It’s a common pattern.
Person gets a job.
Person figures out how to do the job well.
Person decides the best way to become irreplaceable is to cling to their knowledge, to be the lone person in the organization who can do what they do.
It makes sense at the outset. We live in a knowledge economy, a world where your competition is not just the thousands of other people in your community but people all over the world. Possessing special knowledge with the ability to exploit it seems to be a tremendous competitive advantage.
And it is. For a while. But it’s also a trap.
In the end, choosing this direction hurts yourself and your company. In fact, I’d argue the best approach for getting ahead is the opposite: to share everything you know with everyone you can.
Hoarding knowledge hurts your company.
If the skills you have are valuable, its likely your organization could leverage them to generate more revenue, cut costs, or operate more efficiently.
But by being the only one in your organization who can do it, your company can’t fully leverage that discipline. They are constrained by your time and energy.
They’re also subject to concentration risk. If they lose you, they lose that capability. They end up having to scramble, or worst case change what they do now that they’re missing that skill.
The cynic says this is the company’s problem. You don’t owe them anything.
My opinion – while you’re at a company, your job is to leverage your skills to their fullest to help the company succeed. This doesn’t just mean doing the work well, but helping them develop institutional knowledge to do this in a scalable way.
At best you help the company build an entire new service line, possibly transforming their business in the process and skyrocketing your career in the process. At worst, they don’t suffer a huge setback every time you get sick or go on vacation.
Hoarding knowledge hurts yourself.
If you’re the best person at a specific skill, the upside is you always have a job. The downside is you often stay in that role.
Generalists often get promoted faster than specialists. This isn’t because they’re better at their jobs – the reverse is often the case.
But generalists usually learn a critical skill for long-term career success that specialists lack: the ability to get work done through other people.
Because generalists often don’t know how to do the work that needs to get done, they have to become people who can get work done through others. They develop soft skills, learn how to motivate and coax others to help them, even if they have no management responsibility.
If they’re good at this the projects they’re involved in go well. And while the specialists get patted on the back for a job well done, the generalist is often seen as the general who got the pieces in the right places and “made things happen.”
Not always accurate or fair, but often true.
The alternative: give your knowledge away.
This doesn’t mean you should become a generalist – far from it. By all means become the best designer or developer or salesperson you can be.
But don’t stop there. Become the kind of person who’s good at creating other specialists. As you become the resident expert, make it a priority to spend time teaching others what you know.
This enhances your reputation within an organization rather than harming it. You develop pupils who are now allies and who have your back. You signal to management that you’re someone who is looking out for the company and takes an interest in growing people (i.e. management potential.)
The next step is learning to develop a system for creating specialists. While mentoring helps you go from 1 to 2, it still scales linearly.
By turning your knowledge into a series of tools, processes and systems, you create a framework that allows your organization to bring in new people and teach them what you know, even if you’re no longer there.
Give to the world
As you learn how to take what’s in your head and teach it to others, leverage that information outside the organization. Fear of writing or speaking often comes from the fear that you don’t know how to communicate your ideas. But by mentoring and systematizing your thought, you overcome that hurdle.
Create a blog, give talks, and post decks online. Become known around town or around the world as someone who knows their stuff, and a world of opportunities will open up to you.
It’s unlikely your company has the bandwidth to identify these opportunities for you, so do it yourself. But be sure to do so as a member of the organization – you make them look good, likely bring them more business, and avoid making them think you’re on your way out.
Work on your business, not just in it.
You can start this process today. As you do the work of your job, simultaneously step outside yourself and ask how you would teach someone else to do this.
Open up a text document and start outlining the steps you’re taking. When you have downtime, take those notes and turn them into something legible.
Identify a person in your organization who wants to learn what you know. Take them under your wing, even if it’s informal.
Don’t fall for the knowledge trap. The best way to maximize your expertise is to give it away.