T-Shaped Career

I’ve been asked many times whether I’m a generalist or a specialist, and I’ve always struggled to put my self on one side or the other of the divide. Turns out there is a way to describe someone who has elements of both in their career.

T-shaped. The stem of the T applies to the specialist part of your career: your field of expertise or the subject you can go deep on. For me that’s digital. The top of the T applies to the more generalist part of your career, the areas across which you have some knowledge and can collaborate on, often with more of an emphasis on the soft skills.

In my case I know something about, and have worked on projects in, branding, design, marketing communications, human resources and content creation. Most often these projects have had a digital dimension, although I worked on a marketing campaign for Schiphol airport many years ago that was distinctly not digital. (But included a visit to the air-side of Schiphol without buying a ticket which was cool). So the top of my T is communications.

It occurred to me the same pattern exists in relation to other fields. Someone might be interested in sports generally but fanatical about football, another person may love art, but have significant expertise in a single period of art or focus on one medium. Even social justice issues might land the same pattern. If you are against one form of justice then you are against all forms of injustice. That’s the top of the T, but there’s very likely a particular cause that you go deep on: in my darker moments I suspect it’s whatever part of your identity is most likely to get you killed.

But thinking of my career as T-shaped helped me rethink where to focus a recent job search and where I want to spend time developing new skills. It’s also changed how I look at the careers of others, going beyond the title and the narrow skills list to think about cross over skills for teams and ongoing work. It’s been a liberating way to think about careers, more holistic than box-ticking.

What’s in your T?



Image: Doors choice   |  via pixabay

Career Advice

Erica wrote recently at Erica.biz challenging the idea that entrepreneurs need to go to college/university, it brought back memories of my interview with a careers advisor many years ago.

I was a good student, I was good at and interested in sciences and languages and really didn’t know what I wanted to do, although I knew there were somethings I did NOT want to do. So they careers advisor took me through an aptitude test and a personality test. The result of which was, as he informed me, I was bright enough to do whatever I chose. He said this as if it was good news, but I wanted help and this was one seriously unhelpful answer.

Now I work at the cross roads of technology, business and communication and I love the combination of working with people, analysing technology, problem solving, design and creativity.  It took a long time to get here, with some big career detours along the way (to see just how circuitous my career has been you can check my linkedin profile). I’m now managing a small team and talking to people about their career path and it seems that the classic career advice serves a few people, and fails many.

Where it succeeds


People who know what they want to do, those who say something like “I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer”, or “I’ve always wanted to design dresses”, or “I like computers, I don’t like meetings, tell me what to build and I’ll make it”.

There’s usually a fairly clear connection between the career they want to follow and the training they’ll need. It’s therefore rather easy to to point these people in the right direction, advise them on courses, help them apply.


People who don’t really want the effort of a career, they’ll work hard, but the job is one part of their life and they’ll do what they’ve contracted to do.

Usually you can combine the persons interests and skills to find several acceptable options, occasionally later in life this group get a whack of inspiration and take off in a different direction. But most often this group will be happy with regular work, a reasonable pay, and maintaining a life balance.

Where it does not succeed

Entrepreneurs (particularly young entrepreneurs)

This group have an idea that they can develop into a business, they’ll probably be very enthusiastic about their idea even if you ask practical questions indicating how half-baked their idea is. There’s a good chance they already have a hobby that they’re selling to their friends.

It’s hard to advise this group, there isn’t a course that is automatically going to fit all entrepreneurs. I think they need to create their own “apprenticeship”, meaning they might follow a small business course, they might do a semester of marketing courses, they might work with someone great in their field. This is basically what Erica did, as outlined in her post, although she may not have thought of it in those terms.

I think this group get bad advice from career advisors because career advisors are typically not entrepreneurs, and what this group need is very far from the traditional logical career path and career ladder they’re used to discussing.

Slow starters

This group have no idea what they want to do, they’re likely to have seemingly unrelated interests, they may have a couple of things they know they don’t want to do (for me that was teaching). Like Anna, who had a string of low paid jobs, a failed university degree in Art, travelled in Europe for a bit, did some work for a photographer, she went on to be a not great photographer herself and her family worried. She now works in publishing; specifically publishing high quality books about Art. It’s a dream job, but she could never have articulated that dream at 17.

It’s actually easy to advise this group. “What is the thing that most appeals to you right now? Do that.” Because in a sense it doesn’t really matter where we begin, we’ll move around and it may take a decade or more to connect all the dots and then launch ourselves into a niche career that was not thought of before.

On second thoughts “What is the thing that appeals to you right now? Do that” could apply to all groups and all stages of your career. I think I’ve just done the career advisers out of a job!

image Advice