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X, I or T - What shape are you, and do you need to cross-skill before it's too late?

Posted on 16/08/2017 by Gary Fay

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What shape are you - a T, an I, or even an X?

Popularised by Tim Brown (CEO of global design agency IDEO), T’s and I’s are used in business to describe the breadth and depth of an employee’s experience.

Amongst job seekers, there’s a fear of millennials employed in the industry. They appear to be multi-skilled by nature, and that makes them look like a threat. Are their skill sets broader? Are they more adept? Are they more likely to be chosen over those with more - but potentially less breadth of - experience?

This is the fundamental question. Is it better to have deep expertise in one area, or to specialise but also have broad knowledge of others?

While T shapes are all-rounders with both depth and breadth to their skill sets, the I’s are the polar opposite: those who have a great depth of experience in one skill set or one area. Great leaders and managers, on the other hand, tend to be X-shaped: they have a good depth of expertise that is founded on solid credibility, and are able to bring together diverse teams and lead them to success.

Here’s what each of the three shapes look like in real-world terms - and what they should do to upskill.

T - All-rounders

The vertical line of the ‘T’ refers to the shape’s depth of skill in a given field, the horizontal shows their ability to collaborate across various disciplines, and to apply their knowledge to areas of expertise outside of their own. Ts are all about knowledge of a few different disciplines with one as the main focus: a cybersecurity expert, for example, with a good understanding of digital transformation.

In IT positions, a T shaped candidate is ideal: such roles require a huge depth of knowledge of the job’s specifics, but also the ability to work across departments to understand the needs of others, and solve business issues that reach far wider than just their own department.

I - Deep divers

These employees show a huge depth of experience in one particular skill set - but it’s expertise that is confined to this role, and this role alone. An example might be a software developer with proficiency in a single programming language - the only language used by his or her employer.

Again, in most IT roles, this level of expertise is certainly desirable...but in a world of constant change, some breadth is required to cross-collaborate and to implement solutions that benefit the entire business.

X - Managers and leaders

A team of Is and Ts becomes truly powerful when you add an X: someone who has shown their worth as a T, but who combines their depth of knowledge and breadth of work with high credibility, plus the ability to lead a diverse team to achieve a common goal. Here, to some extent, the depth of their skill set is less important than their emotional intelligence, and their leadership qualities.

From a T to an X - and a successful hire

Pixar’s Ed Catmull and John Lasseter are prime examples of great leaders who have transitioned from Ts to Xs. The former started life as a computer scientist, the latter as an animator. Their current roles are no longer focused on their original skill sets, but on leading teams and developing strategies for those teams to succeed.

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Catmull’s book about leadership, Creativity, Inc., is well worth a read for those looking to hone their talents as an X type employee. He explains how great leadership is not about power and control, but about inspiring and leading others to achieve positive results.

“My job as a manager”, he says, “is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it.” In other words, a great manager strives to create the environment that is right for their team.

Mentoring, says Catmull, can be key in transitioning employees from a T to an X.

“We identified individuals who we thought had the potential to become directors, listing their strengths and weaknesses and being specific about what we would do to teach them, give them experience, and support them.”

One-to-one mentoring of these individuals helped Catmull and Pixar to achieve their goal - just another example of how great leadership can lead to great success - at both individual and company level.

A generational shift

For many, the workplace now features up to three generations - Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y - all of whom are different in their general approach and outlook to working life. However, things are changing: Generation Z are beginning to enter the workforce and the Baby Boomers are beginning to retire. This generational shift means that each generation is preparing to move up. We’ve already touched on fears that Millennials may have broader skill sets - but the question is whether I types can broaden their skill sets enough to become an X, or whether T types can successfully step up to replace the older generations that are heading for retirement.

No ‘right’ candidate

Those looking for a change of role should not be disheartened if they aren’t a 100% match with the person spec. It may be that aspects of the role can be taught or learned on the job. There is no ‘right’ candidate: each shape has its benefits to different types of role. While having an X shape - or demonstrating the qualities required for an X shape - is attractive to recruiters looking to fill management roles, there will be other positions where a T or an I will be better received.

While the shape analogy may be a useful tool, it doesn’t take into account cultural fit. Whatever shape you may be, ensure that you and the organisation to which you’re looking to apply are the perfect match by learning about their company missions, ethos and culture. To borrow our conclusion from Ed Catmull once again, “Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.”