Anatomy of a T-Shaped Employee & How to Be One

Have you ever heard the old saying, “Jill of all trades, master of none”? It has a catchy ring—but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true in all cases. And the ‘T-shaped’ employee is an example that defies this stereotype.

What is a T-Shaped Employee, you ask? It’s definitely not someone who stands with their arms stuck straight out (although, we won’t deny that’s an excellent hugging strategy).

A T-shaped employee is someone who can do it all—she has broad skills across many areas (the horizontal part of the T), but also deep expertise in one particular topic (the vertical piece).

If you’re wondering how it came about? Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, came up with the term.

As an Office Manager, Executive Assistant or Administrative Maestro, you likely have a wide variety of skills—everything from event planning to payroll to team building. But perhaps you have extensive expertise in successful database management with reliance on a specific tool or program. That nitty-gritty knowledge makes you T-shaped—especially if it helps loop in other areas of work.

T-shaped employees are huge assets to their companies—here’s why.

They’re Excellent Collaborators

Because a T-shaped employee has that broad experience at the top, she can collaborate cross-functionally like a boss. These people are not limited to skills and experience in one niche, but are able to contribute to a number of different projects and discussions that need attention.

They’re Great Resources

While broad experience is undoubtedly a benefit, it’s the deep expertise that really allows the person to shine in an office environment. They’re able to use their comprehensive knowledge of a particular subject to push discussions forward, bring new ideas to the surface, and benefit the rest of the organization as a whole.

They See the Whole Picture

I-shaped employees—those who only have a very specific skillset—still bring a great deal of value. But it becomes all too easy for them to drill down into their own subject area and neglect other areas of focus. T-shaped employees, on the other hand, turn around and actually apply that deep experience to other areas of the business or project and produce unforeseeable results.

Gee, T-shaped employees sound like they’re straight out of every boss’s dreams, don’t they? If you’re eager to become one yourself, we certainly wouldn’t blame you.

Here are four strategies you’ll need to start T-ing it up.

1. Look for Gaps

The key piece of a T-shaped employee is that vertical bar—the deep expertise in a particular area. If a strong skill isn’t immediately jumping into your mind (like the fact that you’re a total Canva wiz on your side of the Mississippi), you can start by identifying a space where you can develop some real expertise.

The best place to look? Your office. Is there something (or, more importantly, someone) that’s missing? Do you and your colleagues often commiserate about how great it’d be to have a skilled photographer among you to snap photos at your numerous company events? Or, maybe your small office’s social media presence is stale and you’ve been longing for someone to freshen things up.

Spoiler alert: You could be that person!

2. Narrow Your Focus

We know it’ll be hard to narrow down just one deep Ninja skill, but remember that this can become your greatest asset. Once you’ve identified a particular skill you think you could become an expert in, focus on that. You don’t want to try to become a business intelligence guru, operations expert, and an email marketing pro all at once.

Of course, you’ll still need to use your different skills on a daily basis. But when it comes to improving in a given area, don’t try to take on everything at once. Pinpoint the skill you’d like to gain and focus, focus, focus.

3. Become a Sponge

Alright, you’ve identified the expertise you can bring to the table. Now what?

While we wish we could become experts overnight, it’s actually going to take some serious commitment to learn your part so well you could do it in your sleep.

Think of yourself like a sponge—willing to soak up any piece of knowledge even somewhat related to your area of expertise. Read books, articles, and blogs. Take online courses and participate in webinars. Attend conferences or events. Talk to influential leaders or other experts in the space. Listen to podcasts.

Do whatever you can to gather as much knowledge and insight as you can. The more you learn, the more of an expert you’ll be (and quicker, we might add!).

4. Make an Impact

Remember, T-shaped employees are totally rad because they can apply deep knowledge to make a much bigger impact on the bottom line.

When you start to feel confident in your expert abilities, remember to use them to benefit other departments or teams. Use your newfound project management flow to streamline that office-wide report everybody hates. Put your social media expertise to work and grow your company’s following—and maybe even its bottom line.

Don’t neglect that top bar of the T once your momentum picks up. That’s where people will see the value of what you provide.

