How to Create Your Career: Using The Skill-Bridge Technique to Land Great Work

Photo courtesy of Flazingo.

To date, Recession Proof Graduate and its accompanying TEDx talk have been read, downloaded, and viewed more than 250,000 times. Since then, I’ve received TONS of feedback from readers, mostly with questions on all the little details I left out. Some common questions include “How do I know which skills I need?” and “What should I say in my pitch?”

This guest post by Matt Goldenberg, a career coach for liberal arts graduates, will offer some clarity.

A few months ago, Matt sent me this message:

“I’ve taken your free work concept and adapted it to numerous situations in which my students don’t want to work for entrepreneurs. I call the process the “Skill-Bridge Technique”… One of my students used the free-work concept to go from a commission salesman at his company to a salaried business analyst. It’s a great example of not only how to use the free-work idea, but also of the challenges one might face (like people ignoring your proposals) and how to overcome them.”

Sounds good to me! Take it away…

Enter Matt

It’s intimidating to read about some of success of people online. You can’t help but think, “I could never do that.” Even after reading books like Recession Proof Graduate that give you a blueprint for how to create your own career, it’s still easy to make excuses:

“I don’t know what I want to work on.”

“I don’t have the necessary skills.”

“I don’t know who to work for.”

“I can’t think of a project.”

“I have nothing to offer someone successful.”

If you ever find yourself thinking these thoughts, you’re not alone. When I first started working with Nick (a recent graduate), he had all these problems and more. An international affairs major working as a commission salesman, he felt trapped in his current role, and frustrated that he couldn’t seem to even get an interview, let alone a job.

One year later, he’s a director and analyst for a green energy startup, as well as an independent business consultant. In this post, you’ll learn exactly how he did it.

A Shift in Mindset

For three months as we worked together, Nick made slow progress. It wasn’t because he wasn’t trying; he just wasn’t used to setting his own path. He aced his way through high school, doing all the assignments he was supposed to do, he went to the college he was supposed to go to, he took the major he was supposed to take, and then took the required classes. Finally, he got the degree he was supposed to get.

When we first started working together, he had one question for me: “What am I supposed to do next?” Three months of our working together consisted of him asking some variation of this question nearly every time we met, and me giving some variation of the answer: “You’re not supposed to do anything. You can choose your own path.”

I advised Nick to start consciously listening to his thoughts. Every time he had the thought “I have to” or “I should,” he was to change that to “I choose to.”

At about three months in, there was a dramatic shift in Nick’s attitude. Instead of asking what direction he should head, he started asking for help in how to get there. In short order, he was promoted at work, and started finding opportunities left and right. The first step to becoming recession proof was simply for Nick to accept control of his career.

Beyond Free Work – The Skill-Bridge Technique

Once Nick started setting his own direction, the next step was to move him along that path as quickly as possible. I suggested that Nick use a generalized form of Charlie’s Free Work idea that I like to call “the Skill Bridge technique.”

It involves three steps:

  1. Figure out the job title and “minimum viable skillset” needed to get your desired position.
  2. Determine, the problems, challenges, and opportunities of organizations and individuals you’d like to work for.
  3. Create a proposal that shows how you can use those skills to solve the problems you identified.

Step 1 – Job Title & Minimum Viable Skillset

How to Determine Your Desired Job Title – Finding Role Models

When I first asked Nick about careers he was interested in, he gave answers that were indicative of his mindset at the time: careers that were the careers he was “supposed to” get into, and not careers that he genuinely wanted or were strategic for him. Because he had only ever considered these careers, it was hard for him to even know where to start with other careers.

The first step for him was to simply take an inventory of himself – what was he good at? What did he value? What did his ideal day look like? From there, Nick used internet research to find role models and communities who shared his values, ideal day, and strengths. Finally, he deconstructed their careers, finding common job titles and industries.

One job title that kept popping up was business consultant. It leveraged all of Nick’s strengths, allowed him to live the lifestyle he wanted, and would build skills he would need to ultimately create his own startup, which is one of his long term goals.

Having determined his desired job title, the next step was to determine the minimum viable skillset needed to be hired in that career.

