Industry Insights

What is a T-Shaped Leader?

Posted by John Wills on Apr 27, 2023 10:33:57 AM

T-shaped leadership provides a more agile alternative to traditional, centralized approaches to intraorganizational knowledge sharing. T-shaped leaders freely share knowledge and expertise with other leaders from across their organization (the horizontal part of the ‘T’), while remaining committed to optimizing the performance of their own team within that organization (the vertical part of the ‘T’).

T-shaped leadership skills help build more agile, more innovative organizations. In this article we’ll look in-depth at the strengths and challenges of this approach.

T-Shaped Leadership Skills Unleash the Power of Knowledge

Knowledge is among the greatest assets held by any organization. Forward-thinking organizations invest significant resources into developing it. Knowledge can be the main factor in allowing agile newcomers to overtake incumbent industry leaders, or in allowing industry leaders to maintain their edge. However, knowledge is useless if it isn’t shared. What really matters is an organization’s ability to put that knowledge to good use.

Traditional hierarchies favor a centralized approach to the dissemination of knowledge throughout the organization. The T-shaped leader’s more agile alternative approach involves carefully designed knowledge-sharing behaviors within a decentralized organizational structure.

T-shaped leaders create more agile organizations

While traditional centralized knowledge sharing methods are efficient at disseminating certain types of information – day-to-day standard operating procedures for example – T-shaped leaders enable in-depth collaboration that can only be carried out through interpersonal contact, whether that be in-person or through remote working. This type of knowledge transfer generates insights that enable creative solutions to be found for unique business challenges, driving innovation, developing skills and laying the groundwork for long-term success.

While the principles of T-shaped leadership are applicable to organizations of practically any size, they are most effective in large organizations within which there are many teams working with high degrees of autonomy. In such large and complex organizations, centralization of resources (including intellectual resources) encourages competition between teams for those resources. This competitiveness can be productive, but it can also lead to hoarding of resources and reluctance to share expertise, limiting productivity. Furthermore, this creates an organization that is less welcoming, with higher rates of burnout and higher employee turnover.

Centralization of resource allocation can also create onerous levels of bureaucracy, undermining the advantages that come from giving autonomy to teams within an organization. Done well, T-shaped leadership promotes interdepartmental competitiveness while encouraging collaboration.

How is T-shaped leadership implemented?

Sharing knowledge for its own sake is useful, but doing so in an unstructured way is less so. Systems of oversight are required to ensure that interactions between leaders remain goal-oriented and that leaders do not become overwhelmed by meetings that consume all of their time without contributing to the progress of any particular project.

Conversely, if leaders are excessively focused on their own team’s aims (the vertical part of the T) partisanship between teams is a potential cause of friction.

There is an obvious tension between the two priorities of a T-shaped leader: cooperation (commitment to sharing knowledge between teams) versus competitiveness (dedication to maximizing the performance of their own team).

No matter how skilled a T-shaped leader is, this tension is impossible to navigate alone. It is vital that any organization wishing to implement T-shaped leadership skills has rigorously enforced structures in place, within which leaders can work freely and creatively. Continuous self-monitoring and some oversight is required to ensure that leaders effectively manage the time spent between their competing duties.

How T-shaped leaders become trusted leaders

The T-shaped leader gives advice to leaders of other teams or departments when requested to do so. They also seek and take advice from leaders of other teams when they identify challenges that require expertise beyond that found within their own team.

There is an important third element to the horizontal part of the ‘T’: that is connecting people from different parts of the organization. Through the complex web of interpersonal relationships that develops within an organization, the T-shaped leader is able to make connections between other leaders who require expertise.

Strong interpersonal skills and relationships are essential for collaborative work, and knowledge sharing is a powerful way of reinforcing these trust-based relationships.

While it is possible to simply have a directory of the organization’s team leaders, outlining their specialisms and areas of expertise, such an approach is bureaucratically cumbersome, requiring constant updates to the directory. Having T-shaped leaders who can help make these connections instead is far more flexible, and also a far more personal way of building collaborative relationships.

Between them, T-shaped leaders create a public square of knowledge-sharing where everyone understands how to access the best expertise in the organization.

The benefits of knowledge sharing

There are a number of distinct ways in which knowledge-sharing by T-shaped leaders benefits organizations:

  • Advising peers
    Helps to guide better decision making
  • Sharing innovative ideas
    Leads to new business opportunities
  • Sharing best practice
    Leads to increased efficiency for all teams
  • Cross-team coordination
    Helps the organization as a whole to reach its long-term strategic goals

Assessing the impact of T-shaped leaders

The promotion and incentivization of certain behaviors are necessary if T-shaped leadership is to succeed. Addressing the vertical element of the ‘T’, leaders should be judged according to performance targets related directly to the team they lead. But they should simultaneously be assessed on how actively they share information and knowledge with the leaders and members of other teams, as required.

The latter type of contribution is fundamentally more difficult to quantify and measure than the former. This requires senior leaders in the organization to maintain a high level of awareness of who is contributing to interdepartmental collaboration, and who is not.

Therefore, is important that clear structures are in place to facilitate and monitor knowledge sharing. This allows a balance to be struck, preventing meetings from taking on an unstructured ad-hoc nature, while avoiding recreating the centralized approach to knowledge sharing that T-shaped leadership is intended to replace.

Leaving room for autonomy while providing sufficient structure for leaders to work within is perhaps the most difficult challenge for senior leaders aiming to benefit from T-shaped leaders in their organization.

Organizations may wish to test out possible solutions to this dilemma. But getting it wrong creates risks that could damage the organization financially and culturally. However, business simulations allow organizations to test and develop T-shaped leadership skills in a risk-free environment.

Are there drawbacks to T-shaped leadership?

There are limits to T-shaped leadership. Certain business processes, such as purchasing, benefit from the economies of scale that come with centralization, and some highly specialized types of expertise may be better suited to centralization. But centralization of expertise can create an unresponsive bureaucracy that is slow to capitalize on the new ideas and innovations that emerge naturally through collaborative work lower down in the organization. This is where the decentralization of knowledge sharing enabled by T-shaped leadership is useful.

T-shaped leaders must be prepared to freely give help to their peers when it’s needed. However, they are not obliged to do so if it would be so onerous as to prevent them from focusing on the goals of their own team. On the other hand, they must also be confident enough to seek help from their peers when required. Their ability to do these things can be measured through benchmarking and should be directly incentivized.

However, this raises the possibility that, in organizations that embrace T-shaped leadership, high achieving leaders whose own teams consistently deliver great results could nevertheless struggle with the interdepartmental collaboration element of their role. In such cases, this could cause frustration for the leader in question and limit the career progression of their team-members. Therefore, providing people with the right training is essential if organizations and employees are to benefit equally from T-shaped leadership skills.

T-shaped leadership skills

T-shaped leadership can be regarded as a set of skills and behaviors, executed within a rigorously planned structure, overlaid onto an organization where multiple semiautonomous teams are focused on their own targets.

Developing and testing the skills and behaviors associated with T-shaped leadership, as well as building the systems within which T-shaped leaders can operate, are complex tasks that can take a great deal of time and investment to get right. However, experiential learning through business simulations allows organizations and their people to do this development work in a safe controlled environment.

If you would like to find out more about developing leadership skills through experiential learning, contact us today.

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