5 Ways Skill Stacking Can Boost your Career

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

Finding the Right Leadership Balance

I once had a boss I secretly nicknamed “TQ” which stood for “Twenty Questions.” The reason he earned that name is that every time we met to review the progress of the business he would ask me at least 20 questions about everything I was working on. He micromanaged every aspect of my responsibility and I hated it. It felt like he didn’t fully trust my decisions. He was way too involved.

On the other hand, I had a different boss who was completely disengaged. I rarely heard from him unless something went wrong and he never visited my location or met with my teams. He was aloof and disconnected. He had no idea about the daily challenges and successes of our operation. It felt like he didn’t care and that our team wasn’t important to the company.

Both leaders had taken their level of involvement to an extreme and, in each situation, it led to my frustration.

Therein lies the challenge of leadership, finding the right balance.

The quest for balance doesn’t just relate to leadership involvement either, it permeates every aspect of managing people. Think about these other leadership dimensions:

  • If a leader is too emotional, there is unnecessary drama in the office. If a leader is emotionless, the organization feels cold and callous.
  • If a leader is too optimistic, the company is overly aggressive and misses targets. If a leader is too pessimistic, the organization never pushes to new levels of performance.
  • If a leader is too aggressive, the organization might cut corners and take too many risks. If a leader is over-cautious, the company may miss out on important opportunities for fear of failure.
  • If a leader is too nice, poor performers are rarely disciplined. If the leader is too mean, a toxic environment can exist that affects overall morale.
  • If a leader is too knowledgeable, the team depends on them for all the answers. If a leader has only a limited understanding of the business, there is a lack of respect and the possibility that people could take advantage of the situation.

Finding balance as a leader is critical but determining the right balance in every leadership situation is difficult. It requires self-awareness and a willingness to listen to constructive feedback. Leaders who are looking for balance need to have an empathic ear to listen to employee’s concerns. They need to be sensitive to areas where they may be acting in an extreme manner.

The challenge of finding leadership balance is being addressed head-on in a new book called The Dichotomy of Leadership which was just released this month. It is written by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, two combat Navy Seal veterans who wrote the New York Times bestselling book, Extreme Ownership. In this new book, Willink and Babin discuss how to find a balance between the opposing forces that pull leaders in different directions. They introduce a new approach, based on their combat experience, to help leaders recognize and attain the right leadership balance.

Willink and Babin created a list of 12 leadership principles they used with success in the Iraq War. Each principle has a qualification that may seem to be conflicting until you understand the concept of leadership balance. For example, “a leader must lead but also be ready to follow” and “a leader must be confident but never cocky.”

Willink explains that, “Just as discipline and freedom are opposing forces that must be balanced, leadership requires finding the equilibrium in the dichotomy of many seemingly contradictory qualities between one extreme and another.” By being aware of these contradictions, a leader can “more easily balance the opposing forces and lead with maximum effectiveness.”

Finding the right balance is one of the many challenges of leadership. Leaders need to be aware of extreme behaviors which can lead to organizational problems. Don’t be that leader who micromanages his team, but don’t be a disengaged leader either. Both extremes will frustrate your team. Find a balance that works and you’ll be a more effective leader.

Top 10 Best Selling Books in Business Management & Leadership for September 2018

Leaders need to be readers. I recommend reading leadership and business books regularly to sharpen your skills and make you aware of important, new concepts. I’m a huge fan of Audible. I listen to these books on my daily commute. I especially like hearing the books read by the authors. Here are the Top 10 Best Selling Business Books for September 2018 according to Amazon:

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey has captivated readers for 25 years. It has transformed the lives of Presidents and CEOs, educators, parents, and students — in short, millions of people of all ages and occupations have benefited from Dr. Covey’s 7 Habits book.

With over 100,000 copies sold, Unlimited Memory by Kevin Horsley has been a Wall Street Journal Best Seller and the #1 memory book on Amazon for more than two years. It has been translated into seven languages including French, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian.

