When it comes to professional skills, what’s your letter? Just as we use a Myers-Briggs type to describe our personalities, there are terms used to describe peoples' range of skills—I, T and now key, are just a few of the most popular.
Decades ago, employers primarily sought I-shaped candidates—people with deep expertise in a specific area, like an accountant or lawyer. However, the concept has evolved over the years. In the 1980s, McKinsey & Company developed the idea of the T-shaped professional. The vertical bar on the T represents strong knowledge in a specific discipline. The horizontal bar represents the ability to collaborate across other disciplines and acquire new skills or knowledge.
Today, the concept has expanded further to the elusive key-shaped professional—a person who has several areas of expertise with varying degrees of depth. The introduction of the key-shaped professional is largely due to the rapid proliferation of technological advances and the cross-disciplinary nature of work. Across industries and professions, the ability to use technology to assimilate and apply information has created a new, broader expectation of the standard skills professionals should have.
As a result, we're seeing new parallels between skills sought in the business and scientific worlds. In fact, a survey by Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News (GEN) found that the top skills needed today for a successful career as a research scientist align with the skills needed to succeed as a business leader. Embracing new technology, understanding data and thinking critically about that data—these are abilities that drive success in both the lab and the boardroom.
While there will always be need for I- and T-shaped professionals, as the GEN survey indicates, most professionals today can't count on being really good at one thing to succeed. Organizations are increasingly seeking key-shaped candidates when recruiting new talent. So, how can individuals and organizations across industries become more key-shaped? Here are three tactics to consider:
1. Never stop learning
Education is the foundation for developing new skills, so a long-term commitment to continued learning is essential. At CAS, we provide opportunities for employees across disciplines to work together on teams, attend professional conferences and workshops, and even continue their higher education.
We've also found that fostering skills outside of the professional scope is just as important. Personal interests can have a meaningful impact on driving new ideas. Consider, for example, Steve Jobs. When developing the Mac, his passion for calligraphy got him wondering why previous word processing programs all used the same unattractive font. It inspired him to develop different, more aesthetically pleasing fonts for his Apple computer. It's a great example of how a personal interest can lead to a game-changing business outcome.
2. Be constantly curious
I often find the most successful professionals have an entrepreneurial spirit and are open to stepping outside of their comfort zones. Those traits are also essential to becoming key-shaped. At CAS, we believe in acting on curiosity and inspiring others to do the same. We do this by encouraging employees to network with colleagues across the full expanse of the organization, seek opportunities on new projects and job shadow outside of their domain. We also created CAS SciFinder Future Leaders, a selective program that feeds the curiosity of international Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers by providing experiences outside the lab, and in many cases, outside of their home countries.
3. Eliminate the fear
There's a reason siloes have existed so long in the workplace—there is often an underlying fear that if someone else knows how to do your job, you might not have it much longer. That's why fostering a culture that removes the fear factor is important to becoming key-shaped. At CAS, we've done this by creating a Change Management Office Center of Excellence to help colleagues understand and navigate through change. We also construct project teams with representatives from a variety of groups. These are colleagues who wouldn't typically work together, but are now empowered to collaborate and knowledge-share. This leads to benefits for both our organization and the individuals. Together, they can identify new ways to solve our toughest business challenges, while also broadening their knowledge and learning more about the work done across CAS.