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Thoughts on the T-Shaped Career

Author by Nathan Lasnoski

The T-Shaped Career analogy is a concept that much has been written on, often conveyed as a way to think about both the collaborative and the depth portions of a career. The idea of a T-Shaped career conveys a horizontal line (soft skills) and vertical line (hard skills). The diagram below describes this image of a person who has developed a specific skill, but also has developed some horizontal skill. You’ll notice the ideal early career candidate has both the single-line breadth and single-line depth. This would equate to a person who has these types of skills:

Horizontal Line:

  • Curious
  • Communication
  • Self-awareness
  • Character
  • Humility
  • Virtue

Vertical Line:

  • Technical skill
  • Industry skill
  • Functional skill

Here’s a diagram depicting this, with typically the vertical bar indicating that an individual can contribute in a specific function to an organization. That said, the absence of the horizontal bar would make that individual someone you likely wouldn’t want to work with, or at least requires special care.

T-Shaped with Additional Depth

What is often not talked about is how the T-Shaped career evolves over time. There are several different directions an individual can go once their career has developed both of the baseline traits. In some cases, an individual will develop multiple depth skills. In the diagram below you see an individual who has mastered a depth skill, but now can add on other depth skills that are usually within the same domain. For instance, an individual who works with Azure Governance likely develops a skill with Azure Policy or Azure Networking. They are technically different depth skills, but tend to go together. A constant question is, “how many depth skills can a person develop without losing depth?”. The answer is very dependent on the skill and domain, but it is one a person needs to constantly consider.

T-Shaped with Greater Horizontal

Another take on the T-Shaped career is the move that many leaders choose. As a person enters into leadership the depth of a particular skill is less important than the development of horizontal domains. Rather than extend the horizontal bar out to infinity, I prefer to think of it as broadening the thickness of the horizontal bar and developing capabilities as a leader through ideas, mentorship, curiosity, virtue, and perspective. Many “leadership tracks” inside companies focus on giving additional organizational vision by exposing the individual to different business functions, such as a supply line, manufacturing, human capital, or sales. The goal of leadership development is to create a “well rounded” person, but further than that is the individual’s virtue and how they treat those around them. The term, “what got you here might not get you there”. The skills that helped someone succeed at developing a depth skill or initial levels of leadership might not work later on. See the diagram below which articulates this.

Leadership Vertical Skills

The last example I’ll share is about developing new vertical skills that are relevant to a leader, vs. what might have been necessary when they are an individual contributor. For example, a person who manages the supply chain might have needed a particular skill, whereas the exec leader might need a depth in inter-company supply chain negotiation. This is a nuanced, but important difference between the leadership skills and the vertical leadership skills. I say this because many entering into leadership become too “generic” and are just “people leaders”, but instead need to also develop new leadership depth skills that make them effective in their business. This is also why it can be difficult to translate a leader from one business into another business of different character. It’s also why a leader from a similar business can be immediately effective in a similar business model.

The take-home points I have here are:

  • Horizontal skills are as important as vertical skills
  • A person can only have so many vertical skills
  • Vertical skills never really go away, they just change
  • Horizontal skills have their own depth

My final point is that I’m always happy to talk with people about their own careers. If this is you, reach out and let’s talk.

Nathan Lasnoski


Nathan Lasnoski

Chief Technology Officer