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Are you “T” or “I” shaped?

January 9, 2011

What kind of shape are you? Are you “T” shaped or “I” shaped? So soon after the holidays you may think you are “O” shaped!

In today’s world it is critical to be “T” shaped. What’s a “T” shaped person? Think “T” for “team”. “T” shaped people are great collaborators, they build high potential teams, they bring people together, they aren’t ladder climbers and they empower rather than direct. This is in contrast to “I” shaped people. Think “I” for individual. They keep information to themselves, they look after themselves, they climb ladders (and usually will climb over you to do so), they direct, they keep you from those above them, they don’t highlight you and what you can do.

Here’s a good mental image for you. Stand up. Put your arms straight down beside you. That’s a “I” shaped person. You get your orders from above and you pass them down to the people below. You don’t reach out to others. If they have a problem, that’s their problem. Now, stretch your arms out to the side, shoulder height. That’s a “T” shape. You reach out to others. You help, not hinder. You move in all directions and not just vertically. When you see a job to be done, you get it done. In your mind it is all “big team and little me”.

I used to be “I” shaped and not always by design. I worked for a “I” shaped company and it reinforced “I” shaped behaviours. It rewarded people who directed. It rewarded people who told others what to do. It was a very traditional hierarchy and it taught me how to do business a certain way. We even referred to our organizational structure as “silos”. Can’t get much more “I” shaped than that, can you? But here is the rub. It was successful! That only reinforced why I should be “I” shaped.

It was easy for me to be “I shaped though. I thought I got things done operating that way. In my mind it was easier to simply tell people what to do then coach them how to do it, or even harder, to collaborate with them to get things done. I got things done by force, determination and will. And because I got things done my company tolerated how I got things done. And since others took the same basic approach, there were few complaints. Well, there were a few, and I did have to face up to them but since most senior officers exhibited similar behaviours I didn’t think they had a lot of credibility when they told me to change when they were doing what I was doing. Bottom line was I didn’t have what it took to be “T” shaped. At least not then.

So what changed? Well, it started with recognizing change was needed. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, too many really. If you looked at all the mistakes I have made you’d wonder how the heck did this guy get to where he is? Well, there have been a few constants in my life and one has been a willingness to look within. That would be the one element of being “T” shaped that I had. Not that I didn’t try to blame others or my surroundings, because I did. It just never seemed to work so I had to keep looking within because that’s all that was left. I may be stubborn and impatient but I’m not stupid. I figured it out eventually.

Things were changing around me and that helped shape my change from “I” to “T”. I was unhappy with the results being “I” shaped activity created and not just from me but to me. Remember, I was in a “I” shaped organization and as much as I was “I” shaped to others, others were “I” shaped to me. I didn’t always feel valued or appreciated. I felt frustrated trying to raise issues I thought were important to the organization. Furthermore, our organization started to realize it needed to change. It was very successful but the world around us was changing. Our industry and competitive landscape was changing. Our organization was physically changing from being centralized in one or two primary locations to multiple locations around the world. And we were getting big. Real big. Trying to manage all of those resources to accomplish even the simplest things required a new way of doing business. I couldn’t be “I” shaped any more, but neither could the company.

But something really interesting happened as I was looking within that created a significant leap forward in my development. As part of my personal and executive growth, my personal coach helped me gain some insights into my personal values – those things that drive my behaviours and actions without thinking. The purpose of the exercise was to turn the unconscious into the conscious. If I could live my values more consciously I could create better and more consistent results. Prior to that exercise I would have said I liked to work independently, but as we examined that I came to the realization I actually loved to work in a team environment. I have an athletic background and while today that primarily means I golf (a supposed solitary sport and yes, how terribly cliched for an executive to play golf!) and hike I used to play team sports, primarily football and baseball. And I loved the “locker room” and missed it. I loved that sense of camaraderie, the sense of accomplishment when you achieved something together, knowing your role within the team. These were things that gave me a tremendous high. I then started to realize why I like to golf and hike. I’m not one of those golfers that can join any group and enjoy it. I most like to golf when I am playing with friends. A team. I don’t hike alone and most enjoy hiking when my wife or family joins me. More team. Not big teams mind you. Small teams. I’m at my best when I work in small groups. I leave the large group stuff to others.

It was an epiphany. For weeks I ran around the office telling everyone I really did like working in a team. They thought I had lost my mind. It didn’t matter. It was a big moment for me as those blindingly stupid observations about your life often are. Since that moment I haven’t looked back. I have been energized in my quest to become “T” shaped. And lo and behold, didn’t the organization soon thereafter change to become “T” shaped as well. The team I steward has people in three physical locations. We’re the link between the customer and the manufacturing plant. We don’t “own” anything other than helping people understand the desired client experience. That requires us to be “T” shaped. Big time.

I can now say I am “T” shaped, or at least on my way. What shape are you?

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