Developing Complementary Skills

You’re probably reading this magazine because you want to become a better agile coach. That is a noble goal, and you’re certainly in the right place. Yet, I’m here to tell you that you’re focusing on the wrong thing.

The difference between a good coach and a great one isn’t the ability to help teams identify limiting beliefs, but all the other skills that you don’t learn in a coaching class. The same is true of your clients and teams. A great developer isn’t someone who can write a kernel module in LISP, but someone who can communicate with their colleagues and customers. A great marketer isn’t defined by their creativity, but their ability to write Excel macros. So on and so forth.

Those who strive to be truly great cannot afford to neglect their professional development in non-core areas. These are generally called complementary skills. Skills that, while unrelated to each other, amplify each other when combined. Another way of thinking about this is “bringing your whole self to work”.

Complementary skills are, by definition, very broad. We can no longer simply plot them on a skills matrix, but need to see them as a dynamic (and ever-moving) network of capabilities. They cover what are colloquially called soft skills and hard skills. The importance of both is something that has become more obvious as I’ve progressed in my own career.

As an example, the soft skills I would inculcate in myself and my teams include ;

  • Writing effectively and speaking clearly (in other words, getting to the point),
  • Mentorship skills (I believe everyone should mentor someone)
  • Negotiation skills (important anywhere where there are competing points of view; whether negotiating for an extension to a work deadline or a discount on a car)
  • Cultural communication differences and non-verbal communication skills.
  • Complexity theory and systems thinking (sadly under-recognized in many organizations

Example hard skills are as diverse as the above soft skills and might include ;

  • Scripting skills (anything from Excel Macros to shell scripting). Personally, I have saved thousands of hours just by knowing what (and how) to automate repetitive tasks.
  • Basic finance and accounting skills. Being able to have a trusted conversation with the CFO can mean the difference between getting an important initiative approved or not.
  • Recruitment and interviewing skills. You never know when you’ll be called into a job interview at the last minute. Of special note, this requires a good understanding of ethics and DE&I (diversity, equity, & inclusion) issues as well.

And there are many more. These are just a few examples.

For those of you who lead teams, this is even more important to understand. Complimentary skills are a vital component of high-performing teams. In the Domains of Business Agility (, we define the skill of modern people management to “recruit, hire, nurture, and develop people with a strong fit for future potential and mission alignment, over fit to position.”

A large part of this role, therefore, is to coach individuals and help them develop their complementary skills and behaviors (e.g. diversity & inclusion, resilience, recognizing cognitive biases, etc.). In other words, help them to become their “whole selves” at work.

As organizations flatten and delegate greater accountability, authority, and autonomy to the workforce, the role of people managers (as distinct from process managers) increases in importance. To their people, they are coaches and mentors who energize, remove impediments, resolve conflicts, and communicate the corporate vision. The culture of the organization lives through them.

The benefits of developing complementary skills in yourself or your teams are fairly self-evident. Individuals are better able to move beyond their silos to work effectively as a team. Teams build greater trust and rapport with their project customers. Individuals are themselves better leaders and mentors for their peers and colleagues. And, of course, customer outcomes are greatly improved.

I’ll give you a personal example.

When I was a practice lead at IBM, I used to run a game called presentation karaoke for my teams and those around me. Wikipedia describes presentation karaoke as “an improvisational activity in which a participant must deliver a presentation based on a set of slides that they have never seen before.” What it doesn’t say is that it is absolutely hilarious and fun to play. Players get 1 minute, a random topic, and random slides — GO!

Many of these folk had no intention of public speaking, but the skills of rapid thinking, improvisation, and giving an elevator pitch were (and are) invaluable to them. It was also a good way of creating camaraderie, but that’s a topic for another article.

For leaders, there is also a second dimension to consider. Complimentary people.

In their book, The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization, Katzenbach and Smith describe high-performing teams as “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed in a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”

This isn’t a new idea. We’ve been building cross-functional and multi-disciplinary teams for decades. What is important is to lean into the diversity of people beyond just primary skills. We know that a cross-functional team with developers and testers are more effective than a team of developers and the second team of testers. But look deeper. Can the complementary skills of one person complement the complementary skills of another? (I apologise for that last sentence – but you get my meaning).

And, as a leader, you need to build teams that compliment you and that you can complement. In other words, if you know more than your team, you have the wrong team.

Let me end by sharing what I consider to be the most beautiful thing about complementary skills. And it is a simple fact that you already have them. With the right mindset, the skills we learn as a parent, as a friend, and in our hobbies, have much broader applicability than perhaps we realise.

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