those long hours enable them to create.

Think about school assignments vs. passion projects. Startup work is akin to that second category. There’s a purpose to it. It’s something you have agency in and ownership over. And because you’re legitimately excited about it, there’s energy to back you as you throw yourself into your work.

When you have ownership over something, it’s really easy to spend lots of time working on it, because it doesn’t feel like work at all.

One more note about the reality of all this: when you work at a startup, the lines between “work” and “life” often get blurred — not in an unhealthy way, but rather, in an organic way (the harsh defining line between “work” and “life” is a rather industrial construct (derived of bells and time tables and cogs and systems), and not a natural phenomenon). Living while working (taking a personal call at the office, running groceries in the middle of the afternoon) is as seamless as working while living (answering an email while you wait for dinner to cook, thinking about improving your work systems while you drive around town on the weekend).

Each person’s balance is different, and each company’s policies are different, but in general, the lines tend to be more blurred — which makes working long hours much less about the interval of time between clocking in and clocking out, and much more about the amount of effort you feel excited about putting in vs. the output you want to create.

Those are all general notes, though, about principle and paradigm. A few other specific things to bear in mind:

  1. For a lot of people, the amount of hours they work is a form of virtue signalling. It’s a way of bragging and showing off. As a couple other people have already pointed out, working long hours does NOT equate to being productive. Just because someone says they’re working 70 hours a week does not mean they’re delivering 70 hours a week worth of output.
  2. Startup work is often project based. Even people who work long hours have fluctuation in the amount of time they’re spending each week. Usually a big push is followed by some lower-intensity “rest time” (in quotes because you’re still working, but using the terminology ‘rest time’ because you have more space to recharge).
  3. Pacing is key, even when you’ve built stamina. Even when you can run a marathon, you don’t run one every day. You train in smaller, more paced increments, with marathon-length runs happening only at intervals. Keeping yourself healthy is important!
  4. Because there’s a lot of agency in your work, you can chose the hours and the workflows that work best for you. This makes working long hours feel less like a struggle (e.g. forcing yourself to be productive during your downtime), and more like an organic process.
  5. Burnout is a real thing. Even when you have agency, if you push yourself too far, you’ll break. Runners tear muscles and sideline themselves, and startup employees can burn themselves out and take themselves out of the game. See above — pacing is key.
  6. Ultimately, the goal is NOT to work ridiculous hours, but rather, to work smarter rather than harder. Startup employees are constantly thinking about how to work faster and more efficiently — how to systematize their processes and how to automate tasks to free themselves up for more creative, higher-level work. A good startup manager realizes that your down time is often your most productive — the time when you’re able to think creatively and solve problems (see above — startups are always growing, and growth requires a lot of creative ideas and energy). Even though it’s a form of virtue signalling (my 70 hours is more impressive than your 60), working long hours actually isn’t the goal. Having the capacity to is valuable, but being efficient in your work is more valuable still.

Here’s the post on Quora, if you want to check out the other responses!

Photo by Lost Co on Unsplash