How Can I Make Sure I Never Get Fired?

After a recent speech, an audience member asked me, "How can I make sure I never get fired?" Without hesitating, I answered, "Make yourself indispensable, and make your boss love you." Somewhat taken aback, she pressed further, "But if I'm a team player, and I share knowledge graciously, how can I be indispensable?"

"Simple," I replied, "Be excellent."

She didn't truly understand my answer, and it occurred to me that most others wouldn't either because we haven't had enough discussion about the essence of excellence. We often recognize it when we see it in others -- Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Mozart, Steven Jobs, Shakespeare -- but we frequently fail to find it in ourselves. Therefore, our excellence languishes when it should soar.

In Landing in the Executive Chair: How to Excel in the Hot Seat, I describe "virtuosos" as those people who distinguish themselves and exemplify E5: excellence, expertise, experience, enterprise and ethics. Of these five, today's workers find excellence the most difficult to define and even more difficult to display. You may trip over your own excellence eventually, but if you discover it sooner rather than later, you can take the first critical step to becoming that indispensable employee.

What makes you excellent? First, know what you do well, and figure out what you love to do. If the two match, you may have uncovered excellence. It all starts with talent -- the natural ability or aptitude to do something well. Often people who possess talent take it for granted initially, even asking themselves: "Can't everyone do this?" Eventually they realize they can deliver consistent, nearly perfect performance every time they attempt the activity, and not everyone else can.

For instance, when coaching senior executives, I frequently encounter clever individuals who exemplify excellence in strategic thinking. They instantly and continuously spot the flaws in arguments, get to the core of complicated issues, and put aside the inconsequential as they zero in on the critical. Implications and consequences of complicated problems jump out at them, and answers appear self-evident. They find themselves looking around the meeting-room table in disbelief when others struggle to figure things out. They simply don't understand that others don't understand. In our coaching sessions, I help them identify their areas of excellence and appreciate their exceptionality -- not everyone offers excellent strategic thinking, but they do. Once they understand their excellence, they don't abandon it. Instead, their passion spurs them to find opportunities to use it in ever-evolving ways.

Those who recognize their excellence can take steps to acquire knowledge -- the content and context for using it. They learn, either by themselves or from others, what they need to know to grow their innate abilities. They acquire these new skills quickly and adeptly because they find the process both painless and enjoyable.

Then they organize their lives so that they can apply their excellence -- they hone the skills and practice what they already that know they do well. After all, practice only makes perfect if you practice perfectly, and no amount of practice will help the person who lacks talent. Athletes know this, but those of us in business often overlook it. Sports greats work with coaches every day who watch them, videotape them, give them feedback, and constantly strive to improve on already nearly perfect performance. Also, athletic coaches don't waste their time attempting to develop talent where it doesn't exist. Instead, they concentrate their coaching efforts on those who have exhibited the raw ability to become excellent.

The bestseller lists indicate that today's employees realize the importance of excellence with the continued success of books like Now Discover Your Strengths and Strengthfinders. Even though we don't consistently apply the knowledge in these books, we seem to understand, at least intellectually, that we will excel only by leveraging strengths, not by mitigating weaknesses. Of course, we should try to minimize weaknesses-but only to the point that they no longer undermine our strengths. In other words, working on a weakness will help us prevent failures, but it won't ensure excellence.

This commitment to leveraging strengths won't happen automatically, however, because our understanding of the concepts tends to be more intellectual than applicable. Too frequently we engage in the language of pathology and weakness, not health and forte. For instance, Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association and the author of "Authentic Happiness" found more than 40,000 studies on depression but only 40 on joy, happiness or fulfillment. Fear, depression and anxiety can mask talent and retard the development of excellence, but overcoming them won't create it. To attain excellence, we need to shift our focus.

During the shift, you may feel tempted to claim that luck or circumstance played a role in your excellence. Of course, the world would have missed some great pieces of music had Beethoven been born to a society that didn't have pianos. But excellence requires more than that; it defies conditions and events. When we understand our talents and use them daringly, we not only survive; we thrive. Those who don't possess the wherewithal to discover their excellence doom themselves to "bad luck" and mediocrity.

Excellence distinguishes virtuosos from the rank-and-file or merely fine (and fire-able) employees. When virtuosos unleash their excellence, they force others to take them seriously. They don't raise the bar -- they set it for everyone else. They define gold standards that other people should strive to meet or exceed. If you were to scour the world, you'd be hard-pressed to find people who do their jobs better. Your organization wouldn't hesitate to hire them again, and top executives would be crushed if they found out that they planned to leave. Virtuosos embody the essence of excellence, and their bosses love them because they make themselves indispensable. How can you make sure you never get fired? Become a virtuoso.

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