November 27, 2012
Being irreplaceable at work can derail your career
Early in my career I was given an interesting piece of advice from an older, male co-worker who had been with the company for many years.
"You need to learn to hold back some of your knowledge and not share it with others so management will see you as irreplaceable," he warned me. "You tend to give away too much of your knowledge and your ideas to other people."
"Hmm," I thought. "Should I really believe him?"
At the time, I was new at the company and had jumped into my job wholeheartedly. After time spent learning and observing, I determined ways we could re-engineer some of our processes that would improve the department's efficiency. I pitched my ideas and implementation plan to the department director and received his approval to move forward.
So there I was, training the team on the new procedures and demonstrating how it would make their jobs easier while increasing efficiency and productivity. My co-workers were excited about the positive changes and began asking me a lot of questions. It was right after this training session when my colleague offered me his advice about making myself irreplaceable. I listened -- and then disregarded his advice.
Time went by and I received a promotion, eventually working in another department. When I saw my former colleague in the cafeteria one day, he looked dejected. I'd heard that he had unsuccessfully applied for several other positions. His approach of trying to be irreplaceable had stalled his career progress. Soon after, he was let go; the rumor was it was because management didn't understand what he did for the company.
Over the next 20-plus years in corporate America, I saw a pattern emerge: Employees who eagerly helped others, shared ideas and proactively trained potential replacements received the vast majority of promotions. Why? Because companies don't want irreplaceable employees -- they want employees who can demonstrate their value and grow with (and within) the company. This includes identifying and training potential successors.
I'm glad I didn't listen to my co-worker's advice about trying to make myself irreplaceable in my job. As he found out, trying to make yourself irreplaceable can make your career irreparable.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
Paul Anderson helps professionals in transition find their desired employment.
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