5 Secrets of Utility Player

6 Secrets of a Utility Player: How to Hire For Indispensable

It’s easy to hire for rock stars—the folks with the exact niche skills you need in the marketplace. But don’t underestimate the value of a true utility player for long-term success.

How (and Why) to Find, Hire (and Promote) a Utility Player

My boss came back from the succession planning discussion with the executive team. “Oh, it’s all good, you’re a utility player.” As a young Gen Xer, I didn’t love the sound of that. Utility player sounds so, well, utilitarian (practical, functional, serviceable). I was young in my career, I wanted to be seen as an up-and-coming rock star, not an easily tradeable unsung hero.

Six months later there was a massive reorganization and a layoff. My hands shook as my boss handed me the new org chart. Our entire department was missing. And then he smiled. “I have two words for you: utility player. You’re fine. Here’s what’s next (a promotion).”

I get it now. Utility players provide you with the flexibility to embrace change fast without a ruckus. It’s why Inc. recommends that startups hire the utility player first.  

Makes sense. I’ve had several new start-up clients call for help because their original team of founders/specialists just didn’t have the skills to lead as they scaled.

6 Indispensable Utility Player Competencies

Of course, you’ve got to hire specialists for certain roles. But when hiring leaders, don’t underestimate the flexibility you’ll get from a few of these key skills.

  1. They love the Game (and by the game, I mean your business.)
    They understand and are energized by the big picture vision. They’re gung-ho and ready to go with the twists and turns. They don’t play games to get ahead. They stay focused on the bigger mission.
  2. They Build Strong, Trusting  Relationships (up, down and sideways)
    Rock stars sometimes alienate their boss and peers and REALLY tick off their direct reports.  Utility players know that other human beings are their lifeline to success. They’re inclusive. They invest in a wide network of go-to relationships up, down and sideways.
  3. They are Curious, Eager Learners
    They don’t know it all, but they sure try to learn as much as they can. They embrace new situations with curiosity and confident humility as they work to understand what’s really happening and how they can help.
  4. They Work Hard
    They dig in harder and longer than most. They care about quality and doing it right.
  5. They’re Resilient
    Although they’re attached and really care about their current mission, when the direction shifts they can cope with that too (okay, they might go into the bathroom and scream first- give them a minute and they’ll come around.)
  6. They Tell the Truth
    They’re willing to have the tough conversations that make the business and the people better. They ditch the Diaper Genie™ and own the U.G.L.Y. in a way that builds trust and maintains relationships.

Your turn. What have you found to be the most indispensable competencies of utility players?

You may also enjoy our recent post: Interviewing: How to Hire For Winning Well Competencies (interview questions to help you hire the best)

Posted in Capacity, Career & Learning, Winning Well and tagged , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Good piece Karin. Agree the value of these folks. They have the impact of 10 people. And are the ones when they resign people say, one person can’t do all of this?!

    My add would be they are resourceful. They know how to get ‘er done no matter a small or big to do. They relish it actually!

    • Regina, Thanks so much for adding to the conversation! Yes…. TOTALLY AGREE. Utility players are resourceful. Great addition.

  2. Karin,

    Thank you for writing this! Our small business definitely feels that utility players are the reason we can remain agile and adjust to any hurdle that comes our way.

    We are actually struggling to find more utility players as we need put out a job posting to fill an immediate role but aren’t sure how to have the right message/bait in a posting to attract utility players and then also how to make sure we aren’t filtering out those candidates before we have a chance to discover their true ability; just because their application didn’t jump out at us.

    Do you have any advice on how we can be better at attracting and noticing utility players in our hiring process?

  3. Jeremiah, Thanks so much for your question. It’s a good one. First I took a look at your bios on your website and I love that! I think that’s a GREAT start… you are showcasing the human side and the characteristics you value. Strong candidates want to work with strong and interesting teams and with people who will challenge them … Plus who wouldn’t want to work with Donut? http://www.mybrightleafhome.com/the-team/donut

    I think in terms of job postings, you want to write about the characteristics and what the kinds of experiences you are looking not necessarily the exact experience… for example, “a strong track record of turnaround success” or “in your case, it strikes me that you are really looking for people who align with your mission– and may have worked in other sustainability fields.

    I think to attract utility players it’s really important to show that people can grow and move around — that there is real opportunity, and that your company works to develop leaders- sharing those stories is important during the recruiting and interview process.

    Some of our favorite leadership development work is with companies looking to build utility player competencies– would love to hear more about what you’re doing in that arena.


  4. Karin,

    Great thoughts here and a bit of music to the ears of this utility player.

    I heartily identify with the traits you list above and my best/most favorite job was as a Sales Coordinator early in my career. I thrived in an environment that let me work across the organization at the Director level and above while representing the interests of our US Sales team. Getting to learn and utilize the deep knowledge (and quirks!) of our Senior staff to untangle knots and advance our business was a very satisfying role that motivated me to work ever harder.

    That was a while ago. Today, it seems as though there is a distinct lack of “humanity” in the business world and very narrowly focused specialists are the only one who can pass the resume scanning software. I am also a Gen-Xer which means I am not at the beginning of my career anymore.

    I find that I work best when I am able to engage with multiple disciplines and have variety in my day.

    Do you have any advice for finding those companies that do need (or better yet WANT) someone to bring those traits to their organization? I would love to find an opportunity like that.

    Thank you again for the great article here.


    • Hi Brett, Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, and I’m sorry that you’re having trouble finding the perfect place to bring your gifts. One place I would look is fast growing start-ups or mid-size companies… I’m finding they seem to “get it” and often by necessity need people able to flex and wear multiple hats. I think the tricky part for utility players like us can be writing your resume and LinkedIn profile so the diversity of experience and skill sets pop.

      Once you can get in the door for an interview you can really speak to the value.

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