Are you the icing or the cake? The art of becoming indispensable



As soon as I got the email, I knew.

Call it intuition, call it years of experience —but it was bad. I could feel it.

Hey Hill,” my client wrote. “Can you talk on Tuesday?

My heart plunged to the wheels of my desk chair.

This particular client wasn’t just anyone, either. They were a favorite of mine. Not only did they bring in one of my biggest paychecks, they were also an awesome team to work with. The project manager and I were buddies. We had a seamless system.

Everything was going great. I thought I was golden…

… Until clearly, I wasn’t.

My memory of the actual call is hazy. I remember words like ‘bittersweet’ and ‘you’re a rockstar’ and ‘budget restructuring’, but not much else.

The news was they were cutting costs, and wanted to stop work. Preferably as soon as possible.

Icy tendrils of panic crawled up the back of my neck.

“It’s fine. It’s just business,” I tried to assure myself.

But a tiny voice responded “Is it though?

My former client had repeatedly explained that it was budget, not my performance, that was spurring the split. Still, I instantly ran down my mental checklist.

What had I screwed up?

What had I let slip?

What had I done wrong?

After frantically searching the most brutal corners of my memory, I slowly came to accept that there was no big gaffe that caused this.

I’d worked hard, I’d hit my deadlines, I’d been a team player. I’d done my job to the best of my ability. And yet, there I was… a contract short in record time after almost a year.

Once I calmed down, I began to ask myself: How did this happen? And how could I prevent it happening again?

The truth was simple: I’d done good work. They just didn’t need me anymore.

They had a Customer Happiness team, a whole squad of people schooled in Content Marketing 101, and they’d been cranking out their own copy before I was even thought of.

That meant without me, they’d be completely fine.

I was more of a bonus. I was the icing on the cake.

Now the question was: How could I become an essential member of a team? How could I turn myself from ‘icing’ into ‘cake’?

I’m a copywriter. That means I provide a service that, despite its glaringly obvious ROI and strategic payoff, most people see as more of a ‘luxury’ than a necessity. Add to that that I’m self-employed, and you can see why I’m wary of the world o’ penniless pain waiting right outside my door if I lose my clients.

I needed to be more than the icing, the trimmings on a great team. I needed to be the indispensable.

So. How, even as someone with my chosen profession, can I prove myself to be indispensable?

First, let’s explore what being ‘indispensable’ means

In marketing guru Seth Godin’s “The Linchpin: Are you indispensable?”, he sums up the nature of irreplaceability beautifully, a.k.a. being a ‘Linchpin’.

According to Godin, Linchpins are a new kind of worker—people who can solve problems without a rulebook, “delight and challenge their customers and peers… love their work, pour their best selves into it, and turn each day into a kind of art.”

So, Linchpins are the indispensable folks within an organization (a.k.a. The cake…)

Sounds like a pretty dreamy situation to be in, right? But how many of us actually self-identify as these people?

What does being an indispensable Linchpin require?

Making yourself invaluable means more than going above and beyond.

It means going in, and showing your personal investment in the company you’re working for.

It means stretching yourself, even into realms you may not hold a huge amount of expertise in (with integrity and honesty, of course).

It means taking those Linchpin-ian qualities you already possess and pushing them even further.

Always have your eye on the art of the bigger picture

In order to be the cake instead of the icing, you need to demonstrate how you’re willing to create results where there may be little to no results currently.

In almost any industry, strategy ties into artistry. Don’t be afraid to prove that you think outside the box, pay attention to trends, and want to try new things.

To make yourself a totally cake-like linchpin, consider stepping up and pitching strategic approaches to clients that would increase their bottom line or engagement—but make sure these pitches are in line with their overall brand.

As an example, not too long ago I was in the process of creating writing prompts for one of my favorite clients. These prompts served a wider market than the client’s usual tribe, and would really help them stand out in the space as a brand bent on spreading creativity and inspiration.

But everyone and their mother does writing prompts these days, right? So, instead of just drawing up a draft of prompts for a few months and moving on, I volunteered to personally respond to every single prompt with feedback and support.

