In five years, I went from being an associate design engineer in a cubicle to a general manager with a corner office leading a $50 million manufacturing business. I attribute some of this career growth to grit and persistence but the most important contributor was skill stacking.
Skill stacking is the notion that you can combine several normal skills to create a combination of abilities to become extraordinarily valuable. Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, actually coined the phrase “talent stack” to describe this concept.
Adams says, “The idea of a talent stack is that you can combine ordinary skills until you have enough of the right kind to be extraordinary. You don’t have to be the best in the world at any one thing. All you need to succeed is to be good at a number of skills that fit well together.”
“A combination of mediocre skills can make you surprisingly valuable.” – Scott Adams
In his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Adams describes how he combined an ordinary talent for drawing and writing, a decent sense of humor, a strong work ethic, a high risk tolerance and years of experience working in the corporate world to become a world-renowned syndicated cartoonist. His particular skill stack made him unique in the cartoon industry allowing him to publish a highly successful comic strip lampooning life in the business world.
“The goal of a talent stack is to stack different skills to create a sweet spot. A sweet point that dramatically raises your value in a competitive field.” – Celestine Chua
In my case, I stacked a different set of skills to land my first general management job. As a former Naval Officer on nuclear submarines, I already had years of leadership training and experience. I was also a decent engineer having helped design and launch a breakthrough product for the company.
While working as an engineer, I completed my MBA which gave me a good general knowledge of business, especially marketing and accounting. I also became an expert in quality by getting my Six Sigma Black Belt certification and volunteering to assist the company in preparing for a nuclear quality assurance audit. My work in quality was recognized and I was promoted to quality manager.
As a quality manager, I gained experience working with every department in the company. I worked with marketing, sales, production, purchasing, engineering and accounting. I even visited customers. This gave me a good overall understanding of the interworking of the company and helped me build relationships across the organization.
I stacked the skills of leadership, engineering, quality, a basic business knowledge, good relationships, a strong work ethic and a willingness to volunteer for tough assignments to become extraordinarily valuable. When a general management opportunity opened up to lead a manufacturing plant that made technical products used in nuclear power plants, I was a natural choice and I was given the assignment.
“Every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success” – Scott Adams
Skill stacking is a simple but powerful way for you to become extraordinarily valuable to your company. It can help you get recognition and land your dream job. Here are some ways skill stacking can boost your career:
You differentiate yourself from your peers. I have always believed the more skills you gain the more valuable you become to the organization. Stacking skills allows you to stand out from the pack. It also makes it difficult for others to compete with you. Opportunities will open up for the person who can add the most value to an organization.
You learn how to learn. Learning and mastering new skills makes acquiring future skills even easier. The more you work at acquiring skills, the more you identify the easiest and best ways you learn. You also develop a curious mind and an intrinsic love of learning. In effect, this “hard-wires” your brain for learning and mastery.
“In a fast-moving, competitive world, being able to learn new skills is one of the keys to success. It’s not enough to be smart — you need to always be getting smarter.” – Heidi Grant Halvorson
You develop self-confidence. When I first started studying nuclear quality assurance standards, for example, I was intimidated. The standards seemed incomprehensible. But the more I read and understood, the more confident I became. In less than six months, I was the expert on the topic. Confidence comes from understanding and mastering new concepts and skills.
Your combined skill set is greater than the sum of the parts. If you chose the right skills to stack, the sum will be much greater than the parts. In the example of Scott Adams, his experience in the corporate world was the extra skill that really made Dilbert special. In my case, it was an understanding of nuclear quality assurance that gave me my first break. Look for a combination of skills that makes you unique.
You see things others don’t. When you stack skills and abilities, you see the world differently. You gain a broader understanding of more subjects than your peers and you will be sought out to add value to critical projects. For example, my business, engineering and quality skills were often sought out to evaluate potential merger and acquisition targets. This gave me exposure to senior management and strategic projects at a very young age. Even today as a CEO, I rely on my past engineering and quality experience almost every day.
Combining ordinary skills to become extraordinarily valuable in the workplace is something everyone can do. This is why skill stacking is so important to understand. It’s the one thing you can do to truly propel your career and land your dream job. Mastering new skills will put you on a path of life-long learning and give you more confidence. It will help you differentiate yourself from your peers and give you a unique insight into your organization.
If you want to learn more about skill and talent stacking, consider reading Scott Adams bestseller, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. This is a great book to read if you are interested in skill stacking, thinking about career planning or just a fan of Scott Adams and the Dilbert comic.
If you liked this post, you’ll love my new book, All in the Same Boat: Lead Your Organization Like a Nuclear Submariner.