How to Determine the Minimum Viable Skillset – The Three Books Technique

Nick didn’t need to become an expert at his new job to start out. All he really needed to do was learn just enough to provide more value than a company would have to pay him –the Minimum Viable Skillset.

I advised Nick that because the skills needed as a business analyst are highly project dependent, his best bet for finding the minimum viable skillset would be buying comprehensive books for beginners. This would allow him to read only those parts that pertained to the project he was currently working on, and then continue to refer to other parts of the books as he picked up new projects.

Specifically, Nick needed three books that answered three questions about the skills of a business analyst. He first searched Google for “best business analyst books”, and then narrowed his search to find one book that answered each of the three questions below:

How? – He needed to find the best action-oriented book he could that showed step by step how to apply the minimum viable skills. This would be the main book that he would refer to as he went through his project. In order to find this, he looked for Amazon reviews that called the book “very actionable” or “concrete.”

Why? – Sometimes, he would need to use the skills he learned in a slightly different way than was discussed in his “How?” book. By finding the best theory oriented book, he was able to understand why the skills were used, and thus learn how to apply the skills in slightly different ways. In order to find this book, he looked for Amazon reviews that said the book was “smart”, “heavy on theory” or “not very actionable”

What? – Finally, sometimes he would need to use skills that weren’t present in the original “How?” book at all. By finding the best reference book on business analysis, he was able to get a basic idea about what the skills he would need were called and a basic overview of them. This would give him a starting point to do internet research or buy more books as needed. In order to find this book, he looked for Amazon reviews that described the book as “comprehensive” or “a great resource.”

Step 2 – Determine Your Target’s Problems, Challenges, and Opportunities

Nick then set out to figure out his “target,” the person or company he’d like to do a project for. Charlie recommends doing a project for entrepreneurs, but there are actually several different options for different types of projects you can take on.

  1. Helping an Entrepreneur
  2. Creating a Personal Project
  3. Creating an Internship at a Large Company
  4. Helping a Friend
  5. Doing Freelance Work for Strangers
  6. Volunteering for Non-Profits
  7. Creating a New Project at Your Current Company

In Nick’s case, he already had several ideas for things he could analyze and improve at his current sales position, so he decided to start there. He analyzed his current company in three separate areas for problems, challenges, or opportunities that he could solve.

  1. Money – Could he decrease costs or increase revenue?
  2. Emotions – Could he increase happiness and excitement, or decrease stress and boredom?
  3. Relationships – Could he create better relationships or reputation for his boss or his company? As a salesman, he found that his highest leverage point would be to create a project or two that would demonstrably increase sales.

Step 3 – Create a Proposal

The final step was for Nick to create a proposal for a project that would use his minimum viable skillset to increase sales at his company. He knew from his books that in order to be an effective business analyst, he would be working a lot with Excel, and doing a lot of PowerPoint presentations.

Armed with this knowledge, he decided to create two projects. One was a comprehensive spreadsheet that used basic analytic principles to find the factors that led to a successful sale. The second was a standard presentation that could be presented to potential clients After deciding on his projects, the next step was choosing what type of proposal he’d like to use.

The Four Types of Proposals

I advised Nick that there were only four different kinds of proposals he could give to his boss, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

1- “Here are Some Options” Proposal

This is the type of proposal that Charlie recommends in his book. It involves giving a number of different options for projects, then allowing your prospect to choose which one they’d like. The primary benefit of this is that it allows your prospect to choose which project they like the best. Ultimately, this means that you have a higher chance of them saying yes, because you have more opportunities to hit upon a “must have” problem. Nick—already having worked at the company—was fairly certain of the “must have” problems and decided against this particular proposal type.

2- “I Can Help You With This Project” Proposal

This proposal type involves giving just one project idea, and then setting up a time to discuss the details with your prospect. The primary benefits of this type of proposal are that it leverages curiosity, shows a bit more confidence than the “Here are Some Options” proposal, and minimizes the paradox of choice. This can be effective over email, but is also very effective to throw out in casual conversation. The downside for Nick was that he knew his boss was very busy, and getting a reply to set up that second meeting might be difficult. It was this factor that caused him to reject this proposal type.

