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

Learning for Leaders: 5 Simple Ways to Embed Learning into your Demanding Schedule

Like most leaders, I’m very busy. My role as the CEO of a start-up manufacturing company requires a great deal of time and effort. I’m at our manufacturing plant for 9-10 hours a day and I commute an hour each way. I also work 2-3 hours at home each day. In total, I spend 13-15 hours working or commuting. During the week, I don’t have a lot of spare time.

I also know that to be an effective leader, I need to continue to learn and grow. I need to expose myself to the latest business books and thoughts on leadership. I need to understand new concepts and think about how they can help my organization and my ability to motivate my team. The problem is that there isn’t a lot of extra time for learning.

To overcome this challenge, I have incorporated some simple techniques to embed learning in my day. These small changes to my schedule have allowed me to be exposed to a variety of leadership and business topics while still keeping up with a demanding schedule.

I have used these 5 techniques for the past few years with great effect.

Keep a commonplace notebook. This is probably the most important change I made in my daily routine. The idea is to keep a simple notebook of all the things you are learning or various ideas you have. The concept of keeping a commonplace notebook comes from the education community. The notebook is used to write down quotes, concepts, thoughts, ideas, books, websites or anything else you come across in the daily activities that you want to remember. This is not a to-do list but a central place to document ideas and important concepts you’re being exposed to. This is a technique that Richard Branson credits to his success as a leader. I use a simple Moleskin notebook for my commonplace book.

“if you don’t write your ideas down, they could leave your head before you even leave the room.” Richard Branson

Listen to books on Audible. Leaders should be readers but finding the quiet time to read a book is often difficult. I use Audible to listen to books while I’m driving or relaxing. For a monthly fee, you get one book a month to listen to. In a year, you can be exposed to 12 top business books without altering your busy schedule. Here are some of the books I have been listening to.

Listen to podcasts. Podcasts are another great way to be exposed to authors and thought-leaders without impacting your calendar. When I’m not listening to books, I will listen to one of twenty different podcasts I subscribe to. I listen to a variety of leadership and business podcasts but I will sometimes explore other unusual and interesting topics as well. 99% Invisible is probably one of my favorite non-business podcasts.

Use Twitter as a learning platform. Social media can be a time killer if used incorrectly but it can also be educational. The key is in how it is used. I use my Twitter account as a learning tool. I follow business leaders, authors, leadership writers, entrepreneurs and business news. In a quick glance of my timeline, I can see what’s happening in the world of leadership and business. I can also interact with people and further develop my thoughts on a subject.

Set up an RSS reader. There is so much written each day on the subject of business and leadership, there is no way to read it all. One tool I like to use is an RSS Reader. These readers make it easy to follow what’s happening on a variety of websites and blogs. In one glance, you can get a summary of articles that you might be interested in. This saves you the time of having to visit each site individually. You can even add my blog to your RSS Reader.

Leadership is demanding and your schedule is not likely to get any easier. Don’t put off increasing your knowledge because you’re busy. These five simple techniques will allow you to embed learning into your daily routine. The most important tool, however, is the commonplace notebook. This is where all your thoughts, ideas and key lessons are written down. Applying the ideas from your commonplace book will make you a more educated and effective leader.

Forget the New Year’s Resolution, Do This Instead to Make Lasting Change

The biggest problem with resolutions is that a vast majority of people never achieve them. Statistics show that 20% of Americans will drop out after just one week of trying. At best, only 8% ever reach their goal.

What’s the problem?

In general, we over-commit and under-perform. We try to do too much. We underestimate the time, effort and willpower it takes to meet our commitments. We don’t understand the power of our old habits. We give up too easily.

How can we end the resolution failure loop? The answer is to create new habits.

“The golden rule of habit change: You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.” Charles Duhigg

The importance of habits – In the book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Pulitzer Prize-winning business reporter Charles Duhigg provides a comprehensive analysis of why habits exist and how they can be changed. He explains the key to making lasting change is understanding how habits work.

Duhigg describes the habit process as automatic. “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard or diverts focus to other tasks. So, unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.” This is the reason why willpower alone is insufficient to keep us on track towards our goals. We need to create good habits to replace the bad habits.

“Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.” Charles Duhigg

How small changes establish new habits – The secret to creating good habits is making small, incremental improvements every day. Another book by Dr. Robert Maurer, a psychologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine, shows the solution to making great and lasting self-improvement is through small and steady steps.

“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” Robert Collier

In the book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, Maurer demonstrates how the Kaizen practice of small, continuous improvements can help people make significant and lasting life changes.

The concept is to get started with very small steps. For example, if you’re trying to get fit, just start by walking in place during the commercials of your favorite show. If you’re trying to drink more water, start with one glass before supper. Choosing a very small step is the key. Dr. Maurer says, “The criteria for the smallness is that the step is so ridiculously small that it requires no willpower, self-control or discipline. There’s not going to be any pushback. That’s how you know it’s going to be a small enough step.”

In essence, Dr. Maurer is showing us how to create new habits by taking small, incremental steps in a new direction. By doing this every day, we begin to develop a new habit.

The problem with perfectionism – If new habits are the superpower to gain long-lasting personal change, then perfectionism is the kryptonite. Perfectionism is the reason we quit. When we have a cheat meal, perfectionism tells us we are not good enough and we “might as well” eat whatever we want that day. When we miss a workout, perfectionism tells us we are failing and we “might as well” give up. Perfectionism tells us to quit if our performance isn’t completely perfect.

“The harder you try to be perfect, the less likely you’ll accomplish your goals.” Jon Acuff

Creating new habits while also defeating perfectionism is important if we want to make sustainable change in our lives.

If you are looking to defeat perfectionism, a good place to start is the book, Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, by Jon Acuff. Here, Acuff provides humorous and practical advice on how to beat perfectionism and learn how to make long-lasting change. He stresses the secret to hitting our goals is to keep moving forward, especially the “day after perfect,” when our results underperform our aspirations.

Acuff tells us that we will be more successful if we simply relax and develop a tolerance for imperfection. If you skip a workout, no problem, just start again tomorrow. If you cheat on a meal, don’t cheat again that day. The key to finishing is to just keep moving.

If you want to be part of the 8% of people who achieve their annual goals, ditch the New Year’s Resolution.  Instead, focus on creating new habits to replace your bad habits, take daily incremental steps toward your goal, and develop a healthy tolerance for imperfection. These three actions will help you finally end the resolution failure loop.