T-shaped skills are referred to in job recruitment to describe the abilities of candidates. The vertical bar of the T refers to expert knowledge and experience in one particular area. The horizontal top of the T refers to an ability to collaborate with experts in other disciplines. Immensely empathetic T-shaped individuals can see through others’ eyes, walk in their shoes, listen actively, and create solutions that build on their ideas. They shine in diverse, collaborative teams and standout among recruiters and hiring managers compared to I-shaped job applicants.

An I-shaped person has deep knowledge and expertise in a single area but has not intertwined his or her skills with other disciplines and fields. Creativity and innovation come about through professionals collaborating with persons in different areas of expertise. Unfortunately, our educational system is built to produce I-shaped students who will take their singularity of focus to the business world. The good news is there is a way to nurture and grow your T-skills:

  • Assess your skills to determine how transferable they are to projects, positions and industries outside your current field.
  • Expand your horizons by getting involved with diverse teams, global projects and cross-disciplinary challenges.
  • Sharpen your soft skills like communication, active listening and building empathy to continuously improve your collaboration abilities.
  • Nurture a growth mindset around cross-training.

To paraphrase, a T-shaped person is a jack of many trades and a master of (at least) one. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship between specialization and generalization while avoiding the pitfalls of being only one or the other. The “rush” a T-shaped individual experiences is one of improved collaboration, stimulated interest, depth of skills satisfaction, enhanced creativity and for job seekers being a magnet to prospective employers. T-shaped candidates standout compared to their I-shaped competition who meet but don’t exceed the job posting minimum requirements and are less “interesting” because of the singularity of their backgrounds.

Make developing your T-shaped self a habit. Building a T-shaped set of knowledge and skills is one of the most valuable things you can do for your career and personal development. Careers are no longer narrowly defined by core skills, but through complementary skills and learning agility. As the world of work continues to change, your skills choices will determine if your career can stand the test of time. Remember: your career path is a work in progress. Your ability to work effortlessly with others, apply knowledge across disciplines, see from other perspectives and understand fields outside your area of expertise will make you an attractive candidate and a compelling employee.

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