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Every company should have these leaders—or develop them if they don't

Companies need T-shaped leaders, those who can share knowledge across the organization while focusing on their business units, but they should be a mix of visionaries and tacticians. Hise Gibson breaks down the nuances of each leader and how companies can cultivate this talent among their ranks

Published: Jul 11, 2023 10:53:18 AM IST
Updated: Jul 11, 2023 11:03:25 AM IST

Every company should have these leaders—or develop them if they don'tWhat organizations need now are “T-shaped leaders”—those who share knowledge across the organization (the horizontal part of the "T"), while maintaining functional-area expertise and commitment to their business unit Image: Shutterstock

We’ve long known that organizations require so-called flexible leaders to respond to rapid market fluctuations; the last couple of years have only emphasized that necessity. The environment we operate in—shaped by the pandemic, social justice issues, war, and economic turmoil—is now more volatile than ever.

Amid all this turbulence, strategic thinkers must quickly evaluate opportunities and threats while operationalizing strategy. What organizations need now are “T-shaped leaders”—those who share knowledge across the organization (the horizontal part of the "T"), while maintaining functional-area expertise and commitment to their business unit (the vertical portion of the "T").

While the T-shaped leader concept is not new, my research over the last 15 years with the US Army—conducted with my colleagues Nicole Gilmore, director of talent development at MITRE Corp., and US Army Lieutenant Colonel Chevesco Cook—suggests that organizations need two types of leaders in order to realize their impact:

  •     Big-T Leaders (BTLs). These are the strategic thinkers and visionaries who drive innovation broadly across the organization.
  •     Little-T Leaders (LTLs). These leaders are more tactical and focus more narrowly on specific initiatives and projects. They usually rely on their managers (or in many cases, BTLs) for a cross-enterprise view.

Developing these types of leaders is more important than ever, specifically for employee retention. It’s no longer common for people to spend their careers in the same company, or even in the same industry, so companies are often looking externally for leaders, a difficult and costly endeavor. If employees see developmental pipelines that lead to BTL- and LTL-focused roles they might be more likely to stay and grow.

Also read: How to break free from herd mentality

Big T, little T, and nuances of each

With a broad range of experience to lean on, BTLs understand their specific function and know where and when to integrate their expertise. They sit in the senior vice president role, the chief of staff role, or any role requiring synchronization across multiple divisions. As such, BTLs have an almost “external” focus: Like engineers of a massive machine, they look at an organization and spot weaknesses or strategic opportunities—a view one can only get from the outside.

The role of the LTL depends on the organization and industry, but generally LTLs should deeply understand a particular task and possess the ability to guide a team through efficient time management. Leaders at the vice president level may be LTLs if they have deep experience or specialized skills or are leading a specific function. The key for LTLs is that they ensure the work gets done in keeping with the strategic needs of the organization.

Organizations will have BTLs and LTLs who are specialists and generalists.

  •     BTL specialists oversee multiple function areas and rely on information from across the organization while also understanding the complexity of dynamic environments.
  •     BTL generalists deeply understand how external factors impact the company and leverage this knowledge to create strategy.
  •     LTL specialists are transactional leaders. Individual contributors or managers here handle task heavy processes and systems that are primarily inward facing.
  •     LTL generalists often collaborate across the organization to accomplish goals or meet targets.

Different roles require different development

Companies can help promising managers and executives become BTLs and LTLs by broadening their experiences, but in different ways. Big-T development should expose leaders to new external networks, often through job assignments and formal education programs.

Little-T leader development, on the other hand, should deepen the employee's expertise in the organization's practices. This approach might include stretch experiences like the challenge of scaling an initiative.

Most organizations are pretty good at giving developing leaders different kinds of operational experience. For example, suppose a company wants to help an individual become an LTL. The organization might offer the employee opportunities to oversee small teams so that they can acquire team-management skills. This development opportunity would help take an employee who needs to move from task mastery to the kind of transactional leadership seen in an LTL specialist.

Also read: The first 90 hours: What new CEOs should—and shouldn't—do to set the right tone

LTLs who are generalists develop by gaining an understanding of the processes and systems that drive either a support area or a key business line. Development assignments offer the leader the opportunity to remodel a specific process or lead a cross functional team in the integration of a new system.

BTLs are more challenging to develop because they need to adapt to changes in both internal and external environments, and be equipped to lead the innovations necessitated by shifting industry and market conditions. BTLs must be able to clearly identify the organization’s competitive advantage to create or contribute to effective strategy.

Given these requirements, BTLs are developed to think broadly and creatively—and so exposure to peers, ideas, and processes from outside the individual’s narrow function and business is vital. That’s why organizations place directors or VP-level leaders in formal education programs, especially those that will help the individual move from the kind of transactional approach (controlled, one-way exchanges of services for rewards) of LTLs to a more adaptive approach (collaborating with multiple teammates to accomplish organizational goals).

An operational BTL who is a specialist may be tapped to grow the organization’s presence in a new market as part of their development plan. An adaptive BTL generalist is likely leading a large organization or can be developed by being given responsibility for a domestic or international expansion effort, merger, or acquisition.

Organizations need both generalists and specialists

To create T-shaped leaders at scale, the organization’s most senior executives must understand the company’s talent—what types of leaders they have and what they need. This awareness will help the company build the team it will need to innovate and grow.

Organizations that strike the right balance inside their organization can optimize talent effectively and win in the market.

Hise Gibson is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School. Gibson draws on his experience as a colonel in the US Army.

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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