18 / What is a 'T-Shaped' Person?

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The term ‘T Shaped’ refers to a person who holds a thorough knowledge and strong skill-set in one area, but can also work beyond their area of expertise to collaborate in numerous other disciplines or fields. The vertical bar of the ‘T’ represents the depth of a skill and the horizontal bar represents the person’s ability to collaborate and apply knowledge across disciplines outside of their normal field.

These people are different to the notion of a ‘jack of all trades’ as they have one area of primary expertise – they are simply passionate or interested in a number of different things and have the ability to contribute accordingly. This also differs from the traditional ‘I Shaped’ person in that an ‘I’ shape is a specialist in one area. Their skills may run deep, but is still within their primary area of expertise.

In today’s competitive job market, many employers are searching for T-shaped people, advocating their ability to contribute to a business in numerous areas. However some people argue that there is more knowledge and strength in an ‘I’ team, where each individual is the master of their own field. Both arguments are valid in this respect as a lot depends on the type of business and the business’ goals. T-shaped people are able to think outside the box, see the bigger picture, view things holistically and as a result, take the business or product to the next level. Their aptitude for cross-discipline collaboration helps to instigate change and learning. This is especially critical for a business that has stagnated.

Individuals can develop from being an I-shaped person to a T-shape by committing to change and having enough self-awareness in their actions and behaviour to instigate it. Coaching and mentorship programs can help influence a person’s communication skills thereby allowing them to adopt a more collaborative style.

Managers can encourage this development, provided the change is achievable and strategically sound. For example, you would not expect a scientific or analytical person to develop the creative for a marketing campaign. They may be able to contribute ideas; however they would not have the skills set to complete the task confidently or effectively. The best way for managers to encourage the development of T-shaped employees is to share information about the business in an open and transparent manner. The shared vision and objectives of each facet of the business will help engage employees. Allowing additional exposure to other teams, projects and challenges is an effective way of getting T-shapes (or potential T-shapes) involved, thus sparking change and innovation.

Encouraging interdisciplinary teams also has an effect on the culture of the workplace. This open, collaborative environment strengthens the empathy amongst teams and helps to craft a common language.

T-shaped people are certainly an asset to any organisation seeking growth, innovation and a strong company culture. They foster a collaborative approach to business whilst still maintaining their expertise in a core area. There is validity in having a team comprised of I-shaped people, however this can transform each department of a business into isolated silos, where staff are masters only of their own domain. This can result in a weak level of empathy between departments and diluted communications overall. Experts suggest that the most effective teams are ideally comprised of both I-shaped and T-shaped people so that there is greater interconnectivity amongst departments, open communication, people working within their fields of expertise with the option of expanding their knowledge and influence, and finally, a strong shared vision of the businesses goals.