JUNE 17 — Last week MIDF Research projected that Malaysia’s average unemployment rate will hold steady at 3.3 per cent for 2024.

While the rate is just a tad higher than last year, nobody supposes the labour market to be very rosy for graduates or job-seekers.

I’m no “talent management specialist” and I don’t wish to sound pedestrian or trite to anyone struggling with unemployment.

I only hope the following cases or stories help inspire everyone to up their value to the job market.

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Let’s start with this story of an ex-colleague who is a lecturer but not only a lecturer at a local private university...

She ran very engaging classes (all her students love her) but she was also very eloquent and had lots of stories to tell, so she was often the first choice for emceeing jobs at formal events.

Interestingly enough, she also knew some photography, so she was also sought after by the Marketing Department for input on brochures, posters, etc.

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Finally, she was a warm people person, so sometimes other heads of departments would seek her help to speak to “difficult” people.

She had a PhD in Engineering, so that was — at least formally — her main expertise.

She was not a great MC, nor the world’s best photographer (in fact, like many folks, she learnt photography from YouTube), nor did she have a degree in counselling.

Nevertheless the combination of her engineering knowledge, plus all those other skills which she had “a little bit of”, added up to something unique, extraordinary and powerful: A strong talent-stack which made her the darling of the company.

The concept of talent stack is the idea that you can combine many normal-level skills you possess to produce something no one else has. — Unsplash pic
The concept of talent stack is the idea that you can combine many normal-level skills you possess to produce something no one else has. — Unsplash pic

More than the sum of one’s skills

The concept of talent stack is the idea that you can combine many normal-level skills you possess to produce something no one else has.

Certainly, this concept isn’t new.

Many Malaysian parents, for similar reasons, send their children to piano or ballet classes; the constant emphasis for students being good in all school subjects also sounds, at least superficially, similar to talent-stacking.

But there’s a critical difference: Talent stacking is more about your range of skills than it is about your expertise in any one of them (see note 1). The thing about most Asian parents is we expect our kids to excel in everything they do. Not only does this breed chronic stress, it also downplays the value of mere exposure without the need to win scholarships or awards.

Likewise, in the universe of highly sought-after generalists, having a PhD in Biology is not as welcomed as, say, having two Masters degrees (perhaps one in Computer Engineering and another in Political Philosophy — no point having two post-graduates degrees in fields so close to each other, might as well just do a PhD). This way you can draw on competences from multiple spheres to offer something unique.

Another friend of mine I got to know during my consulting days aptly mixed his project management skills (the chief requirements of firms like Ernst & Young) with his negotiation skills (honed from many years buying and selling cars) plus a weird sense of humour (honed from a few months helping out in a bar) to become a clear stand-out in the firm.

Again, he wasn’t the best project manager, nor the best negotiator, nor (by a long shot) anywhere near Robin Williams when it comes to comedy.

But the combination of all three skills, stacked together, even though they may only be slightly above “meh” quality(!), turned him into a strong player both in the firm and in the sector as a whole.

I hope the above goes some way towards pushing us to do whatever we can, to use whatever skills we have at our disposal, to try to merge or unite all our barely-above-par qualities to yield something special, something few others have.

Finally, maybe bosses and employers should try harder to go beyond the CV skills, to look for the multiple talents which existing or potential staff may have.

My hope is that this will create win-win scenarios in which the company gets to benefit from its staff’s various and compounded abilities.

* Note 1: A book which emphasises the power of diversity in one’s skillset is David Epstein’s Range (New York: Macmillan, 2019) which, among other things, challenges Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” thesis. Epstein shows that many high-achievers tend to specialise late, thus avoiding “cognitive entrenchment” by opening themselves up to multiple domains of learning.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.