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Why startups should seek out the T-shaped Skill Set for their next hire

28 Mar 2023
6 mins

When recruiting a startup team, the biggest challenge Founders  face is hiring the right mix of skills, whilst ensuring they recruit those who are an excellent fit for their cultural vision.

One of the most desirable skill sets within technology and innovation is the T-shaped skill set.

People with these skills are generally considered well-rounded as they possess specialised knowledge, cross-discipline expertise, and strong interpersonal skills. As such, candidates possessing a T-shaped set of skills make really great first hires.

T-shaped skills were first mentioned in the 1980s as the “T-shaped man” that the McKinsey Company sourced as its ideal employee. However, T-shaped skills were popularised by David Guest in 1991 and Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO – the world famous Design Consultancy firm – read an interview with Tim where he breaks down the foundation of IDEO’s culture; what he calls ‘T-shaped Stars’.

What makes up a T-shape Skill Set?

Those who possess this skill set have specialised skills in one primary discipline and broad cross-discipline knowledge and experience. 

T-shaped employees also  have well developed  interpersonal skills and generally possess a high degree of emotional intelligence. They also tend to be creative problem solvers with innovative and analytic thinking skills; useful when you need to make decisions quickly!  

Other unique attributes that T-shaped team members may have include; 
  • A competent understanding of the modern business environment (developed through hands on experience)
  • Excellent industry knowledge (driven by their passion to learn from others whilst perfecting their own craft)
  • Early adopters when it comes to technology (they tend to embrace innovation and change, rather than reject it)
  • Time keeping and an ability to manage others expectations when it comes to delivering on a task  


How to assess if Someone has a T-shape Skill Set?


Someone with a t-shaped skill set combines highly specialised skills in one area with broad general knowledge (in often complementary disciplines). The steps below help in identifying individuals with the skill set. 

  1. Identify the core professional skills and knowledge exhibited by the individual.
  2. Rate the professional skills based on the individual ability on a 0-5 scale. 0- no knowledge, 1- novice, 2- advanced beginner, 3- competent, 4- proficient, and 5- expert. 
  3. Examine the balance between the individual’s hard skills and soft skills

You will generally find that a T-shape person has at least one specialised professional skill with a rating of  5. They will also have other complimentary skills rated at least 3, where they have general competency. And in addition to their professional (hard) skill, T-shaped people will have soft (or human) skills; they will likely be empathetic with a high degree of emotional intelligence. 


Why World-Leading Organisations look for T-Shaped People- the IDEO Example


IDEO has a clan culture that encourages team building and collaboration among employees. The company considers a T-shaped skill set as a measure of company success because of the professional and interpersonal skills it presents. 

Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO, describes the horizontal stroke of the T as a disposition for collaboration across disciplines; here he summarises the two key components to look out for:

It is composed of two things. First, empathy. It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective- to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Second, they tend to get very enthusiastic about other people’s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practise them…

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO


Blog | IDEO | Design Thinking

Image Source: IDEO Design Thinking Blog 


IDEO generally recruits T-shaped employees because of continuous learning from cross-disciplined individuals, which helps them increase their skills and competency. Apart from interpersonal skills, they have specialised skills in design, engineering, or other disciplines crucial to organisational success.  

And it’s not just IDEO; P&G, Nike and Apple have all placed a focus on T-Shaped people. 


What are the Different Types of Skill Sets?

There are generally 5 different employee skill sets:                                                   I-shaped, T-shaped, Pi-shaped, E-shaped, and X-shaped.


  1. I-shaped – These are people with one main specialisation with limited cross-discipline expertise and communication abilities
  2. T-shaped – This category has people with both  Broad industry expertise and a specialist discipline. They also have strong interpersonal skills such as communication and collaboration.
  3. Pi-shaped – T-shaped people evolve into these individuals with broad general knowledge and specialised skills in more than two disciplines.
  4. E-shaped – They are the best practitioners in a specialised field because of experience, exploration, expertise, and execution abilities. 
  5. X-shaped – These are self-actualised individuals who focus on solving social problems in their areas of specialised expertise. 

There is overlap between each and there are benefits between combining different types of learners, particularly in leadership.



Why We Advocate T-shape Skill Sets at Bridge


Bridge is a strong advocate for the T-shaped mindset because it presents the advantage of flexibility and diversity. T-shaped people have specialised skills in one major area and broad general knowledge in at least two other disciplines. We also advocate for T-shaped employees because they are generally highly empathetic and give consideration to other contributor’s opinions during discussions.

We love T-shaped people because they not only bring their own unique specialisation but they deeply appreciate other people’s talents, skills and point of view. As such, they tend to make great collaborators who work well in hybrid teams, which in turn offers huge value to our clients. 

Put simply, Bridge considers T-shaped employees the embodiment of how we like to work.


Our values 



The B-shaped Skill Set


At Bridge, we believe we have mastered the art of cross-disciplinary learning and knowledge exchange between our team of diverse experts. As such, when reviewing the shapes of skill sets we crafted something we like to call the B-shaped Skill Set: a combination of E-shaped with feedback loops between our team members to ensure insights are gained and shared across the team. When one team member gains knowledge, we all do. 



A T-shaped skill set is marketable in the real world because of specialised core skills and cross-discipline expertise. Employers tend to go for T-shaped employees because they are collaborative, empathetic, professional and flexible. Focusing on establishing a balance between hard professional and soft interpersonal skills can help one improve their T-shaped skill sets.

If  you are a company or business looking to create and/ or develop T-shaped people, get in touch. Our consultants regularly advise clients on capability building, coaching, and improving your team‘s marketing and technical skills. How can we help you? 

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