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

How a Crappy Cup of Coffee Helped Me Find My Purpose in Life and How to Find Yours

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Winter in Northern Ohio is tough and the people who live through these winters are even tougher.  It was then and there where I realized my calling, when I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Mark Twain.

As general manager of an industrial business, I was responsible for the manufacturing plant I was visiting in Ohio that winter. I was 35 years old and only 8 years out of the Navy. I was young and aggressive but still trying to figure out what I was going to do in my civilian life.

I had fulfilled my dream to serve as a submarine Naval Officer and now I was a civilian, working for a large multi-national company. I never really thought of life after the military. I didn’t know what I wanted to do next in my career.

In my first general manager role, three years earlier, I implemented monthly “all employee” meetings. I thought it was important to communicate how the business was doing and what the priorities were each month. I also loved interacting with the manufacturing plant personnel.

In my current role, I had responsibility for two manufacturing plants. I had come to the Ohio plant, in the middle of winter, to meet with employees.  It was 2AM and I was scheduled to talk to the 3rd shift team.

We had a room reserved right outside the production line on the second floor. The building was old, dark and drafty. It was cold and I was tired. I found a greasy old coffee pot with hot coffee right outside our meeting room. I poured myself a hot, black coffee into a small Styrofoam cup and went into the meeting.

Our QA manager was presenting the quality numbers first and I sat in the back of the room and listened. I was thinking about what I was going to say. This business was losing money. We had to turn it around. I wasn’t sure how I was going to create a sense of urgency without inciting panic.

As I sat, thought and listened, I looked down at my coffee. It was the worst cup of coffee I had ever seen in my life (worse than anything I had seen in the Navy). There were unknown things floating in it. There was a sheen of oil on the surface. I could see coffee grounds on the bottom of the cup. It was dreadful. But I drank it anyway.

It was then when I realized my purpose in life.

With an engineering degree, two master’s degrees, military service and years of leadership experience, I could be anywhere doing anything. I imagined I could be working at amazing companies doing incredible things anywhere in the world. I didn’t have to be in Ohio, in the winter, in an old drafty manufacturing plant, in the middle of the night, drinking the worst cup of coffee I had ever seen. I didn’t have to be in charge of a business losing money that needed a turnaround.

But I realized at that moment, there was nowhere else I would rather be.

Despite the challenges (or maybe because of them), I wanted to be with these employees. I wanted to share what I knew about the state of the business. I wanted to work with them to craft a plan to turn the business around and make a profit. I wanted to lead these people and this business. I wanted to be here and nowhere else in the world. I wanted to make a difference.

“The grand invitation is to embrace the reality of your life and to figure out what to do with it.” Chip Edens

That crappy cup of coffee told me that I had found my life’s purpose. I knew that, despite the tough circumstances, I was built for this. I wanted to be here.

Have you found your life’s purpose? Most people haven’t. If you have, fantastic! If not, here are some signs to look for.

You love it. When you’re doing what you were born to do, time goes by fast. You look up and hours have passed because you are so focused on your work. You are “in the zone” when you are doing purposeful work. You look forward to it. These are the activities you “can’t wait” to get started. It’s your passion.

 You are great at it. You are doing your life’s work when you discover you are really good at something. You are recognized, promoted or even awarded for your work. You are identified as an expert or an opinion leader in your field. You are great at something when people seek you out to understand how you are doing it.

You are paid for it. One of the greatest compliments you can receive is when people pay you to do something. If your skills are adding so much value to someone that they are willing to compensate you for it, you are doing something important. Passion without a paycheck is simply a hobby. Your life’s purpose should also pay the bills.

The world needs it. In some way, your work is making a difference. You are doing something that has meaning. It has impact. You are changing the world in some specific way that has meaning to you and others.

Find Your Purpose

15 years later, I’m still leading manufacturing businesses. I’m still working in manufacturing plants and drinking suspect coffee. And I couldn’t be happier. I found my calling. I found my life’s purpose. I love what I do.

How about you? Have you discovered what you were designed to do? Have you found your life’s purpose?

5 Reasons Why We’re More Productive on Planes and How to Replicate it at Work

“Please place your seat back and tray table in their full upright and locked position and check to ensure your seat belt is securely fastened.”

Now, get to work!

Have you ever noticed you get more work done while flying? You’re not the only one. What if we could understand the reasons why we are so productive in the air and replicate those techniques at work? The good news is that Jon Acuff has shown us how to do that.

In his new book, Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, Acuff tells us that, if we want to get things done, we need to learn when we are most productive and replicate these results at work. As it turns out, most people are exceptionally industrious at 35,000 feet and the reasons are simple.

You can only bring a limited amount of work. You are physically constrained on a plane. You have a limited workspace, so you typically focus on completing one task like finishing a presentation, writing a report, or analyzing an income statement. You actually do deep work while flying because you are focused and not distracted. This can be replicated at your job by taking a limited amount of work to a quiet place and focus on completing just that task.

White noise helps you focus. The constant drone of the jet engines actually helps contribute towards deep work. We are naturally wired to be easily distracted and the workplace is one of the worst places for interruptions. White noise in the background is filtered out by the brain and forgotten, like how you quickly forget an air conditioner is running until someone mentions it. This noise masks out other sounds which would otherwise distract you. This can be replicated at work by purchasing a white noise machine like the Big Red Rooster Sound Machine.

Limited Internet connectivity keeps you from unnecessary distractions. On a plane, there is little to no internet to distract you. This means, no text messages, no e-mails, and no urges to check social media status. This allows you to completely focus on the task at hand. At work, this can be replicated by scheduling time where you focus and completely turn off your Wi-Fi and phone. Others have experimented with the Pomodoro Technique which requires intense focus, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. You can use a Miracle Cube Timer to time your focus sessions.

Deadlines push us to get things done quickly. When traveling, there are well-defined deadlines for boarding, turning off cell phones, taking out and putting away laptops, etc. These force us to work quickly to beat the deadline. This is a reflection of Parkinson’s law, where work expands or contracts to fill the time available. This is why, if you wait until the last minute to do something, it only takes a minute to get it done. This can be replicated at work by creating and enforcing strict personal deadlines for tasks or activities.

Nobody knows you. Except for the occasional chatty seat-mate, people leave you alone when you travel because they don’t know you. Anonymity allows you to work without friends and colleagues interrupting you. To do this at work, try working from coffee shops, libraries, or co-working spaces where no one knows you. This will help you get away from colleagues who unwittingly cut into your deep work. The new surroundings will also provide additional inspiration.

If you want to be more productive, there’s no need to book a flight. Simply take the productivity lessons from flying and apply them to your work life. Learn to limit your work, surround yourself with white noise, turn off the Wi-Fi, set deadlines, and change your surroundings. These simple changes to your work life will help you focus, do deep work, and get things done.