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Don't Let Your Agency Fall into the T-Shaped Black Hole

Adria Saracino
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Type "t shape employee" into Google and you'll see headlines like "T-Shaped People: the New Employees of the Digital Age" and "T-Shaped Employees: The Key to Success in the New World".

This management and employment philosophy has been around since the early 1990s, but it has recently become a really hot topic in the marketing agency world.

Some agencies are jumping on the bandwagon and fully embracing the T-shaped model. However, this agency structure can turn into a complete mess if not pursued properly. The reason? T-shape models typically only prevail so far as managers create a platform for its success.

In order for the T-shape employee to succeed, a certain set of criteria must be met. If you're a manager or business owner, keep these points in mind if you want your teed-up employees to thrive.

What Is the T-Shape Employee?

Mike Tekula over at Distilled created this diagram to explain what a T-shape employee's skillsetlooks like in search marketing:

t-shape-employee

Essentially, a T-shape employee is one that has broad knowledge of a lot of related topics, but is an expert in only one specific field.

For example, someone at your company might have a broad knowledge of just about everything related to organic growth – social media, SEO, outreach, content, etc. However, his bread and butter is technical analysis, making him your go-to person for Google Analytics and Excel number crunching.

Ways the T-Shape Model Can Fail

Not all "T"s are Equal

In the above image, notice how perfectly uniform that "T" shape is. This image unfortunately isn't to scale because just like there are thousands of different fonts for the letter "T", so too do T-shape employees come in different shapes and sizes.

Some employees will represent a long, lean "T" with a short horizontal arm – meaning they will have very deep knowledge of one specific subject but a limited scope of other related topics. Other employees will have a very wide but shallow understanding of subjects – think the "Jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none" type.

No employee will be a perfect T-shape. This is a fact of life, but if not addressed this poses a problem: each client will have a different experience depending on which T-shape employee is assigned to the project.

For example, is it fair that client A and client B have the same needs, but Client A's consultant devises the perfect campaign because he has knowledge in the appropriate subject and Client B doesn't receive the same treatment because its consultant never even thought of that solution?

The Fix:

It is management's job to empower T-shaped employees to be aware of their skillset and do what is needed to fill the gaps. Typically this results in the following actions:

  • Provide ongoing training of topics relevant to your agency's core functions for all employees, allowing for a standardization of the horizontal portion of the "T".
  • Create a clear process for filling in knowledge gaps, usually by designating experts in specific fields and implementing collaboration procedures.

Some "T"s Will Have an Identity Crisis

Not all employees will accurately know their skillsets. Some will think they possess a much wider general knowledge base while others a much deeper understanding of a core topic than either group really do. Some will think they are just a straight up string of capital "H"s (i.e., an expert in everything).

Why is this important to know? Because this skewed self T-worth can cause serious workflow issues. From simply not having a wide enough knowledge base to know when he/she is missing a crucial element to an ego that inhibits collaboration, employee perception of T-worth can quickly turn the often-though-perfect model into a platform for clients or projects to have that inconsistent experience that changes depending on the employee assigned to the case.

The Fix:

  • Again, have a solid workflow and clear expectations.
  • Help create consistent boundaries for job functions.
  • Work with employees to understand their core competencies.

"Knowing" and "Doing" are Two Different Things

A T-shape employee might know about all the different marketing channels he can explore to increase his client's organic business success. However, if he doesn't act on these potential avenues, there is no benefit to his broad knowledge.

T-employees need not only be self-aware, but also need to have the confidence and predisposition to act on their generalist knowledge base. This means they are consistent in identifying the correct related skillset they need and making sure it finds its way into their project.

The Fix:

This "act now" decision can't be left to individual level, because how exactly do you measure whether someone has a "predisposition" to take action? Plus, everyone will have a different degree of that "act now" gene.

Management needs to empower employees to be honest with their T-skills and seek out a solution for the areas they are not experts. The ways to do this are:

  • Build it into the culture – by consistently encouraging collaboration.
  • Clearly state expectations to create consist workload boundaries (i.e., "X employee is an expert at this, X employee an expert at that").

"Collaboration" and "Delegation" are Also Very Different

Creating a culture of collaboration takes time and hard work. You don't want to go through all the trouble only to create a culture of hierarchy and delegation.

T-shape employees can often misconstrue "collaboration" as "delegation". Especially in a fast-paced setting where there is often a "ship it" mentality, simply stating your expectations as "X employee is an expert at this, use him/her for this specific task" (see above) could turn into "the T-shape employee is the big thinker, the other expert employees are just the doers."

Let's look at an example. Say your T-shape marketing manager specializes in Analytics. He develops a campaign that will leverage social media to drive direct conversions. He develops the campaign and gets the social media manager involved only when he needs her to share his campaign to the company's followers.

This sounds great right? It could be.

However, say this data-heavy marketing manager never ran a social media campaign before. When he brings in the SM manager at the execution level, she notices the campaign isn't going to work – the marketing manager missed the crucial component of knowing how social followers are likely to act.

Both employees are now at conflict – the marketing manager spent a ton of time developing the campaign and wants to move forward, but the SM manager doesn't want to affect the social media account by pushing through a failed project.

This isn't to say everyone needs to be the "big thinkers", as there will always need to be "doers". However, unless management is explicit in expectations and carefully builds a culture of collaboration, T-shape employees can often feel pressure to perform as if they are experts at everything. This can result in a non-verbal hierarchy where these T-shaped project owners become master delegators rather than collaborators, which at the end of the day will affect the outcome of the project at hand.

The Fix:

  • Make sure employees understand their T-shape capabilities and aren't trying to drive the areas in which they are not acquainted. This usually manifests in ongoing support, regular one-on-one meetings, and clearly outlining what you do expect of them.
  • Avoid a culture of "you must be masters of everything" by encouraging collaboration, praising those who do it well, and leading by example.

T-shape Employees Can Only Succeed if They Have the Right Tools

This article isn't meant to scare you into thinking the only way to succeed is to not mess up building a culture. While this is a big part, there are a lot of different factors that over time empower T-shape employees to collaborate.

One of the easiest factors to influence is to make sure employees have a way to get help where their expertise is shallow.

The Fix:

  • Give your employees access to the expertise they need to do their job. This can take the form of resources like:
    • Tools
    • Outside agencies/consultants
    • Hiring specialists
  • Encourage them to not only use them, but to speak up if they need additional tools. Lead by example and publicly reward those employees who do ask for help – this will empower other employees to do the same.

At the end of the day, if T-shape employees lack the necessary resources, they will feel that pressure to be masters of everything. You want to avoid this unspoken pressure because it is a core factor leading to a non-collaborative culture.

Takeaway

Throughout "the fix" sections in this article, you should have seen a common theme. In order to create a platform for a successful T-model, there are really only five actions to take:

  1. Clearly voice your expectations, and be consistent.
  2. Create a clearly defined workflow procedure that capitalizes on each employee's T-strengths.
  3. Work with employees to define their T-shape and create job function boundaries.
  4. Build a culture of collaboration – start by encouraging it daily, praising those who do it well, and leading by example.
  5. Provide employees with access to the tools they need for T-growth and collaboration.

Sure, all of the above take time and won't happen overnight. But remember, a T-shape employee model can work. It just needs to be cultivated by management in order to succeed.


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