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Shape Employees for Success

August 2, 2019

Some roles will always require mastery and focus in a specialized area. However, realizing the full value of that expertise is dependent on employee exposure to new opportunities for collaboration and learning.

Technology’s rapid evolution requires continuous development. Employees need skill diversification and the ability to work cross-functionally to keep up. Otherwise, employee performance and innovation stagnates. Strategic career paths provide a foundation for intentional employee growth.

Shaping Up

The idea of employee shapes was popularized by IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown. Employee shapes represents depth and breadth of capability.

The vertical stem (or the “I” portion) stands for expertise. The horizontal stem of the “T” stands for expansion across skills and collaboration with peers. X-shaped employees tend to be great leaders that have roots in the depth of vast subject knowledge, with professional credibility and drive to reach across specialties and levels. 

As an employee, becoming a T-shaped specialist requires a lot of time and effort to build deep expertise and collaborative skills.

Working in a company with a clear job structure can smooth the way to growth and gaining exposure to new skills and contacts. However, many companies struggle with establishing a clear structure so it can be surprisingly arduous, but it doesn’t have to be! 

Effective strategists engage all of their resources, like pieces on a chessboard.

“Do not leave any piece where it has no range of action or is out of touch with your other pieces.”

- Euguene Znosko-Borovsky, chess expert

So then, if you’re leading an HR (or People) department, your challenge is to organize all of those I, T, and X-shaped employees to support your company’s strategy, while ensuring employees have clear career paths. 

Ready for Rapid Change

Dr. Phil Gardner, Head of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, named the excellent job applicant as a “liberal arts student with technical skills”. Technology and the associated in-demand technical skills change rapidly. New technologies rise every day and those with highly sought-after adaptive abilities can count on staying competitive in today’s market.

Recent market research shows that by 2022, the demand for professional skills like critical thinking, creativity, negotiation, cognitive flexibility, and emotional intelligence will continue to grow and will be needed alongside the technical prowess that will help keep project offers rolling in.

Case studies from the latest project reviews at LaSoft, IT company are a great example of this phenomenon.

The biggest challenge for employees in the T-shaped concept can be reaching developmental goals while managing existing work projects and goals.  Formal education, project work, or soft skills are all great places to start, but successful development requires a strategy as well. Znosko-Borovsky taught in chess that “It is not a move, even the best move, that you must seek, but a realizable plan.” Learning with a purpose sustains motivation for continuous learning. Sharing and applying that newfound knowledge provides a quick ROI for employees and their company.  T-shaped employees are able to solve more complicated tasks for the less amount of time across a wider range. 

Putting the T in Team

Is your organization is full of talented Ts that are struggling to identify paths for growth? If so, it may be time to revisit your company’s job structure and levels. As companies grow they need to be nimble. It is easier to make decisions when you have a framework in place for support. However, job structures are often shelved for posterity once created. If they are not revisited to ensure alignment with an organization’s current strategy and needs they will become outdated. 

Are your employees and managers familiar with your company’s job level structure? Have you communicated how it supports your company’s strategy? Make sure it is not just an I-shaped document living in HR, it should have a “T” reach across the organization too. Job structures can be a great tool to introduce new employees to the roles within your organization for collaboration. They can also help tenured employees when developing career plans. So make sure you're playing with a full view of the board, or you won’t get you very far in chess or in business. 

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