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The Future Manager Is T-Shaped

Future management stars will be those who can boost the performance of their units and work collaboratively with others.

January CoverDavid Nagel, executive vice president of the America division of London-based oil giant BP, worked at Amoco before the companies merged in 1998. At BP, he found a different approach to management when he served as CEO of BP Algeria. He was responsible for the unit’s sales, profitability, costs and capital expenses; on top of that, he also was required to contribute across the company by assisting other units, asking them for help and collaborating on projects.

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

‘T’ Excellence

Nagel is a T-shaped manager: He delivers excellent performance in his unit (the vertical part of the T) and contributes across the company (the horizontal part of the T). He does both well. Managers such as Nagel perform better for organizations than "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 a job has two responsibilities—to achieve high performance in your own unit and to contribute to other units’ performance. 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 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 David Nagel. It’s time to start practicing.

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


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