By Crystal Schaffer, senior moderator and instructional designer at Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning, and Andrea Lipton, interim director, Global Solutions at Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning.
Effective leaders make all the difference in an organization’s business outcomes. When people feel heard and trusted, and that they can trust their leaders, they are more motivated and successful in their positions. But good leadership goes further. The best leaders make purposeful choices to empower their teams, both as individuals and as a unit. Each person brings a unique set of skills and personality traits and thrives when their bosses recognize them for who they are and how they can contribute to the team effort.
In 2010, IDEO CEO Tim Brown, whose company is internationally renowned for its innovative design work, gave an interview in which he described the “T-shaped person” his company regularly hires. T-shaped people have a depth of skill in one area—the vertical line of the “T”—and an ability to work cross-functionally across disciplines—the horizontal line of the “T.” While Brown’s interview brought widespread attention to the concept of the “T-shaped” professional, the idea originated at McKinsey & Company in the 1980s and gained attention in the business world in a 1991 talk about engineers given by David Guest.
It is no coincidence that the focus on T-shaped professionals arose at the same time that many companies were becoming more matrixed in their organizational design. The intention of these matrixed structures was to flatten hierarchy and break down silos that had historically been led by “I-shaped” leaders. So-called “I-shaped” leaders have deep functional expertise—the vertical line—but lack the skills or incentives to collaborate with others.
Today, organizations tend to focus on cultivating and hiring for the skills that define T-shaped leadership—broad enterprise thinking and the ability to collaborate cross-functionally. But many have lost sight of the importance of general management skills like understanding your company’s business model and how it makes money.
One senior leader we talked to noted, “Back in the day, someone would enter a large-scale organization and be put through these general management training programs, and when you came out, you would be grounded in the basics of the business. That doesn’t happen anymore. And we don’t focus on those skills the way we once did. We focus more on developing soft skills and expect people to bring deep functional expertise and then learn the business as they go along. It doesn’t always happen.”
Addressing these concerns, Harvard Business School professors Ranjay Gulati and Amy Edmondson suggest that being T-shaped is about both having the enterprise perspective and ability to manage across boundaries, as well as integrating several decidedly I-shaped qualities, namely the commitment to get things done and the capacity to drive performance. As Boston College professor Andy Boynton points out in an October 2011 Forbes, “Both types are essential in any organization…The point is not that the Ts have it—that it’s always better to be one of them. It’s that most people would be well-advised to develop T characteristics… There’s nothing wrong with being a card-carrying I as long as you can also be a T in some significant sense.” Bottom line: The key is to invest in developing both sets of skills.
In the absence of general management training, many companies today over-index on the value of enterprise thinking and fail to realize that their employees do not understand fundamental issues like how their business model works and how their role fits into the organization’s overall strategy. While teaching employees to think globally and cross-functionally is important, if they cannot understand how your organization makes money and how they contribute to your top and bottom lines, they could be limited in their ability to help your business evolve, change, and pivot to find new sources of revenue and new opportunities to serve your customers.
So, let’s stop glorifying the “T-shaped” professionals and demonizing the “I-shaped” ones, and start aspiring to “both/and” leadership. As a leader, when you invest in ensuring every employee understands your business model and strategy and knows how to leverage their expertise to fit into both, you unlock everyone’s potential.
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