Luckily, transforming into a T-shaped employee could be just what you need to take your skills and your reputation to the next level in the office. Put these steps to use, and you’ll embody the characteristics of the perfect employee to a T. Pun very much intended.

Do you have any tips for developing deep knowledge and broad skills at the same time? Tell us your master Ninja tricks below!

OfficeNinjas

OfficeNinjas gives recognition to the administrative role by supporting and growing a community of executive assistants, office managers, and operations pros. OfficeNinjas brings these “Ninjas” tech resources, educational content, vetted vendor recommendations, and modern in-person events.

Comments

  1. Carolyn
     

    I believe you’re correct that most Ninja’s are T’s. My problem with my “T-dom” is that when I find s place where I want to learn more and really branch out for my workplace, they then hire someone to work on that particular idea full-time without saying to me, hey, this was your baby–want to give it a go? OR, they change the system so my skills/knowledge doesn’t quite apply. While this is part negative, it means I get to learn more things so it also has a positive side. Excuse me while I go make a cup of “t” now.

  2. Erica Gonzalez
     

    Great article! I also discovered Canva here, thank you for including it. What a great service!

  3. Cathy
     

    Great article. Describes me to a “T” as I’ve always been penalized for having an IT degree and being “over qualified” to be an EA. My functional knowledge spans HR, office management, event planning, safety and compliance and my expertise and love has always been technology, databases, and analytics. Using my IT background has allowed me to be part of the planning and implementation teams in my department to increase our efficiency and improve our processes. Next job interview or sit-down with my boss, I will be sure to package my background in this manner. Wish I had thought of it this way sooner! Thanks!!

  4. Cheryl Ranier
     

    OK read this article and it fits me to a “T” (Pun intended). I had over 15 years of military experience which lends itself to the “T” type employee since we had to do everything with very little. Once I looked for civilian employment I leveraged my database speciality and landed a position as a Marketing assistant although I had no experience in marketing. I continued to grow, always taking on more responsibilities and tasks. When I landed my “forever” job I quickly adapted my talents to their needs and it has been smooth sailing ever since.

  5. Kathleen Young Rybarczyk
     

    I came from a medical background into and HR job. I had employee information files in my office, but no lock on my office door! I immediately pointed out the possibility for an information breach to my boss, and they put a lock on the door within a week. I was glad my confidentiality training in medical records and medical transcription translated over.

  6. Judd Whiting
     

    Wow I just read this artical and this is exactly ME. Although not in an office setting, my job as a Maintenance Technition for a large University, shows me evey evidence that I am daliy a
    T-shaped employee. Yes, I have single strengths that are my go to abilities and yet I am so much more in knowledge of “how to/what to”, do in all situations. I continue to learn and push myself to know more of everything and anything. Perhaps thats the engineering side of my mind..haha.
    I would like to caution thoes that begin to find themsleves in a T-shaped development, that they also have some humility behind their broaden knowldege. Don’t g et the attitude of “They can’t let me go because I know too much”.. Also share your knowldege with others, don’t let your skills be some kind of employee secrect that makes you think your the only hero in the company. Give, Learn and Teach will get you futher in employment than might think! !

    1. OfficeNinjas
      author

      Yay! T-shaped employees are certainly valuable in any field :)

  7. Cheryl
     

    I did make the OfficeNinjas e-newsletter part of my employee development plan. I am saving this article as this was brought up in my annual review. I have established expert areas, more of an “I” but I’m extending my arms out to be more of a “T”. Thanks for this details description and information. Very helpful.

    1. OfficeNinjas
      author

      Wow, that’s awesome news Cheryl! Good luck spreading those Ninja wings :) Any ideas what you’ll branch out to first?

  8. Megan
     

    I’m saving this article and adding it to my career development plan.

    1. OfficeNinjas
      author

      Nice! What else is in that plan, Megan?

  9. Anna
     

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article and am glad to say that I am a T-shaped employee to the T!

    1. OfficeNinjas
      author

      Thanks, Anna! We were betting most Ninjas fell in this category

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