A former international hostage negotiator for the FBI offers a new field-tested approach to high-stakes negotiations – whether in the boardroom or at home. After a stint policing the rough streets of Kansas City, Missouri, Chris Voss joined the FBI, where his career as a hostage negotiator brought him face-to-face with a range of criminals, including bank robbers and terrorists. Reaching the pinnacle of his profession, he became the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator. Never Split the Difference takes you inside the world of high-stakes negotiations and into Voss’ head, revealing the skills that helped him and his colleagues succeed where it mattered most: in saving lives. In this practical guide, he shares the nine effective principles – counterintuitive tactics and strategies – you, too, can use to become more persuasive in both your professional and personal lives.

Often the decision between a customer choosing you over someone like you is your ability to know exactly what to say, when to say it, and how to make it count. Phil M. Jones has trained more than two million people across five continents and over 50 countries in the lost art of spoken communication. In Exactly What to Say, he delivers the tactics you need to get more of what you want.

In Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin share hard-hitting Navy SEAL combat stories that translate into lessons for business and life. With riveting firsthand accounts of making high-pressure decisions as Navy SEAL battlefield leaders, this audiobook is equally gripping for leaders who seek to dominate other arenas.

[NEW to Top 10]  Girl, Stop Apologizing: A Shame-Free Plan for Embracing and Achieving Your Goals by Rachel Hollis urges women to stop apologizing for their desires, hopes, and dreams and instead to go after them with passion and confidence. Rachel Hollis has seen it too often: women being afraid of their own goals. They’re afraid of embarrassment, of falling short of perfection, of not being enough. But the biggest fear of all is of being judged for having ambition at all. Having been taught to define themselves in light of other people—whether as wife, mother, daughter, friend, or team member—many women have forgotten who they are and what they were meant to be. In Girl, Stop Apologizing, entrepreneur and online personality Rachel Hollis encourages women to own their hopes, desires, and goals and reminds them they don’t need permission to want more.

[NEW to Top 10]  Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts by Brené Brown. Brené Brown has taught us what it means to dare greatly, rise strong, and brave the wilderness. Now, based on new research conducted with leaders, changemakers, and culture shifters, she’s showing us how to put those ideas into practice so we can step up and lead. Leadership is not about titles, status, and wielding power. A leader is anyone who takes responsibility for recognizing the potential in people and ideas and has the courage to develop that potential. When we dare to lead, we don’t pretend to have the right answers; we stay curious and ask the right questions. We don’t see power as finite and hoard it; we know that power becomes infinite when we share it with others. We don’t avoid difficult conversations and situations; we lean into vulnerability when it’s necessary to do good work.

Quietly and steadily, the number of women making six figures or more is increasing and continues to rise at a rate faster than for men. From entrepreneurs to corporate executives, from white-collar professionals to freelancers and part-timers, women are forging careers with considerable financial success. In Secrets of Six-Figure Women, Barbara Stanny, journalist, motivational speaker, and financial educator, identifies the seven key strategies of female highearners: A Profit Motive, Audacity, Resilience, Encouragement, Self-Awareness, Non-attachment, and Financial Know-How.

[NEW to Top 10] Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Daniel Kahneman, the renowned psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The impact of overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning our next vacation―each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems shape our judgments and decisions.

Ray Dalio, one of the world’s most successful investors and entrepreneurs, shares the unconventional principles that he’s developed, refined, and used over the past 40 years to create unique results in both life and business – and which any person or organization can adopt to help achieve their goals. In Principles, Dalio shares what he’s learned over the course of his remarkable career. He argues that life, management, economics, and investing can all be systemized into rules and understood like machines. The book’s hundreds of practical lessons, which are built around his cornerstones of “radical truth” and “radical transparency”, include Dalio laying out the most effective ways for individuals and organizations to make decisions, approach challenges, and build strong teams.