Two subtle ways to gain Complementary Skills and get closer to the next level

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. This is the advanced version of my Complementary Skills blog and in this entry, I’m going to give two actionable ways to pick up Complementary Skills that you may be overlooking.

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.

How to identify differentiating Complementary Skills

The refresher helped you remember what I mean by Complementary Skills and the intro blog post gave you a full overview. Now I want to unveil two behaviors you can adopt that will help you not only spot the Complementary Skills you need to thrive but also the ones that are most likely to make you stand out at promotion time.

  • “What can I take off your plate”
  • Do what others avoid

The phrase that pays

Asking your manager, or a different senior colleague, “what can I take off your plate” is one of the most powerful things you can do when you’re looking to expand your skills and Impact. There are a handful of reasons why this is this case and they all work together in your favor:

  1. When you take work from a more senior person, by definition you’re doing more senior work – this builds evidence that you’re performing at the next (or next next) level. Promotions are lagging indicators, typically you will be “at the next level” for 6 or more months and then you get the promotion. This is counter-intuitive if your experience is based on school where doing this grade’s work led to a promotion to the next grade, but in a professional setting it’s normal. Getting more senior tasks is much simpler than performing your tasks with the intensity and creativity needed to have it regarded as “at next level”, so ask away.
  2. When you take work from a more senior person you build rapport, and a credit to cash in later, with someone who has influence that you need later. This one is more intuitive, people want to do favors for people they like, people like people who do things nice for them, and people also have an innate desire to clear debts. Rob Cialdini’s book Influence covers this in more detail. The only thing left to add is to encourage you to be subtle and not make your motivation (earn the promo) be louder than your generosity (working on their work).

Do the necessary

Taking work off of someone’s plate is a direct way to say “I want to help you by doing X”. This approach, which is more about doing what others avoid doing, is more subtle in a few ways. First, you need to keep an eye out for when things get avoided. Second, you need to know why it gets avoided. Here’s two examples.

Your team consistently avoids making PowerPoint decks because it’s non-technical, requires a lot of iteration, and is all around uncomfortable. This is usually a perfect opportunity because the PowerPoint is often the “currency” that teams use in organizations. You’re signing up to essentially create the deliverable based on the actual hard work. It’s a way to score Impact in a fairly quick way. Also, if the team doesn’t do it, this task is unavoidable and hits your boss’ plate, so they’ll appreciate it too. Finally, if you get good at this, you can be “the PowerPoint” specialist that gets to be a part of more projects broadening your footprint and tallying up more Impact than people too afraid to get out of their comfort zone and stuck at one project at a time productivity.

Your team consistently avoids the monthly Linden Report because it’s boring, repetitive, and doesn’t get looked at anyway. This is a great example of something to either avoid taking on, since it leads to you expending finite time for no benefit, or something you take on to automate out of existence. The latter, automate, is nice when it’s available because it’s a great skill and it permanently gives capacity back to the team. However, more commonly, it’s just a low or no value activity that nobody can stop. You need Impact to get promoted so proceed with caution.

Making this work for you

It’d be naïve to leave out that both of these are a call for you to do more work. Both require you to seek additional responsibility, either by directly asking or just filling a gap. Part of the idea here is that getting promoted usually requires a bit of “over-extension”, i.e., temporarily sacrificing work-life balance, and these are ways to ensure you over-extend on high value work, both Impact and rapport-wise, not busy work. Another part of the idea is these two approaches are some of the limited ways you can ensure you’re getting access to “next level” or at least “differentiating” work.

Doing more of your work won’t get you promoted; doing some of your boss’ work will

You’ll have to determine how much you’re willing to over-extend to earn the promotion. However, once you accept that you will over-extend, this system can help optimize how much you extend and how much benefit it yields. What I mean by optimizing is a few instances of proactively volunteering that you control or at least influence can earn you a reprieve when an unexpected fire-drill comes up and forces parts of the team to over-extend reactively (in an undifferentiated way).

This is not risk-free

Remember, at the heart of all of this is you taking a chance and signing up to do things that are needed but are not part of your core competency or Primary Skills. Therefore, you may be bad at it. That’s not fatal, you just have to manage accordingly. Be overly communicative, try hard, learn everything you can, and be proactive. Asking for more time a week before something is due usually won’t hurt anyone, asking the day it’s due is embarrassing, asking after it’s due is just awful. Just as the rewards for being successful are magnified by the fact that you signed up for this, so too are the risks if you fail. Make sure you get it right and get as much help as it takes if you ever think you might not get it right on your own.

Putting it all together

Now you have two actionable ways to identify and get reps at Complementary Skills. Remember, Complementary Skills are the key to differentiation and taking work on from senior colleagues or picking up the tasks that nobody likes doing are two ways to home in on the Complementary Skills you need the most to thrive. Take a little risk, push yourself beyond what you think you can do, and you’ll be that much stronger on the other side (and so will your promo case).

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:


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