T-Shaped Skills

A specific set of desirable skills possessed by an employee

What are T-Shaped Skills?

T-shaped skills refer to a special type of qualities that make an employee valuable. A T-shaped individual possesses excellent knowledge of and skills in specific areas and is good at working with others in a collaborative way. There are different types of employees, referred to as “I’s”, “T’s”, and “X’s.” The most desirable type of employee is often a T.

T-Shaped Skills

A T-shaped individual is a metaphor; it is used heavily by job recruiters or companies looking to hire strong employees. It is a reference to applicants possessing the most desirable skills. The vertical bar on the T-shaped person is representative of an individual’s unique abilities and skills and how deep their knowledge is related to those abilities and skills. The horizontal bar represents the person’s ability to use said skills and abilities to collaborate with others in different areas of expertise.

Key Highlights

  • T-shaped skills — or a T-shaped person — is a reference to qualities that make an employee valuable; they possess excellent knowledge of and skills in specific areas and are good at working with others in a collaborative way.
  • The term was first used in-house at McKinsey & Company; it was popularized by David Guest and IDEO CEO Tim Brown.
  • Along with T-shaped skills, there are X-shaped skills (meaning an individual is a good managerial candidate) and I-shaped skills (which means the individual is knowledgeable/skilled in a certain area but hasn’t mastered the ability to collaborate).

History of T-Shaped Skills

The first “official” reference to T-shaped skills, or a T-shaped person, was made by David Guest back in 1991. The concept gained real popularity after the CEO of IDEO Design Consultancy firm — Tim Brown — endorsed the idea when looking over applicants’ resumes. Brown’s idea? Using the search for T-shaped skills/a T-shaped person helps build the very best interdisciplinary teams within a company. It, in turn, leads to a stronger, more efficient and potentially groundbreaking company.

However, historically speaking, the term T-shaped man can be dated back to the 1980s. At that time, McKinsey & Company used the term widely on internal documents and publications that were seen primarily by upper management. The term was referring to the idea that the T-shaped man (which also included women by that point) was ideal for recruitment as an employee and should also be looked for in terms of the consultants and partners the company decided to work with.

Advantages of Hiring T-Shaped Individuals

Employing T-shaped professionals is beneficial to a company. With their core skills and ability to learn things quickly, T-shaped employees excel in their main responsibilities but they can also perform other tasks effectively. In such a way, they contribute to the growth of the business as a whole. Specifically, they offer the following advantages:

1. Better communication and collaboration skills

T-shaped individuals are able to deal with other people and understand their needs as a whole, because of their ability to discuss matters across the entire company. They understand the ways other people work and the reasons for doing things in a certain way.

2. Flexibility

While T-shaped employees can cite a main expertise, or a primary area of work, they can still offer their skills to other priority areas that may require their assistance. They are flexible enough to take on new tasks and help other members on their team to make sure that the overall goals and objectives are met.

3. Hard and soft skills

In addition to hard skills, such as design or programming skills, T-shaped employees also possess soft skills such as networking and critical thinking, making them a complete package.

Who are X-Shaped and I-Shaped Individuals?

The T-shaped individual is just one type. The other types most commonly referred to are X- and I-shaped people.

The X-shaped individual refers to the type of person who is good at working in multiple areas. The term is used to directly refer to those employees who are excellent manager material. The multiple arms of the X represent a person with good interpersonal skills and can work with different people across different industries or areas of a company. They are then able to bring such different groups together (indicated by the cross-section of the X) so that they can collaborate effectively.

The I-shaped individual is similar to a T-shaped person; however, they are lacking in one specific area. The I-shaped individual possesses a deep understanding of and skills in a given arena. However, they have not tried or have not been successful at applying said knowledge or skills to other areas. Depth of experience is valuable, but a well-rounded and highly sought-after employee can use his or her skills in multiple areas.

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