Keeping yourself relevant in this changing world

8 Jun 2019
Carrie Birmingham

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Are you nervous about how you keep yourself relevant in this changing world? Do you wonder how to tackle the challenges on your horizon? Do you want to find ways to develop new solutions?

As I progressed in my HR career, I relished opportunities to deepen my expertise. Always up for learning a new method or tool, I was regularly on courses and reading books within my field.  As my specialism developed, I vividly remember the pleasure of feeling wanted by the people who sought out my wisdom, and also feeling proud of the depth of my specialist knowledge (I notice how arrogant I feel in writing this!). But as I became more senior and the challenges became more and more complex, I noticed that more regularly my expertise didn’t really offer any guidance. I remember the fear of:

How do you know what to do when you don’t know what to do?

I noticed that I started reaching outside my field of expertise to develop solutions (e.g. using charity work  to teach leadership rather than models, using digital language to talk about change, getting advice from journalists about communicating redundancies).  I started to see that my specialist knowledge was useful, and my work had a better impact, when I called on a broader hybrid of skills.

T-shaped people 

Little did I know this is a common and normal experience.  When I came across the idea of T-shaped people, I was able to understand my experience in a different way.  In the oddly named book, Cad Monkeys, Dinosaur babies and T-shaped people, Tim Brown (IDEO’s former CEO) is quoted describing T-shaped people as, ‘they start out with deep interest and expertise in one skill, that’s the vertical base of the T – as then as they blossom, they branch out into many different areas.’ He expands on this in an interview in the Chief Executive magazine, by describing ‘I shaped’ people as experts in one thing.

It feels nice to be ‘I shaped’

It’s a classic case of ‘what got you here, won’t get you there‘, but this can feel like a difficult transition for leaders who have always lent on their specialism and expertise. What gets us noticed is our expertise; it is usually the reason we get promoted, so naturally we feel very loyal to it.  We often find ourselves connecting and networking with other experts in our field and so hence this builds our belonging.  For many it defines us, and so it becomes our identity.  It is the answer we give when new people ask “What do you do?”.  Kudos is offered to experts and so it feels nice to be ‘I shaped’.

So why become T-shaped?

There are several strands of thinking that argue that the world needs us to become more T-shaped.

Firstly being T-shaped is what the world needs.  Petrie argues that in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, everything is interconnected and no one can predict what big changes are coming next. People who are equal to the task are those who can deal with constant ambiguity, notice the key patterns amongst the noise, and look at the world through multiple stakeholder perspectives. T-shaped people are better able to respond to VUCA problems because they have a hybrid of skills, allowing them to work across a number of disciplines, notice those patterns, and be more empathic.

Secondly being ‘I shaped’ encourages us to be too narrow and this can create blind spots   In her book, Margaret Heffernan argues that familiarity breeds comfort, and that our brains are drawn to information and people that feel familiar and fits with what we already know.  By only developing our specialist expertise we reduce our peripheral vision, deepening our bias and preventing ourselves from seeing the bigger picture. Ironically I was blind to this, until I started stepping into unfamiliar meetings, events and environments. So I have developed  a small habit of challenging myself everyday to meet someone new, take a different route or read something outside my field. 

Finally, it’s more fun. Berger argues that if someone is enthusiastic and curious about many different disciplines, then they are more flexible, more empathetic and more engaged in the world.  Schein backs this up when arguing that when we ask questions instead of telling, we build better relationships because by asking it, “temporarily empowers the other person in the conversation and makes us vulnerable“. Our expertise drives us to tell and so by being more T-shaped we ask more questions, build better relationships and are more engaged.  Personally, I noticed that when I started asking questions, and held back my enthusiasm to share my ideas, I found out interesting and surprising things.

Feel the pain and do it anyway

It seems deeply ironic that as we progress in our career we have to hold our expertise more lightly to become more T-shaped. We all have to ignore the adage “a jack of all trades is a master of none,” which can prompt us to feel nervous about being a generalist.  

In fact, being a generalist enables you to face the discomfort of working in ‘unknowns’,  be able to face bigger and more complex problems and also offer new and fresh insights from having a top level understanding of lots of different things.

Development, coaching and mentoring can be useful to support this transition.  When faced with the fear about the question, “What do I do if I don’t know?” I certainly had support from books, websites, colleagues and a coach.   Recognising what was happening was uncomfortable so I needed support to feel the pain and do it anyway.

As a T-shaped person, I celebrate my ability to ask better questions, to be clearer about boundaries (i.e. I am not an expert here) and see opportunities for collaboration that experts can miss.  If this blog resonates, give us a call and we can support you through this complex and messy puzzle.