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Career Success Starts With a "T"

Are you T-shaped? The most sought-after candidates are.

Are you T-shaped?

Are you T-shaped?

According to those in the talent-seeking field, the most sought-after candidates for management, consulting, research, and other leadership positions are T-shaped. The vertical stem of the T is the foundation: an in-depth specialized knowledge in one or two fields. The horizontal crossbar refers to the complementary skills of communication (including negotiation), creativity, the ability to apply knowledge across disciplines, empathy (including the ability to see from other perspectives), and an understanding of fields outside your area of expertise.

Organizations need workers with specialized knowledge who can also think broadly about a variety of areas, and apply their knowledge to new settings. Since T-shaped professionals possess skills and knowledge that are both broad and deep, developing and promoting your T-shaped talent may be the ticket to your career success now and in the future.

The term “T-shaped” isn’t new: it’s been in use since the 1990s but mostly in consulting and technical fields. Several companies, including IDEO and McKinsey & Company, have used this concept for years because they have always sought multidisciplinary workers who are capable of responding creatively to unexpected situations. Many companies have also developed interdisciplinary T teams to solve problems.

Dr. Phil Gardner at Michigan State University, who researches and writes regularly on recruiting trends, has been researching the concept of the T-shaped professional and the T-shaped manager. At the recent Rethinking Success Conference at Wake Forest University, Dr. Gardner described the ideal job candidate as a “liberal arts student with technical skills” or a “business/engineering student with humanities training”— in other words, a T-shaped candidate. Dr. Gardner is currently developing a guide for college students based on this concept. He notes that “while the engineers are out in front on this concept – every field will require T professional development.”

Dr. Gardner’s webpage references an excellent white paper from the Cambridge Service Science, Management and Engineering Symposium in 2007 which identifies four knowledge clusters of the T-shape concept: whole business and organizations; technology; people; and shared information. According to this paper, certain academic disciplines naturally support this type of knowledge integration including anthropology, architecture, cognitive science, financial and value engineering, knowledge management, information systems, operations management, psychology and sociology.

Another excellent online article on this topic refers to T-shaped professionals as “hybrid managers” who are immediately productive and can hit the ground running. Flexible in their mindset and approach to problems, they are able to go beyond any technical training or knowledge and apply a more creative problem solving approach.

One challenge of pure technical training is the potential to see the same solution to all problems (as in the classic phrase “to the man with a hammer, everything is a nail”). T-shaped professionals adapt their knowledge and problem-solving skills to fit the problem. In the current work environment it is no longer enough to be a one-trick pony: to have a specific expertise which you apply in a specific setting. Rather, the most sought-after workers have a deep knowledge of their discipline, but then also possess a strong understanding of the system as a whole including the people, the technology and the shared information.

The “T” concept can be particularly helpful for the career development of liberal arts majors. Foreign language majors, for example, may possess deep specialized knowledge of a language and a culture. But they will still need broader skills to work for most organizations. They might need to add other fields of knowledge like accounting/finance, computer skills, teaching, communication, writing, editing, etc., to their foreign language knowledge to be marketable. Thinking as a “T” will help liberal arts students develop their full potential for the workplace.

So are you a “T”?

If so, have you conveyed this ability to your potential or current employer? How have you applied your knowledge across boundaries? How do you use your communication skills in conjunction with your technical expertise?

If not, how might you consider developing your T profile and presenting it to a potential employer?

Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Identify your core skills. Where do you have a depth of knowledge or expertise? How do you apply your skills and in what settings? What skills/knowledge do you need to develop?
  • What discipline did you major in or concentrate on in college? How does that discipline apply to the job you’re seeking? Why would a person in that job need or value those skills and knowledge?
  • What courses did you take that were more interdisciplinary in nature? Where did you learn to apply your knowledge and skills to other fields?
  • Have you developed your oral and written communication skills? Can you discuss your area of expertise with individuals who don’t know as much about your field? How do you communicate the key elements of knowledge in your field? Have you studied the vocabulary of other fields to learn how your field interacts?
  • Have you developed your emotional intelligence for succeeding in the workplace?

Want to learn more? Check out these online resources:

©2012 Katharine Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Artwork credit: Robert Vega