Taking Back Work #3: Exceptional Skills and Abilities


Today, I’m turning my focus to a fairly tactical and, frankly, not very sexy, topic: skills and abilities  As I’ve been writing about how we, as employees and creators of work, take back work and put it on our own terms, what I’ve really been talking about is how to create leverage.  In order for the worker to take control of the terms and conditions of their employment with an organization, they must be in a bargaining position of power.  And power comes through leverage in negotiations.

Let’s back up for a moment and recognize that most organizations, despite all of the rhetoric about talent and potential and intangibles and design, are still hiring people based on specific, easily measured outputs related to skills sets that they can understand simply.  If you work in technology, they want to know how much and what type of code you can write and, further, what types of projects you can show to prove your skills.  Or, perhaps you are in marketing, so you are going to be measured based on how great your ad campaigns have looked, what awards they’ve won and (maybe) how much of an impact your campaigns had on sales.

Companies crave these kinds of skills because these skills and abilities are easy to place a value on.  And that’s where they put their money.  If you need an example, compare the average salary of an IT analyst or programmer or an accountant to that of a trainer or customer service manager.  Specific, demonstrable skills are the things that companies drool over.

So, to create leverage and to really take control of the work experience, we have to develop skills and abilities in ways that differentiate us from the rest of the market.  We have to become so great at what we do (or at least part of what we do), that a potential employer would feel as though you represent a highly unique talent with abilities that aren’t easily found elsewhere.

How do you do you do this?  There are a lot of ways, but here are a few that I think can accelerate your development:

  • Become an expert in your field or subject matter.  Regardless of what it is, be the most knowledgeable person on that subject anywhere.  This may sound like a big task, but it’s not as hard as you might think.  Find every book you can get your hands on related to the topic and read it.  Seek out industry blogs and trade publications, read them.  Find groups to join and participate in online and in person who share your topic as a common interest.  With diligent effort, you can become an expert in a topic in the space of a couple of years.
  • Practice, practice, practice.  We learned growing up that when we fell short trying out for the sports team or music ensemble, that we should spend more time practicing to improve our skills so that our odds of making the team would be higher in the future.  We also know stories of athletes like Jerry Rice, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods who, despite having freakish natural abilities, spent more time practicing than their less talented peers.  That’s what makes them great.  So, as you work to develop exceptional abilities, you have to find ways to practice.  One of the reasons I personally started blogging was that I wanted to become an exceptional writer, and the only way to do that is to practice writing regularly.  If the only time you exercise your skill or ability is when you are paid to do it, you will never become exceptional at it.  Practice may not make perfect, but it can make you damned good.
  • Be greedy about opportunity.  Whenever you are offered the opportunity to practice your skill, take it.  If you are a financial analyst and someone from another area asks you to review some numbers for them (and this falls outside of the scope of your job), do it anyway (assuming analyzing financials is what you want to become exceptional at) so that you can gain the experience and feedback.  Opportunity exists not only within your job, but it also exists elsewhere.  A great place to hone your skills is through volunteerism.  If you want to become a great public speaker, opportunities abound with not-for-profit organizations who are looking for someone to share their story.  These opportunities exist for nearly every skill if you are willing to go find them.
While no one is irreplaceable, the goal is to develop skills and abilities that others believe are irreplaceable.  This creates leverage with your employer or potential employer because they won’t want to lose the unique value you create.   That puts you in the driver’s seat.  (It also positions you for successful self-employment as well should you decide that being “employed” in the traditional sense isn’t for you.)
Note: In order for this whole process to result in your personal fulfillment and happiness, focus on developing exceptional skill in areas that are connected with what you love to do and what gives you energy.  To become exceptional in a skill that you dislike is self-defeating.
Tomorrow, I will talk about one of our favorite topics and the subject of our upcoming book: network and social capital.
Until then,

1 comment

  1. Great article because I am in the midst of doing just what you have written about…doing what I love to do, SM and blog design. Your article is inspiring ….thank you. The website is a blog that I’m currently developing for my first client. I am an old girl in the new world of SM. Oh yes I have taken online training courses….that is a must!

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