The Dot Connector Series

How to become Special

A few years back, I had this light bulb Eureka moment listening to an Indra Nooyi interview. ( side note. She always has something insightful. Listen to her whenever you get the chance)

The question went something like this — “ Tell us how we can emulate you. I want to be a CEO, what does it take to get there?”

I am paraphrasing this. Don’t question me on the specific words. Get the spirit.

Nooyi’s reply was awesome — specific and actionable. Not generic bullshit.

The second point was especially insightful — the one which sent my neurons into a frenzy.

Nooyi suggested that we develop a “hip pocket” skill.

It’s a skill you become so good at, that you are seen as the expert of that skill across the organization.

It should ideally be a human skill, not a hard skill (a hard skill can pigeonhole you).

Having a skill like that changes your standing in the organisation.Everytime, there is a problem that needs that skill, they will summon you. This will mean you get a plethora of opportunities to shine and prove your worth. You are in demand, get noticed by everyone who matters and even more opportunities come your way. We all know that if you are good ( It’s your hip pocket skill so you are the best at it) and get enough opportunities to prove yourself, you will definitely go a long way in life.

In Nooyi’s case, her own “hip pocket skill” was her ability to make the complicated simple. Especially all the complicated legal stuff.

She adds, “If I go back through my entire career, anywhere where things were too complex, it always came to me. Indra, you simplify it for us. You tell us how to navigate through this extremely complex problem. That’s been my hip-pocket skill then; it is today.”

It was a profound insight and made me think a lot. From then on, I have kept looking for more clues to understand the ways in which people develop hip-pocket skills and become special.

This post is about what I have learnt. How we can plan and work towards becoming special.

Have I implemented it in my life? I will answer that at the end.

Demand and Supply of your Function/Role in the Company/Industry

One of the most important things is context

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a Google researcher who wrote a very famous paper on the impact of racial bias in politics using google search trends data. It got him an invite from Larry Summers ( US Secretary of Treasury) to discuss his work. After an hour of discussing data and models, Summers asked him, “You think you can predict the stock market with this data?”

The answer is no. As Davidowitz explains in his book — Everybody Lies

Data science reveals big insights when the existing research in a field is weak. Like the impact of racism. As compared to that, the smartest minds in finance and analytics and millions of dollars are already engaged in finding the tiniest bit of advantage in the stock market. The competition is fierce. They already have richer data and more sophisticated models than Davidowitz.

Seth the data researcher in the investment banking space — average ( or even below average) and not special

Seth the data researcher doing social science research — best selling writer who get to hang out with Larry Summers and very very special

Moral of the story — Choose the industry, company function/role combination carefully. Go work somewhere where your skill is in short supply. Indra Nooyi’s ability to handle complexity was a hip-pocket skill in Pepsi. I am not sure if it would have been special in an accounting firm.

Expertise on Diverse Skills

Have you seen those Job Descriptions which don’t have any relevant applications? Because those candidates don’t exist. The joke being that you will have to manufacture such a person in the lab.

So another way to become special is to become the person in the lab. People who have expertise in two or more very disconnected areas.

Think of roles which require two diverse skills — something most people are unlikely to acquire. Engineering and MBA is not diverse by the way :-)

Who’s the ideal person to work on IP law in a product design company. A designer with a law degree in IP. How many such people can you find on monster.com :-)

Acquire Skills for the Future

The next set of clues for becoming special came to me as a combination of ideas from different books. All of them had one common theme. They had analyzed trends which were changing our lives today (or will do so in the future) and how humans were reacting to them.

(I am going to be succinct in describing them to keep this post within reasonable size. If you are keen on knowing more about any of these, I will be happy to guide. Sharing names of some of these books at the end. I will possibly do separate posts later)

The world is becoming increasingly complex and leading to many changes at the workplace. Many of the existing simple tasks are being done by machines. Innovation is not a novelty anymore. It’s an existential requirement for many companies. There are new layers of complexity in existing tasks or hitherto unseen problems are emerging. Traditional problem solving approaches don’t work well anymore and we are seeing different approaches to problem solving.

Many of these problems are getting solved by unique solutions which borrow from various fields. Individuals with a broad and diverse toolkits are becoming more valuable. Collaboration is becoming increasingly important. Research data shows that new patents and research papers are more likely to be filed by teams rather than individuals. Doing it all alone has become much harder because the problems are tougher. More teams with more diversity creates new people related challenges as well.

This is all very good news for those who want to be special. All these changes and the new emerging problems are creating new opportunities for you to acquire that hip-pocket skills and become special. I have mentioned these skills below. You could argue that these are somewhat similar. There is definitely some overlap. I would rather say, it’s very likely that a person who has one of these skills is likely to have more of them.

Creativity — Ability to Connect the Dots — Problem Solvers — Synthesizers

Creativity does not mean being artsy. It means being able to notice things which others cannot. Things which give us new insights and lead to progress. People who can borrow concepts or ideas from other fields and repurpose them to solve new problems ( Read about Exaptation).

Every function or team in a company is good at seeing their reports and information and making sense out of them.

How many people in your company can look at all the qualitative and quantitative data from across functions and team and also marry it with external trends and identify the underlying common threads to come up with a new narrative ?

If it’s zero, then this is your chance. If there are many, then learn from them and go to another company.

Let me also add that this is a skill which can be acquired.

Being T shaped — Glue Guys — Highly Collaborative

Google “glue guys in basketball”. Or just Google “glue guys and Shane Battier”. Google “Nyquist of Bell Labs”. There’s a chapter about him in Culture Code by Daniel Coyle. Read about what it takes to be a T-shaped guy. It looks easy but it’s incredibly hard to be one.

This is not just being a good team player. These people make the team.

This is the person everyone wants on their team or project group because they make everyone better. They make cross functional teams more effective. They ensure that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Most companies don’t recognise their value today. But almost all smart sports teams and some companies like Google do — they have advanced people analytics to check things like these. It’s only a matter of time before the others catch up.

People Skills and Communication Skills

Phil Jackson is possibly the greatest coach in NBA history or maybe even in all of sports history. Most people agree he was below average in tactics. so what made hims so successful ? His greatest strength — being able to connect with each one of his players at a deep level and bring out the best in them. Michael Jordan was a great player. Phil Jackson made him the greatest winner.

I read this about Sundar Pichai. A senior Google leader was once asked why Larry picked Sundar as CEO. He said it wasn’t because Sundar was the smartest or the most accomplished or the strongest on strategy. He was the master of people. Every time senior leaders couldn’t agree on something important, they had to call in Sundar to mediate and get them to get along. His combination of low ego and high EQ was super special.

I am guessing you would have some of the following questions.

Is this the same as having niche skills? Not necessarily. You could have a niche skill for which there is no demand.

Are these the only ways to become special?

Absolutely not. You can simply become extraordinary at your job. Like the guys in the top investment jobs Seth Stephens-Davidowitz was talking about. Or like the scientists.

These tactics are for lesser mortals like me and you (come on. Isn’t that why you are reading this :-))

Can everyone become special ?

Yes absolutely. You just need to have a growth mindset and work smart (and hard)

Now to answer the question about myself. I have indeed tried to incorporate all these principles to develop a hip-pocket skill. Do I have one ? That’s for you to decide.

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