Are You a “T-shaped” Leader?

I often help top leaders figure out what capabilities to cultivate in themselves and their senior managers. I’ve also guided several strategic planning efforts recently. Both situations raised the same tension: Balancing big picture, strategic thinking with a focus on functional and tactical effectiveness. Mastering this combination of breadth and depth was coined “T-shaped” management many years ago, and the varying definitions still offer sound advice. Here, I’d like to focus on the beneficial ripple effect of T-shaped leadership.

The leaders I work with know that a focus on cross-functional, longterm strategy provides an invaluable road map and positions their organizations to thrive over time. They also know that operational demands call for subject experts who can craft responsive tactical solutions that keep staff productive in every lane of their operation. Covering both fronts – broad strategic thinking and operational responsiveness – and keeping them in sync, can feel nearly impossible. But T-shaped leaders have developed this capacity: they can shift between holding a organization-wide, collaborative perspective on the one hand, and selectively doing deep dives into particularly complex functional problems.

T-shaped thinkers are often the MVPs on leadership teams and eventually run them. In fact, a common compliment I hear in 360 reviews about especially admired leaders is that they can move fluidly and effectively between the complex, cross-functional big picture and narrow depth as an operational expert. You can recruit for and develop this T-shaped capacity, which includes the judgment to know when to go deep versus broad and also the emotional intelligence to engage others collaboratively when you do reach broadly across teams.

Here is what T-shaped leaders look like in action:

  • They periodically dip into execution – intentionally and briefly – to inject operational conversations with strategy touch points when stakes are high. They answer critical “why” questions and share information from diverse sources, whether they are asked or not, to provide strategic insight. They then come back “up” and redirect their attention and coordination efforts across all departments, resisting the temptation to handle work they should delegate.
  • They also help rising managers strengthen their own “T thinking”. These leaders invite direct reports to step up and into strategic discussions, effectively encouraging expansive, exploratory thinking beyond specific job responsibilities. They ask questions, as well as answer them, exposing functional experts to organization-wide priorities and trade-offs with a longer time horizon. This type of influencing and coaching is especially useful when they have a new manager on board, when strategy has changed, when functional interdependencies are high stakes, when they need to anticipate an evolving landscape, and when grooming someone for a promotion.

I challenge you to increase your value as a leader by cultivating T-shaped thinking and collaboration in those around you at all levels. This Yes/And balancing act of breadth and depth can help you delegate, supervise, and coach with more ease. It’s one of the best ways to build your organization’s leadership pipeline.