Get a Handle on the Future of Work by Becoming a T-shaped Person

Many people like to think in well-defined categories. We put information into boxes because it helps us simplify decisions. Understanding what matters to us enables us to ignore everything else we deem unimportant.

This principle extends to our careers. Unfortunately, what can be a beneficial heuristic in everyday life can actually hinder your career progress. Confining your knowledge and skills solely to your job description limits your opportunities for growth and overall value to employers.

For this reason, more people need to make an effort to think outside the box. Doing so helps us become T-shaped and thereby chart a better course to succeed in an increasingly complex future of work.

An analogy of letters

The concept of a T-shaped person is based on their skillset. Inevitably, they are also compared with the I-shaped person. The structure of these two letters is similar. They both have a long vertical, but the T has a shallow and broad horizontal bar.

In terms of skill, the vertical translates to depth in a specific area. This is your domain of specialization. The longer the vertical, the more depth of knowledge you have, and the better you are in that domain. The horizontal bar represents the breadth of skill. It means you have some knowledge in a wide variety of skills, often unrelated to your specialization. Because it’s shallow, you don’t possess extensive knowledge of these skills.

For employers, however, that shallow breadth makes a critical difference. In the right combination, it gives individuals deep, disciplined expertise as well as cross-disciplinary capabilities.

An asset amid uncertainty


Having this quality can definitely make you a valuable asset to any employer. In fact, as early as the 1980s, consultancy McKinsey & Company identified the T-shaped person as someone recruiters should look for. Such individuals help companies put interdisciplinary teams together and become more effective and innovative.

But the real value of a T-shaped employee comes from their ability to handle complexity. The modern workplace is constantly changing at a great pace. The higher up you go, the more your job will become inherently unpredictable and complicated.

Successful companies today are exploiting opportunities that didn’t exist as little as five years ago. Their employees are performing functions that couldn’t have been taught back when they were still in school. Those skills didn’t even exist yet.

The implication is that tomorrow’s jobs will continue to demand versatility and adaptability of employees. Fewer people will be able to succeed on the strength of an I-shaped skillset.

T-shaped people are at their best in the uncertain, “wicked” work environments of today and tomorrow. Their transferable skills help them deal with hidden information, navigate multiple variables in motion, and collaborate with people from different backgrounds.

Taking the first steps

How do you become a T-shaped person? Clearly, you can’t rest on your laurels. You have to keep on learning. But it won’t be enough to continue probing the depths of your field.

Continuous learners in today’s career competition need two mindsets. They must have a growth mindset to treat failure as a stimulus for improvement.

But they also need to have a curiosity mindset. This is the engine that drives learning in an expansive, intentional manner. It gives you greater awareness, receptiveness to new ideas, and the creativity to make connections between seemingly disparate concepts.

Begin by assessing your current skillset. How deep is your vertical expertise? How broadly can you apply yourself to other domains?

From there, you can mix it up. Continue to stay abreast of developments within your specialization. Explore areas that might seem tangential or even unrelated, and dabble enough to have knowledge transfer.

Gaining an edge

Keep in mind that not all companies get it right when seeking out T-shaped people to join their teams. Historically, most organizations are built around groups of similar, I-shaped employees. If you look for T-shaped people who all possess the same vertical, you still end up with a group that’s limited in its collective capabilities.

Sometimes, that’s enough to get the desired results. A marketing team can put out engaging content without an in-house writer. But there will be times when critical results call for the right vertical. Tax firms may still need to consult for capital allowance issues. Their specialization may be closely related, but it’s not the same.

Being a T-shaped person won’t always land you the job you want or get you into the prestigious company you’ve been eyeing. The personal fit remains a big factor. But if you nail that, having both breadth and depth of knowledge will give you the edge over other candidates.

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