What are Complementary Skills, why you need them, how to cultivate them

I talk about Complementary Skills a lot. There are a few reasons why I do this but the main one is because my goal for you and other Entry Level Escapees is to help you stand out from the crowd while preparing you for the next level (and the level after, and the level after…). Complementary Skills do both of these with a unique contribution to next level preparation, which I’ll explain further on. If you’re intrigued about how you can use Complementary Skills to stand out, keep reading.

If you like where this is going and want to learn to grow as a professional and set yourself up with your best chance at promotion in about 12 months, check out Entry Level Escape:

Reminder: Complementary Skills

Complementary Skills are one of the three dimensions to my Three-Dimensional Professional Framework (shown below):

  1. Primary Skills – these are the skills core to your role. They are often laid out in your job description. Statistics and programming for a Data Scientist, Excel and accounting for a Finance professional, and so on. In addition to the heavy overlap with your role these skills are also have heavy overlap in your formal education or training, e.g., things you learned in your major
  2. Complementary Skills – these are the skills that make you more effective at your role but are not necessarily in your job description, in fact they may not be required at all. For example, project management skills for a Software Engineer or public speaking for an Analyst.
  3. Impact – this is how much your work advanced your organization’s mission. In a for profit organization, it’s how much your work reduced cost, increased revenue, or both. For a non-profit, it’s both of those and perhaps how your work advanced the social mission.

While you need all three to maximize your chances of promotion, by definition and by virtue of your training, your weakest dimension is Complementary Skills. Developing your weakest dimension will have a disproportionate effect on your professional potential.

New way of thinking about skills

You have probably heard the terms “hard skills” and “soft skills” but these terms do a major disservice to both sets of skills. “Hard” makes the skills sound impersonal, unfeeling, and difficult when in reality they’re just technical in nature. “Soft” implies weak, fluffy, imprecise when in reality they’re just interpersonal in nature. Not only do these terms create a false hierarchy, but they leave important skills out. I don’t think “project management” really fits in either the hard or soft box, do you? So instead of looking at skills as hard or soft, look at them as Primary, essential to your job, or Complementary, enhance your performance and “complete you” as a professional. Any skill fits this framework and the framework is judgment free, we don’t rank them by their hardness or softness, we just classify them as essential or enhancers / completers.

You need these skills because they make you stand out relative to peers. Take data scientists for example. Sure, they can all do Random Forest, but how many of them can run a project. Yes, they’re all great at experiment design, but how many can lead an effective meeting. This keeps going on and on. If a project needs one data scientist to make a model and one project manager to coordinate you have to compete against 1 – 5+ data scientists to model but maybe no other person to be the PM. That’s an edge. Additionally, you need these because today’s Complementary Skills are tomorrow’s Primary Skills, don’t believe me? Ask your manager or your manager’s manager how often they use *your* Primary Skills in their regular day-to-day. Probably not much, so what are they doing instead? Think about it.

Armed with this framework and a new way to think about skills, it should be easier to develop your own curriculum for Complementary Skills. Basically, if you’re in a technical role, it’ll be non-technical skills like PowerPoint, public speaking, stakeholder relationship management, and so on. If you’re in a non-technical role, it’ll be technical skills like budgeting, Excel, and data manipulation.

If you’re still having trouble, there are two that are universally useful and rarely Primary. The first is communication (in all of its forms) and the second is being organized (in all of its forms). These may not be the best for you and your situation (I’ll cover that in a separate post), but when in doubt, you can’t go wrong working on either of these.

When have you officially acquired a skill?

Your goal is to become “good enough” at the skill. I like “good enough” for a few reasons. First, it helps you avoid diminishing returns (the subject of another post). Second, is it highly achievable, it’s a realistic goal not a scary one. Third, it scales with you as you progress in your career, e.g., “good enough” as an associate is different from “good enough” as a director and “good enough” as a vice president, and so on. So, what exactly is “good enough”? Here are a few ways to think about:

  1. You’re above average for the given skill, I like to refer to this as being at the 60th percentile but that’s arbitrary. Basically, you assess yourself (honestly) as better than most but not the best.
  2. You’ve reached the state of “conscious competence” which means you know what successful use of the skill looks like and how to get there, but you have to deliberately work towards it.

In my earlier writings and reflections on this topic, I used to prefer to first guideline, i.e., 60th percentile. The reason being that it has an aspect of being quantitative and empirical. When competing for promotion there’s a natural ranking that happens, why not aspire to have a measurable edge in those rankings? However, assessing yourself like that correctly requires visibility into the competence of others and may be more difficult to keep track of. Consider PowerPoint, how are you supposed to determine if you’re actually above average relative to your peers? This is why lately I’ve become a much bigger fan of “conscious competence”. Knowing what success looks like, how to get it, and working towards it is something you can monitor yourself (perhaps with your manager’s support and feedback) so once you yourself know you’ve made it, you can consider the skill acquired and move onto the next one.

Remember: “greatness” is a life’s work; “good enough” is a month’s work

How to cultivate Complementary Skills

Since you’re aiming for “good enough” and I’ve asserted in a few places that it only takes about a month you probably want to know what that month looks like. Here’s how I pick up new skills and how I advise my mentees to do the same:

  1. I head over to YouTube to watch videos on the skill I’m interested in learning, e.g., “public speaking”. YouTube quality and breadth gets better each year and I consider invaluable. Part of why I like YouTube over books is I can see how it’s done better with more granularity than a book or other written tutorial. Additionally, depending on the skill, it’s easier to multi-task, e.g., listen while driving.
  2. I start practicing it as soon as I can, usually looking for low stakes opportunities to get the reps in. E.g., when I started learning negotiation, I looked for low stakes way to practice the mechanics even if the outcome was predetermined.

Just because this works for me doesn’t mean it’s best for you, although I do believe strongly in practice to really make it stick (reading without doing is pointless to me). However, perhaps you learn best from a seminar, a guided course, or a book. The exact mechanism you use in step 1 is irrelevant, what matters is you do something and keep in mind:

You’re probably only one book, one course, or one workshop away from “good enough”. 

Putting it all together

Now you have a grasp of what Complementary Skills are, why you need them, and how to acquire them. One last thing I’ll add is to listen to your heart (or gut) as you explore these skills. Complementary Skills are far more numerous than your Primary Skills. Complementary Skills are vast and diverse. As you explore them, you never know when you’re going to find something that inspires you. Something that pulls you beyond “conscious competence” and towards true mastery. If you feel that pull, I say lean into it and see where it takes you. You may end up making a career change and flipping your Complementary Skills into Primary Skills, but you’ll be doing so with a wide base and an enthusiasm that can help you speed towards your next goal.

Have fun with it. We’re in the age of the skills economy, so go get some new skills!

If you found this post helpful and want more ways to grow as a professional and set yourself up with your best chance at promotion in about 12 months, check out Entry Level Escape:


Share these tips with friends