3- “The Classic” Proposal

Like the “I Can Help You With This Project” proposal, the classic proposal only suggests one project. The difference is that rather than set up another meeting to discuss the details, all the details are in the proposal to start out with. It’s a comprehensive document that includes information like timeline, budget, deliverables, etc. This can be very impressive and quite convincing, but the downside is that it takes a lot of time investment from your prospect. It only works if you already have their trust, have their undivided attention (such as in a face to face meeting) or already have a tentative yes from a “Hey, I Can Help You Out With This” proposal. Nick already had the undivided attention of his boss at their regular meetings, so he seriously considered this type of proposal. However, on balance, he decided that the next type of proposal would take just as much time to make, be just as convincing to his boss, and require half the work.

4- “I Already Did It” Proposal

This type of proposal is sneaky. Instead of asking your prospect for permission, you instead just go ahead and create your project. Once you’re done, you show them your work, and ask them if they’d like to use it. The benefits of this approach are that you can leverage the principle of reciprocity, prove that you can deliver, and also show your prospect an immediate work sample with your quality of work. The big downside is that if you create something the prospect doesn’t truly want or need, you may be seen as presumptuous or out of touch. Because Nick was fairly certain he had pinpointed a must have problem, he decided to just forge ahead with his projects and then show his boss when he was done.

After a month and half of hard work, Nick presented his completed projects to his boss.

The Result

Ultimately, Nick was promoted at work. His new job title not only involved more responsibility, but completely changed the perception of other potential employers and clients. And if Nick did it, you can do it too.

# # #

Note from Charlie…

What I loved most about Matt’s post was this line:

Every time he had the thought “I have to” or “I should,” he was to change that to “I choose to.”

Your career is a series of choices. You don’t have to do anything. You can mold your life to fit your desires, and build a miniature universe that’s uniquely yours. Countless people have done it before you, yet millions beckon you to follow a path you don’t want. Why? Because it’s what the group does. It’s “safe.”

If you’ve struggled with the free work concept, try implementing some of the tweaks and tricks in this post to move forward. And if you haven’t tried free work, then perhaps it’s time to make the leap.

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Charlie Hoehn is the author of Play It Away, Play for a Living and Recession Proof Graduate. His work has been featured on NPR's TED Radio Hour, Forbes, Fast Company, and Harvard Business Review. Previously, he was the Director of Special Projects for Tim Ferriss. Currently, he is the Head of Author Marketing at Book In A Box. He lives in Austin, Texas.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Pingback: Just Graduated? Here's How To Get A Job Without Experience

  2. ssbogan

    Hey Charlie,

    I thought I was doing diligence in my transition from self-employed to employment, but you just took it to a whole other level. Thanks for the STAGES webinar!

    ~Sarah Bogan

  3. Lawrence He (@lawrencehe)

    Hmmm…really actionable post! I think for me, i’m trying to find a way to utilize my creative, idea generation and strategic skills. But since I wouldnt be doing implementation, its harder to express the value i provide, and I’m not sure myself how to provide mass amounts of value without implementation. thoughts?

    1. Matt Goldenberg

      Hey Lawrence,

      This is Matt, the author :).

      My suggestion would be that like Nick, you have to determine a specific job title that can utilize those creative and strategic skills. From there, figure out the minimum viable skillset for that job title.

      My experience with the working world is that there are very few jobs that are purely idea generation without implementation… even jobs like CEO which are highly creative and strategic, require a massive amount of implementation.

      This means that you’d have to figure out what the implementation skills are for your specific job title that you’re missing, and work to develop those using the method above.

      Hope that helps!

      -Matt

  4. jeremyahall1

    Awesome post Charlie! I can completely empathize with Nick’s position of “what am I supposed to do?” I read RPG and did the things you suggested – blog, free work, being helpful, etc. But, I didn’t know what to focus on. Then, I just picked something brand new and dove in. I committed myself to learning and that lead to me getting a job being specifically created for me. And the point about minimum viable skillset is spot on. I think if someone can demonstrate that they have enough skills to solve a problem and they have the ability to learn beyond their initial skill set, they will find takers. I was hired because I demonstrated my ability to learn and my determination to do so.

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