As a manager seeking to hire a team member, do you look for a specialist or a generalist? As a learning leader, do you build your team to include specialists, generalists, or a mix? What about your strategy for developing needed skills on teams across your organization?

On the flip side, when honing your skills and polishing your resume, do you highlight your deep knowledge of a specific area or tout your broad range of skills?

The days of hiring either specialists or generalists may be drawing to a close, as managers and leaders discover the value of a hybrid: The employee with a T-shaped skill set.

What is a T-shaped skill set (or employee)?

An idea that was used internally at McKinsey and Company as far back as the 1980s, the concept of a T-shaped skills profile (Figure 1) features:

  • A horizontal bar — the broad skill set comprising interpersonal, functional, and industry-specific skills
  • A vertical bar — in-depth, specialized knowledge in areas related to the employee’s field, specific role, and individual interests, focus topics, or experience

T shaped skill set

Figure 1: T-shaped skills profile (Illustration by Pamela Hogle) 

Over the course of a person’s career or within a job role, they might deepen skills along either bar of the T; they are also likely to add new skills to the horizontal bar as they upskill, work toward a career goal, or simply learn new skills out of curiosity and interest.

A specialist might have an I-shaped skills profile, which would mean deep subject knowledge but few collaborative or other skills unrelated to their specific discipline; this is increasingly rare, though, as even the most specialized experts tend to have basic knowledge of other skills and areas.

A third profile is the X-shape; these generalists have broad skills that they can apply in many areas or fields, but lack deep expertise in any one area. These individuals tend to excel at working with different kinds of people and are often strong candidates for managerial or executive positions.

T-shaped employees are great additions to your L&D team

An employee with a T-shaped skill set that includes a strong component of interpersonal, communications, collaboration, and other people skills is an obvious asset to a team whose members work with the entire organization—as an L&D team generally does.

On the way to becoming a well-rounded T-shaped employee, your employee is likely to learn to be flexible in how they work with others as well as what they work on. In addition, their broad skill set may well have been honed in different roles and at a variety of organizations, leading to flexibility and perhaps an ability—even eagerness—to tackle a variety of tasks and adjust as the team’s needs or workload changes.

A T-shaped L&D professional’s skill set

The skills needed for L&D professionals have changed dramatically in recent years. Fluency in a particular tool or suite of tools may be needed, but it’s certainly not enough. Skills fall into three broad categories: organizational knowledge, professional knowledge & skills, and personal development.

Organizational knowledge

Organizational knowledge includes insights and knowledge specific to your field and organization—and knowing isn’t enough. The employee must be able to read, process, and retain knowledge—and explain it to others. Business insight includes “future-readiness”—an understanding of how things are shifting and potential disruptors.

Other skills in this category are largely strategic and include talent management and strategy, change management, and organizational development.

Professional knowledge & skills

For L&D team members, professional skills include both academic knowledge such as an understanding of learning science, instructional design, and adult learning principles; and practical skills in media creation and L&D-focused technology.

Personal development

Personal development gets into soft skills like communication, emotional intelligence, and collaboration—as well as leadership skills and knowledge of how to advance equity and diversity. Power skills like critical thinking and problem-solving could land here as well.

Choosing where to focus

Obviously no individual can excel in all skills under all of these categories. Whether you’ve been in L&D for over a decade or are one of the many people entering the instructional design field from education and other related fields, the question of which skills should make up your ‘T’ is a relevant one.

In co-author Barry Nadler’s experience, T-shaped learning professional have broad knowledge of many of the skills L&D professionals need to know—enough to answer questions, identify solutions, and know their resources around a topic. Then, on a few other skill sets, they’d “go deep”—specialize and become an expert.

An ID (instructional designer) could take this concept in several directions. They might focus deeply on ID models and the science of learning, while also learning key tools and technologies to an expert level. IDs eyeing an upward move into learning leadership might delve more deeply into organizational skills like change management and leadership skills.

Building your team

As a learning leader, what goals should guide your strategy in developing your team? While a team of T’s is a worthy goal, for smaller teams this could be problematic, as the narrow-and-deep focus of its members might not be a fit for every project.

Learning leaders might consider a related concept, that of a “stalactite-shaped” skill set (Figure 2). Nadler coined this idea after watching a keynote presentation by Michelle Weise, an expert on the future of work and learning. It recognizes that as a person progresses in their career, their knowledge in many areas increases, whether to an expert level or a mid-range—between a novice and an expert. Thus instead of the single vertical bar of the T, the person’s skill profile looks more craggy, like stalactites on a cave ceiling.

Stalactite shape skills profile

Figure 2: Stalactite-shaped skills profile (Illustration by Pamela Hogle) 

Advantages include an ability to work across projects and even teams—a stalactite L&D professional could work with SMEs to identify businesses needs, work as a developer to create the training programs, deliver the programs, potentially generate or curate media, and more. They might possess business skills that help with problem-solving, or be able to define KPIs and other metrics to evaluate against.

Team-building strategy

For smaller teams stalactite professionals are essential, while larger teams can have a collection of T-shaped professionals with complementary areas of expertise—or a mix. For multi-person L&D teams, partnering “stalactite” team members with “T-shaped” IDs works well: The stalactite employee can help define the solution and parameters, partner with the ‘T’ to launch the project, then hand it over so the ‘T’ can run with the project—and the stalactite can move on to planning the next project.

Whether hiring or developing employees, whether for their own L&D team or for teams across the organization, learning leaders will find value in considering both T’s and stalactites. When creating a strategy to upskill a team, knowledge of these options can help team leaders define the skills needed and map an approach to ensuring that team members achieve needed proficiency levels in each skill.

Upskilling entire teams—or individual employees—will likely require a mix of content and learning approaches to add and deepen needed skills:

  • Some learners will need intensive, in-depth content, to move these learners toward expert-level skill and knowledge in specific focus areas
  • Most learners will need or want to develop skills at a less-expert level of competence in a variety of areas, from soft skills to job-related knowledge to use of specific tools or equipment

A skilled manager or learning leader will ensure that each team includes employees whose non-job-specific skills complement those of their teammates and enable them to assist with or perform most of the types of projects their team needs.

Shape your training strategy around T’s

Companies increasingly face skills gaps: Workers with specific skills may have left or retired during the Great Reshuffle, creating a loss of institutional knowledge and skills. In addition the skills needed for many roles constantly evolves as technology changes the way we do business. As a result, many leaders are prioritizing reskilling and upskilling workers and continuous learning, in addition to hiring to fill skill gaps.

Learning leaders can help by strategically developing teams across the organization—updating and adding digital skills and targeting training to areas where skills gaps are most evident. By focusing on building broad skill sets that include creativity, collaboration, and communication skills, learning leaders can future-proof the organization and boost its competitiveness and effectiveness.

Strategize with—and learn from—other learning leaders

Are you seeking the strategies and skills required to navigate the needs of today’s ever-changing workplace? Are you an experienced or aspiring leader looking for a community to connect with to explore today’s biggest learning leadership challenges?

The Learning Leaders Alliance is a vendor-neutral global community for learning leaders who want to stay ahead of the curve and for aspiring leaders wanting to build their skill sets. The Learning Guild’s Alliance Membership package includes access to exclusive digital events and content curated for today’s modern learning leader, as well as opportunities to attend in-person learning leadership events held around the globe.