Crossing the 'T'

By Morten T. Hansen Apr 2, 2010
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David Nagel, executive vice president of the America division of London-based oil giant BP, is an example of a T-shaped manager. Responsible for the unit’s sales, profitability, costs and capital expenses, he is also required to contribute across the company by assisting other units, asking them for help and collaborating with them on projects.

In one year, Nagel and his team assisted 20 other units. To ensure that collaboration does not undermine outstanding unit performance, he has to manage his time, delegate to his team and say no to questionable cross-unit activities.

‘T’ Excellence

A T-shaped manager delivers excellent performance in his unit (the vertical part of the T) and contributes across the company (the horizontal part of the T). T-shaped managers such as Nagel perform better for organizations than do “lone stars,” who shine in their jobs but founder when asked to contribute more widely.

What does it take to excel at T-shaped management? You need to:

  • Have the right attitude and believe that you have two responsibilities—to achieve high performance in your own unit and to contribute to other units’ performances. If you see your role through this lens, you start looking at other people’s work from their points of view.
  • Know your own area. Think of the vertical part of the T as your area of deep expertise.
  • Know about other areas. For instance, if you’re a scientist in product development, you should know a little about marketing and sales or you won’t contribute effectively. If you are modestly adept in the expertise of fellow collaborators, you can partner to forge collective solutions. These secondary areas represent your breadth—the horizontal part of the T.
  • Have the right networks. Build effective interpersonal contacts with diverse colleagues and people outside your company. Be persuasive, influencing people without the power of rank or finances. To gain support, frame opportunities so they appeal to others, establish rapport and know when to call in favors.

A ‘T’ Future

In past decades, you could have had a great career by caring only about your own performance. Now, expectations have changed; individual and collective contributions are measured and rewarded. Bonuses, promotions and senior jobs will go to T-shaped stars such as Nagel. It’s time to start practicing.

The author is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and at INSEAD, France. He is author of Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results (Harvard Business Press, 2009).

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