Are you T-Shaped?

by Neeraja Ganesh

Are you T-Shaped?

I heard about the term ‘T-shaped’ some years ago and was happy to have learnt a new terminology but didn’t think too much about it at that time. I realised the importance of “being T-shaped” much later, when I effortlessly moved out of a 25 year career in the Information Technology (IT) field to head a not-for-profit foundation. Curious to know what the T-shape is?

T-shaped people have two kinds of characteristics. The vertical stroke of the “T” determines the depth of a particular skill that they possess. It could be design, coding, engineering or architecture. The horizontal bar of the “T” describes the breadth of general knowledge and soft skills that the person possesses. Hence, a T-shaped individual is definitely a specialist in a field, but also a generalist with multiple soft skills.

The core skills that are required to deliver IT solutions are very different from what is needed to run a not-for-profit organisation. However, I was appointed to head such a newly formed organisation, which had no other employees in it (not-for-profit organisations usually keep their team sizes small as they have to make the best use of their funds for the services they offer to their communities). Was I successful in that role? Was the organisation successful? Definitely. How did that happen?

The skills that came into play were from the horizontal element of the “T” that I had in me. Stakeholder management skills came in handy to develop partnerships for the organisation. People management skills were put to use to develop and engage the communities that we had to serve. Communication skills, especially written communication, were tested and proven in all the content that went out to stakeholders and for branding on social media. Skills like negotiation and predicting/influencing outcomes were required every day to ensure that I was able to get the work done from external teams who were supporting me. Of course, my work was not a priority for them as they had their own work schedules, but I had to navigate through that to get some of my task items delivered on time. These were skills that I had developed during my 25 years of IT career. While I specialised in understanding the IT landscape, technologies and the banking domain which I was servicing, the horizontal of my “T” kept broadening with every project that I took on. In fact, I ensured that I took on certain assignments which would push me to develop those additional skills, even if they were outside my core competency and areas of interest. The proof that such a T-shaped person gets noticed and rewarded with opportunities lies in the fact that the job to head the not-for-profit foundation was offered to me directly. It was not advertised, nor were others sought out for an interview.

Does it mean that one can become a T-shaped person only after years of work experience? Absolutely not. You become a T-shaped person by continuously looking out for opportunities that can help broaden the horizontal bar for yourself. If you are in college, you look out for options to study some subjects which are not part of your Core curriculum (e.g. if you are a Science student, take an elective from Humanities). One usually tends to participate in events and competitions that they believe they are talented in. I would suggest you go out of your comfort zone to pick up some activities which force you to mingle with people who are different from you. This will enable you to build skills around collaboration and teamwork. Put yourself out there to lead some activities. Volunteer, intern, participate in Hackathons and Ideathons ancd events related to start-ups in order to hone your communication, leadership skills, problem solving skills and develop an innovative mindset.

It’s never too early to start. I see the campus ambassadors of Aspire for Her foundation (AFH) becoming multi-faceted as they take on their daily assignments. At the end of the month-long ambassadorship program, the horizontal of their “T” would measure much longer than what it was when they started! And I have seen many of these ambassadors go on to contribute to interesting projects after the first month of the program, an endeavour that again deepens not only a couple of their core skills, but also equips them with other diverse skills. While I was still mentioning to family and friends about how my daughter, Sneha, moved on to become a Social Media Strategist after completing her Ambassador internship at Aspire for Her, she announced to me that she had a new role — she was to lead the Collaborations and Alliances for Aspire for Her. A role change in 2 months? One would think that it was an extremely short period of time to move from one role to another. But what allowed this mobility was the fact that even while engaged in her core role of handling the social media, she found opportunities to identify organisations with whom AFH could collaborate. That process honed her communication skills, project management skills, teamwork and collaboration skills which took her to her new role.

One does not have to restrict the learning of these additional skills to a college or an office setup. There are plenty of opportunities available at home which will help broaden the horizontal of your “T”. Learning a particular activity from another family member or teaching a particular activity to a family member is also a good way to add to your generalist skill sets. Try organising a get-together for family members(of course, virtual in today’s times). It will improve your planning, coordination, scheduling, delegation, problem solving and many other skills.

As Tim Brown, ex CEO, IDEO said,

“The reality is that when people come out of school, they’re often I-shaped. Our challenge, and anybody’s challenge who is looking to use this idea to collaborate, is to look for people where there is a nascent T-shaped potential.”

A T-shaped person can be identified as soon as someone meets them. Such are the people who are sought by organisations with complex requirements. The next generation workforce is required to be a “T”. Are you one?

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