Generally speaking, career development can proceed in one of two directions.
- Specialisation: You become an expert in your domain. As your expertise grows, people seek your advice and value your opinion. Eventually you may become an acknowledged authority in your chosen area.
- Diversification: You acquire knowledge in disparate domains, e.g. medicine and IT. Using your overarching knowledge, you identify the opportunity to create new products and services by combining ideas from these domains. You then apply your cross-domain understanding to bring your ideas to fruition.
Diversifying your skills holds great potential; if there is a natural synergy between your existing skill base and your new-found knowledge, then you can make a bold move forward in your career. However, acquiring skills and knowledge that do not relate directly to what you currently do can lead to a dead-end. You could do a great course or read an interesting book, but end up with information that you are unable to integrate into your career.
How can you plan successful career diversification with the confidence that your new talent will be a brilliant supplement to your base competencies?
Interestingly, companies considering diversification face a similar quandary, and lessons from their decision-making process can be applied to individual’s career decisions.
According to the Harvard Business Review, when companies consider diversification, they should not simply look at the products and services that they provide and extrapolate from this base. Instead, they should go one level deeper and understand what the underlying organisational strengths are that make them good at what they do. Once a company has identified the strengths that enable it to deliver well, it can consider how these strengths can be applied to the operations of acquired businesses.
In other words, the true strategic assets of a company do not lie in the bricks-and-mortar of the business, because this can be imitated by competitors. Instead, the true strategic assets of a company are the ingrained organisational strengths, the flexibility and the determination that make the company good at what it does. Once these underlying strengths have been identified, the company can consider diversification based on the value they can add by injecting these strengths into the new acquisition.
Consider the case of Blue Circle Industries, a British company that is one of the world’s leading cement producers. In the 1980s, Blue Circle decided to diversify… It was, the company’s managers determined, in the business of making products related to home building. So Blue Circle expanded into real estate, bricks, waste management, gas stoves, bath-tubs – even lawn mowers. According to one retired executive, “Our move into lawn mowers was based on the logic that you need a lawn mower for your garden – which, after all, is next to your house.” Not surprisingly, few of Blue Circle’s diversification forays proved successful.
Blue Circle’s less focused, business-definition approach to diversification didn’t answer the more relevant question: What are our company’s strategic assets, and how and where can we make the best use of them?
One company that did ask that question – and reaped the rewards – is the United Kingdom’s Boddington Group. In 1989, Boddington’s then chairman, Denis Cassidy, assessed the company’s competitive situation. At the time, Boddington was a vertically integrated beer producer that owned a brewery, wholesalers, and pubs throughout the country. But consolidation was changing the beer industry, making it hard for small players like Boddington to make a profit. The company had survived up to that point because its main strategic asset was in retailing and hospitality: it excelled at managing pubs. So Cassidy decided to diversify in that direction.
Quickly, the company sold off the brewery and acquired resort hotels, restaurants, nursing homes, and health clubs while keeping its large portfolio of pubs. “The decision to abandon brewing was a painful one, especially because the brewery has been a part of us for more than 200 years,” Cassidy says. “But given the changes taking place in the business, we realized we could not play the brewing game with the big boys. We decided to build on our excellent skills in retailing, hospitality, and property management to start a new game.” Boddington’s diversification resulted in the creation of enormous shareholder value – especially when compared with the strategies adopted by regional brewers that decided to remain in the business. It also illustrates what happens when a company moves beyond a business-definition approach and instead launches a diversification effort based on its strategic assets.
To diversify successfully, companies need to look within to understand why they are good at what they do, and then use these unique strategic assets as a base for diversification. Similarly, you can make a quantum leap forward in your career by identifying your unique inner strengths, acquiring hard skills that these strengths can be applied to and then creating synergy between your base skill-set and your new-found knowledge.
Professor Gerald Grow is the professor of magazine journalism at Florida A&M University. He describes the personal qualities that provide the base for application of your professional skills as meta-skills, i.e. skill enabling skills. In a discussion concerning journalism he writes:
Every profession is based on both skills and metaskills. Skills are the activities people have to perform well – like reporting, writing, attributing quotes properly and avoiding libel. Metaskills are higher-order skills that enable journalists to use their skills effectively. Metaskills – such as critical thinking – are what make the skills effective. Without metaskills, skills are like a hammer in the hands of a child.
You can identify your personal meta-skills by thinking about what you are passionate about in your career. It is likely that these aspects of your work excite you because they correlate with your unique inner competencies and personal competitive differentiators. Once you have identified this career sweet-spot, you can think about which other knowledge areas would gel best with your meta-skills.
Your core business proposition
As soon as you begin a professional career or enter the business world, you enter a fight to establish your unique identity within the sea of available talent and commercial opportunity that comprises the modern business world.
The greatest success you can have lies in the development of your unique business proposition. Once you find the optimum combination of inner strengths and hard skills that is uniquely you, opportunity will naturally coalesce around you. Diversification can provide you with the skills and experience you need to realise your core business proposition.
In many cases, the core business proposition which is most appropriate to your own tastes, preferences and personality will arise by a fairly natural process from within your own experience of participating in the business world.
The point is demonstrated again and again by looking at the success stories of successful business people. For them, their core business strategy is not something which they devised from scratch by sitting at a desk and having a good think, but something which came to them as the result of their interaction with life.
The Seven Deadly Skills of Competing, page 80
To optimise your career it may be useful to acquire new skills that synergise with your base proficiencies. Try this five step process to unleash the inner vitality that can make your dreams come true:
- Identify what you are passionate about.
- Identify the meta-skills (personal strengths) that drive your success.
- Determine new areas these meta-skills can be applied to.
- Acquire hard skills in these new areas.
- Create synergy between your old skillset and your new skillset.
In summary: Take a step back, reflect, then take a step forward.