The t-shaped approach to building a 21st century career

The world of work is changing quickly.

In the 21st century, careers are no longer narrowly defined by core skills, but through complementary skills and learning agility.

If you can figure out the right approach to improve your skills, you will have a massive edge over everyone else.


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Your career has a huge effect on how you live your life.

The career you choose can determine where you live, how flexible your life is, what you can do in your free time, and sometimes who you end up marrying.

Your skills, knowledge, and competency (past, present) are either helping you advance your career or hindering your progress in life.

Knowledge begets knowledge, and new competencies drive careers forward.

As the world of work continues to change, your choices will determine if your career can stand the test of time.

Your career path is a work in progress.

It’s something you shape yourself to build authority and reputation, hence the need to consistently invest in yourself in the best way possible.

The t-shaped approach to building a lasting career

The term “t-shaped” isn’t new.

An alternate phrase for “t-shaped” is “generalizing specialist”.

The top of the T is the generalized part.

The upright stem of the T is the deeper understanding of your general knowledge — your expertise.

The term was popularized by Tim Brown, the CEO of the “innovation and design” firm IDEO.

Dr. Phil Gardner, Director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, once described the ideal job candidate as a “liberal arts student with technical skills” or a “business/engineering student with humanities training” — in other words, a t-shaped candidate.

He notes that “while the engineers are out in front on this concept — every field will require T professional development.”

The t-shaped approach has been in use since the 1990s by mostly consulting and technical companies to recruit and manage talent.

IDEO and McKinsey & Company have used this concept for years find world-class workers who are adaptable and can solve problems in creative ways.

T-shaped professionals are experts in one or two disciplines (the vertical bar) and have also mastered other complimentary skills (horizontal crossbar) that make it easier for them to adapt in any environment.

Complementary skills include the ability to work effortlessly with others, the ability to apply knowledge across disciplines, the ability to see from other perspectives, and an understanding of fields outside your area of expertise.

Embracing the T-shaped approach to learning throughout your career can be really valuable to your career.

Some vertical knowledge can become easily become outdated but when you have horizontal or niche skills, you can easily differentiate yourself in a crowded market.

Are you ready for the future?

To survive the changing world of work, focus on acquiring a variety of timeless horizontal skills as you improve your core skills.

Where do you have a depth of knowledge or expertise?

Once you know that, build other competencies around it.

You’ll not only stay versatile but also get a better understanding of the work you naturally gravitate to, which you can specialize in later on.

T-shaped professionals build a wealth of knowledge over time and have the ability to quickly learn new tasks.

They have deep knowledge and skills in a particular area of specialization, along with and the desire and ability to make connections across disciplines.

T-shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills.

Broaden and deepen your set of skills. It’s the only way to build a meaningful and lasting career in the 21st century.
Interdisciplinary knowledge is what allows us to see with new eyes.

Remember, change is the only constant.

Pay attention to the trajectory of your industry and stay on the forefront by learning new applicable skills.

Stay a little ahead of the curve — just enough to know what’s likely to last and improve yourself accordingly.

In an increasingly connected and interdependent world, if you have sufficient depth in a few — or even many — domains (comb-shaped), you can often be more valuable than a specialist.

Transforming into a T-shaped (or comb-shaped) professional could be just what you need to take your career to the next level.

This article first appeared on Medium


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