This simple act has created a vibrant, growing community out of thin air in record time, and has cemented the client’s standing as an inspiration ecosystem that’s really ‘by creatives for creatives’.

As a brief epilogue to this example: After the success of the writers list, I was eventually put in charge of new series on their blog.

Boom. From icing to much more cake-like, with just one idea (and an extra hour or two a week.)

Offer to take on additional responsibilities that solve problems and improve current systems

Seth describes Linchpins as people who, “can walk into chaos and create order, someone who can invent, connect, create, and make things happen.”

If you see something that isn’t working, offer to fix it yourself. Every company has weaknesses.

Take a look at how they’re currently delivering themselves. Is there a gap in their social platforms? Are their customer service systems running smoothly? Is their tribe clearly asking for something they’re just not giving?

Search, and take notes. Then, when an idea strikes on how to fix the problem, reach out to your client and see if they’ve spotted it too. At the very least, they’ll know you’re paying close attention.

This is the reason I consider my virtual assistant to be my personal Linchpin.

Being a one-woman band for the first four years of my business, I was not what you might call a picture of organizational perfection. Long story short, I was almost too ashamed to bring anyone into the backend out of fear they’d run away screaming.

And yet, within the first few weeks she’d taken care of everything. She set up systems for my schedule and customer service processes, canned responses for my client request, and organized reminders on my calendar.

She always pops in to double check if she notices I missed replying to an all-important email. She took my Gmail down from 30,000+ emails and into glorious Inbox 0, and checks in several times a week a cheerful “How can I help?”

It’s gotten to the point where I couldn’t run my business without her—and I plan on working with her as long as she’ll have me.

Such is the beauty of cakedom.

Blow minds with over-delivery

Breaking a promise causes more than disappointment. In fact, humans have been psychologically conditioned not to trust people who don’t keep their word.

If you’re not hitting your deadlines, or constantly fumbling to achieve your end result, it might be causing you to slip lower and lower down the ladder of importance (a very important ladder, I’m told).

That’s why it’s so important to under-promise and over-deliver.

Your brain wants consistency, it needs it. So when someone makes a promise that something will happen, our brain believes that it will, which is quite comforting for the brain.

When a promise isn’t fulfilled, that consistency your brain was counting on disappears. It’s not only a breach of trust and expectation—it’s a violation of one of the most fundamental social norms that people have. This goes way beyond disappointment, it alters the way people perceive and interact with us.

A missed deadline is more than a blip on the radar. It can be a contract killer.

Overpromising is a trap.

Underpromising, on the other hand, gives you creative space and time to create your best work (with a little extra—the ‘overdelivery’.)

Going above and beyond the call of duty shouldn’t just be a regular occurrence for a linchpin or the cake—it should be the norm.

“Projects are the new résumé.” Godin says in his book. And it’s true.

I read something interesting once in a testimonial for another ghostwriter. The client describes sitting in a conference room with her publisher, ghostwriter by her side, saying: “If I die, you can rely on [copywriter] to finish the book. That’s how much I trust her talent.”

That hit me like a ton of bricks. What a rare and precious thing it is to be trusted with the concepts and voice of someone else to the point where you could finish the work they started?

Do whatever you can to push every project you work on to the next level. If they come to you with an idea, don’t just let it be static. Look for the holes, the gaps you can see coming, but they may not have the knowledge to catch.

What’s going to make it unusual?

What’s going to make it more effective?

Even if they don’t latch onto the idea immediately, take a swing.

Irreplaceable team members all have one thing in common: Mega courage, and confidence that even if they swing and miss, they’re making progress.

Fearing failure, when you have years of knowledge and expertise and talent and instinct to back you up, serves no one. Don’t be too shy to be the linchpin. You’ve already got it in you, but you need to let it out.

After all, I’ve never met someone who was so glad a brilliant idea never made it out of their head. And, by that same token, I’ve never met anyone successful whose story hasn’t been peppered with failures, hiccups, and the grand game of trial and error.

So get out there. Get creative. Don’t be shy. Help the people you work for become even better versions of their own awesomeness—and do the same for yourself in the process. Share your ideas with the world.

Be the cake.

Image credit: Stephanie McCabe

This post originally appeared on Crew

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