Skill Optionality for Career Growth

Most firms operate via division of labor and specialization. So, as a budding employee at most companies, the task is to figure out what to specialize in so you have a place in the organization. This task is valuable in that in ensues a role for you in the organization and allows you to become a subject matter expert over time in a specific field. The world needs subject matter experts, so picking the right specialty early on is an important decision.

Specializing Too Early

The problem with that decision is when most employees are forced to make that decision i.e. in one of their first few jobs or during college when picking a major, they really have no idea what a great specialty will be, either from a matching their personality perspective or being needed in the marketplace perspective. Furthermore, universities are literally the least knowledgeable about what specialties will be valuable in the market because they largely exist outside of the labor market. This is why we’re pumping out hundreds of thousands of journalism majors even though there are very few jobs in journalism above the poverty line.

Making the Bet

Andy Johns has a great post on identifying individual strengths and making bets on skills that will become more valuable over time in the labor market. I would encourage anyone thinking about how to position their career to read it. The challenge is in making the right bets, and how bets can scale long-term for a career. For example, let’s say you make a bet to focus on social media marketing. Is that skill likely to be more or less valuable in four years? Now, the answer to this question has two components: 1) how many more firms will want these skills in the future and 2) how many more people will have these skills in the future. If the answer to 1) is a lot more and the answer to 2) is not much more, that’s a gold mine, but if the answer to both is a lot more, it may not be that great of a bet.

Scaling the Bet

The second component is how that bet scales. To answer this question, you need to know far can that skill can scale upward in an organization or in a career with that specialization. Sticking with the social media example, will there be Directors of Social Media Marketing in the future? VP’s? Chief Social Officers? If that seems likely, that’s another reason to focus on that niche. Unfortunately, no matter what specialty someone looks at, the answer is almost always that there is a cap to how far that specialty goes before one needs to acquire more skills to advance further. Sticking with social media, that track may end at Social Media Manager, and then you need to have PR skills to advance to the next phase at most organizations, or more online marketing skills like SEM, SEO, and email marketing. After that, whichever track you choose, you would need to fill in those other skills to become a VP of Marketing or a CMO.

This scenario becomes a problem for many people, as there are no convenient ways to develop new specialties over time. If you are working on social media all day, chances are low that your manager will proactively make sure you develop PR or SEM skills to prepare you to advance. So, people get stuck with the specialties and levels they are at after a while, and if those specialties become less important, they become less important over time. In a field like marketing, the skills needed at companies change very dramatically, as new marketing channels emerge over time, and as marketing channels mature, they tend to be less effective. Going back to school doesn’t help, as they tend to teach less skill-based functions, and certificates are mostly seen as a joke by employers.

Going T-Shaped

Fortunately, there are some ways to dodge these main issues, which are 1) not being able to predict the future on which skills are best to specialize in because the market moves too fast, and 2) not being able to add new skills over time to successfully manage more disciplines over time. Most advocate a position called being t-shaped ( good example here and example for search marketers here). The t-shaped model is great, but it misses some key features for career development I want to highlight.

1) One big bet vs. a few small bets

Becoming a t-shaped employee still requires placing a big bet on one area of depth and an 80/20 approach to close disciplines around that area of depth. There is still a large risk if that area of depth devolves in importance over time. The T-shape implies a static field and demand of skills that does not represent the labor market.

2) Individual contributor vs. manager

Management (and especially upper management) positions are not t-shaped. They are largely about strategy and goals. Having a ton of depth in a field like social media for a VP of Marketing is not especially useful as that person is expected to have someone that reports to him/her that has more depth. A senior manager needs to be able to spot opportunities to meet goals, and manage a diverse group of people to work together to reach those goals. Currently, many managers have a jarring experience where they begin to manage multiple disciplines and people not related to the depth that got them promoted.

3) Different T shapes work better at different companies

Sticking with the marketing examples, going deep in social media might be great for one company, but not very effective for others. Only knowing a little about other areas will likely make you not a great fit if social doesn’t move the needle. Ideally, you want your skills to work on a broad array of companies (though not too broad, like tech and industrial).

Solving the Problem

So how do you de-risk the choosing of a specialty and position yourself for more senior positions over time? That solution is to embrace skill optionality. What is skill optionality? It is maintaining exposure to different (especially emerging) areas of a field, and focusing, when necessary on specific niches, but not being stuck on one skill forever. Think of that t-shaped framework as a moving model where the component that is the stem of the T is gradually moving around as opportunities emerge in different fields and sharing depth with one or more other fields. So, instead of one long stem on SEO as in the Moz example above, it becomes a pi as SEO shares time with social media.

Skill optionality solves many problems for young or even experienced professionals. Young professionals gain exposure to many different fields, and are more likely to find one they excel at to either specialize in for the long-term or use as an initial depth from which to expand. For those with more experience, it breaks through the career ceiling of being just a subject matter expert, and protects one when certain expertises become less valuable. If you become experienced in four or five things, it is unlikely all five will become less important over time. Typically, as one skill becomes less important, another becomes more important. Skill optionality protects you from movements in the market related to skill needs.

I am not describing being a generalist, but just diversifying your portfolio of skills a little bit. I’ve seen a lot of blog posts that say every marketer in the future should know how to code, and use Photoshop, and know how to execute a laundry list of different marketing tactics. Chances are that’s too much for most people. How do you know if you’re going too general? Well, you should feel like the smartest person in the room on multiple subjects. If you’re a manager, it should that you or someone on your team is, and, if the latter, that you’re the next smartest after your team member. If you can’t claim a few broad areas as your domain, you’ve probably gone too far. In marketing, most companies win because they focus on a few channels, and become the best in the world at them. Skill optionality is not about executing in 30 areas, but knowing and adapting to which few maximally benefit your company/career, and being positioned to strategize as well as execute on those.

How to Execute

The next question you should be asking is how to execute this. I would like to make sure people understand that corporate America is not built for skill optionality; it is built for specialization. So, optimizing for this career path is fighting against the corporate ladder in every way early on in a career, but with maximum upside later on in a career. Some good strategies for young professionals is to shoot for positions that provide exposure to different areas in useful ways, like a web analyst who measures online marketing performance and therefore begins to understand different elements of online marketing. If that is not possible, another good strategy is to develop a specialty at a large company, and then move to a much smaller one where that skill is needed, but there is plenty of opportunity to develop new skills as no one else will be doing other things close to that specialty (or other things in the T one wants to develop). Some larger companies have rotational programs, which sound like a great way to get exposure to multiple areas, though, without having experienced these myself, I can’t say for sure.

The bottom line is that it’s important to pay attention to new opportunities to go broader in your skill set, and fight to get exposure to those opportunities. This will de-risk specialties that go out of favor in the market as well as better position you for management in the future. Even if you never want to manage, having multiple skill sets that you can adjust your depth on ensures you are always a viable candidate for many open positions, and will make you suitable for positions some companies desperately need.

Note: My examples are in marketing because that’s where I can get most concrete, but these examples can easily apply to engineers (via languages and elements of the stack), designers (with web, mobile, print, interactive, copy, coding, ui, ux), or just about any other discipline I can think of.