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In this guest blog post, Shawn Parrotte, Marketing Manager at Designli and friend of the Founder Institute, explains the difference between T-shaped and I-shaped professionals, and what to consider when hiring them at your startup.

As more college graduates enter the job market, they’re creating an ever-widening skills gap that businesses are finding difficult to overcome. It’s because of this gap that there’s a need for employees with skill sets that incorporate a broad knowledge base, in addition to having a deep understanding in a specified area, rather than being experienced in only one discipline. These individuals are known to have a T-Shaped skill set, and there are many reasons to consider adding them to your staff.

What's the Difference Between T-Shaped and I-Shaped Professionals?

Over the past few years, the concept of the T-Shaped skill set has risen to the forefront of the professional community. This, in part, has been brought on by the ever-increasing need for businesses to be multidimensional. However, before we define the characteristics that make a T-Shaped professional so valuable in the workplace, it is important to discuss the traits of an I-Shaped professional, so that there are sufficient means for comparison.

I-Shaped Professionals

The primary identifier of an I-Shaped professional is that of someone with an in-depth level of knowledge in one specific discipline. In fact, today, most young adults that are entering the workforce straight from college can be regarded as I-Shaped.

The reason these individuals are defined as such stems largely from the curriculum structure in places of higher education. Universities tend to base their degree programs around specific disciplines and this reduces the exposure that students have to alternative subjects. While this can help a student to become thoroughly educated in one area, it also keeps them from broadening their exposure to many of the concepts that can be vital for success.

T-Shaped Professionals

Unlike that of an I-Shaped, a T-Shaped professional is someone that is regarded as having an expansive skill set in addition to a level of expertise in a specific subject. This broad spectrum of general knowledge is signified by the horizontal bar, of which, completes the T-Shaped model.

The expansive arsenal of skills from which T-Shaped professionals are able to draw from gives them added versatility in the workplace. Furthermore, these individuals are continually searching for additional ways to broaden the scope of the horizontal bar on top of the “T”. And while many T-Shaped individuals do, in fact, possess a college degree, it is their experience in additional facets that make them so valuable as employees.

It is worth noting that both types of individuals are critical to the success of a company, however, a T-Shaped professional can bring more to the table in terms of overall experience. It is for this reason that many businesses are now focusing on adding individuals with T-Shaped skill sets to their staff.

Why Are T-Shaped Professionals Valuable to Startups?

As the concept of the T-Shaped professional becomes more prevalent in the business community, the necessity to hire these individuals increases significantly. In particular, it’s becoming more common for startups to take extra steps in seeking out these individuals and there is an array of reasons for this trend.

Teamworking Skills

When a person is exposed to a wide range of disciplines this can help to instill within them the importance of teamwork, which can be greatly beneficial to startups. In trying to get a business off the ground, many companies struggle because of the individualistic tendencies of its employees, and this is often a consequence of a rigid educational background.

And, while universities do promote the concept of teamwork to some extent, the studying of a single discipline can lead to a lack of exposure to the ideologies that others possess. On the other hand, professionals with a T-Shaped skill set are often well accustomed to working as part of a team so that they can gain knowledge in areas beyond the scope of their expertise.

More Communicative

Communication is vital for an employee to be successful, and those with broader knowledge bases are typically more adept at communicating. The reason for these superior communication skills comes from the idea that T-Shaped professionals are often required to communicate with people of varying backgrounds in order to expand their knowledge base.

In addition to communicating with those of different backgrounds, the process of gaining knowledge to become a more well-rounded individual often involves interacting with people from other areas of the world, and this takes a certain level of skill in itself. When a person is able to communicate effectively, without being hindered by language barriers, it is a strong indicator that the person will not let obstacles stand in the way of their attempts at knowledge growth.

Innovative Mindset

If there is one skill that summarizes a T-Shaped professional, it’s the ability to bring innovative ideas to a business. While college may prepare a student to be an expert in a single discipline, this can cause them to follow the rigid structure of curriculum too closely, and in turn, this can prevent them from coming up with innovative ideas on their own.

On the other hand, those who have been exposed to a range of disciplines will embrace and generate more ideas naturally. When an employee brings an innovative mindset to a startup, they can help to foster new initiatives that may have been previously neglected. After all, innovation stems from one’s ability to think outside of the box, and focusing on a single topic may keep the creative well a little dry.

When Wouldn't You Want to Hire T-Shaped Professionals?

It may come as a surprise, but there are times when I-Shaped skill sets are more valuable than T-Shaped ones. This is primarily a concern when a startup has experienced success and the growth has brought about the need for employees with deep knowledge in a specific area of the startup. In this case, the broad knowledge base of the T-Shaped professional will not be utilized.

How to Find and Hire Them?

With the increase in demand for T-Shaped professionals comes with it the challenges in finding individuals that this characteristic type. One of the most effective ways to find them is through a referral system. While a resume and work history can go a long way in showing whether the candidate has a well-rounded repertoire, it does not guarantee success. If you are looking for a T-Shaped professional for your startup consider asking acquaintances and other working professional if they know of anyone who might meet the needs of the position.

The interview process also plays a critical role in ensuring that the needs of the startup are met. When interviewing candidates, it is imperative to ask the right questions in order to hone in on applicant’s skill set. And while it is necessary to inquire about the educational background of the candidate during the interview, try to single out the T-Shaped professionals by asking applicants to provide examples of projects that they were previously involved in and the role they played in bringing the project to maturation.

In addition, as a startup, you will want an employee that has an entrepreneurial spirit, as this could help in promoting the growth of the company. When interviewing candidates, look for traits that show the person has the ability to think outside the box. This mindset could help the company to develop original ideas that may not have been previously considered. In fact, companies like IBM and Cisco are currently developing technologies that will help to better match employers with candidates that show personality traits commonly associated with entrepreneurs.

In Conclusion

As it has been shown, hiring T-Shaped professionals can be vital toward achieving the success that startups require. These people bring with them an expansive educational background that encompasses a range of different disciplines. In addition, they often possess superior team working skills and communicative abilities. And while there is a necessity for both types of people in the workplace, by ensuring that you have T-Shaped professionals on staff, you will help to expand the possibilities of your business.

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(Help Wanted Sign, A red sign with text Help Wanted on a keyboard image by Shutterstock)

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