We’ve all heard the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none” and this typically describes an individual who can turn their hand to many things but whose skill and knowledge is not considered well developed in any. On the opposite spectrum, specialist experts, are highly skilled in one specific area and are usually not very adept – or interested – in broadening their exposure.

Traditionally, large companies with very hierarchical and segmented structures have tended to hire specialists and smaller, leaner organisations have opted for the “Jacks and Jills” who can manage the myriad of tasks usually required to get the job done. In today’s highly complex work environment, these extremes are no longer desirable, with something in-between being a better fit for the expectations of customers.

Enter the T-shaped employee

As far back as the 1980s the concept of a T-shaped employee was discussed, primarily within consulting firms like McKinsey & Company who tried to describe the ideal makeup of a potential consultant or the type of profile that their clients should ideally be hiring.

Utilising the letter “T” as the metaphor, ideal employees were described by their combination of breadth and depth of knowledge and skills. The vertical bar on the “T” represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own.

T shaped Employee

 T-Shaped people are both generalists [highly skilled at a broad set of valuable things],  the top of the T and also experts [in a narrow discipline] the vertical leg of the T.

Why businesses now target T-shaped employees

The demands of business are many and cross-functional collaboration has become par for the course. It’s no wonder that many of our clients – large corporates as well as agile start-ups – are actively targeting individuals that come out of management consulting firms. These individuals have been exposed to a wide range of businesses and sectors and, by the nature of their consulting roles, have gained skills, knowledge and experience managing projects, affecting change, engaging with varied stakeholders and apply their specialist skills.

The primary reasons T-shaped people are in high demand, includes:

Leaner teams can still deliver on complex projects

Their broad exposure and ability to take on (competently) a variety of roles and responsibilities within a project means companies can get the same outputs with fewer people.

T-shaped people are more adaptable

Specialists generally struggle to shift their thinking and work styles, preferring to stick to their knitting. Those who possess T-shaped profiles are naturally more agile and can make the adjustments necessary for success.

Communication is improved as technical language barriers fall

By learning a greater range of skills and the associated domain-specific language, T-shaped people find it easier to understand others in the team and to act as a translator of sorts, providing the bridge between specialists and non-technical stakeholders.

Innovation and continuous improvement are driven by the individuals through their desire to learn and share

T-shaped people have growth mindsets and are open to new ideas, acquiring skills – seemingly from left of centre – and finding better ways of doing things. In a marketplace where competition and success are linked to innovation and product/process improvements, this critical thinking combined with creativity is highly valuable.

At the heart of the T-shaped employee is the desire to grow beyond a single specialist area and the ability to acquire knowledge, develop skills and gain exposure in diverse environments. For organisations that can provide opportunities and the ability for employees to participate in cross-functional teams and who encourage skills and knowledge transfer, the ability to attract – and retain – these valuable T-shaped employees will be high.

At TSR, we’re known for unlocking opportunities beyond consulting: providing management consultants with the ability to keep the aspects of the job they love – the broad exposure, continual learning opportunities and highly challenging projects – but lose those elements that become tiresome – the extensive travel and high stress levels.

As organisations begin to appreciate the high value of T-shaped employees, the easier it becomes to shift from consulting to corporate. Of course it means developing recruitment and assessment processes and tools that recognise that T-shaped people by their very nature do not fit in the box!

Are you still stuck between a rock and a hard place? Faced with the choice of hiring an expert who is too narrow and likely has difficulty collaborating OR a generalist who does not go deep enough in a single area and struggles to contribute to your business growth.

Why not shift your thinking and start targeting T-shaped individuals, those with deep experience in one area and interest across a broad range?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences of T-shaped employees. And, if you’re keen to explore how these individuals could make a real and lasting difference to your business, give #TeamTSR a call.