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Why You Shouldn't Be So Quick to Specialize

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

My coaching students think I act like a broken record. I do have a few tropes that I repeat like a Chuck E. Cheese automaton.

Focus: Stop chasing shiny objects and pick one thing that works. Attack it with all your energy.

Niche down: Don’t try to sell to everyone. Pick one target clientele, the more specific the better. Discover their biggest pain point and solve it. Rinse, repeat.

Based on that advice, many of my students think that I am encouraging them to become specialists — people who are really good at one thing, to the exclusion of all other things. Nothing could be further from the truth. I actually try hard to be a generalist, and I only hire generalists to work in my own business. While I want my students to hone their businesses, I want them to be generalists as well. In short, I want them to be “T-shaped.”

Related: 10 Strategies for Hiring and Retaining New Employees

T-shaped talent

If you go to work for Google, at some point in your employee development you will be encouraged to become T-shaped.

They’re talking about your talent stack. T-shaped talent in Google terms means a person who has deep knowledge in one area (the vertical stick of the capital letter “T”) but who also has a broad base of knowledge in multiple adjacent areas (the horizontal top of the capital “T”).

Why is this good? If you need a front-end developer, why not find the best front-end developer on the job market? Because if a problem arises that requires knowledge of another specialty — cloud computing or digital security — your new front-end worker will be stopped in their tracks. They’ll come knocking at the door of someone in the cloud computing or security teams, grinding their work to a halt as they help them with the problem at their station. If you’re really unlucky, the front-end worker will call a meeting to sort out the issue, grinding a whole team’s work to a halt.

Google doesn’t want that, and we shouldn;t either. If Google is looking for a front-end developer, they will look for someone who is excellent at front-end development — the vertical stick of the “T” — but who also knows a little something about back-end development, Cloud computing, data security, data center management or networking (the whole horizontal top of the “T”).

If a problem arises that doesn’t fall squarely in their sandbox or job description, a T-shaped talent will become curious. They will draw upon the knowledge they already have and go looking for the solution; no interruption in workflow and no interruptions for anyone else on the team.

Related: What to Know About Second Chance Hiring and Why It Could Help Solve Your Labor Problems

How to become T-shaped talent

Many of my students come from a corporate culture in their day jobs where they have been encouraged to specialize. At its extreme, departments become “siloed” — separated from other departments with no idea of how to do anyone else’s job. 

It’s almost like a conspiracy theory — their bosses want to make sure no one has the big picture, lest they try to strike out on their own as a competitor. They come to entrepreneurship retaining that silo mindset. They like the idea of finally being the boss. Their instinct is to hire out every task right from the get-go. After all, why take the time to learn a difficult new skill when you can hire someone who already knows how to do it? Best of all, if they hire enough people, maybe there will be no more tasks left for them to do as the business owner and they can retire!  

I encourage them to slow their roll. The solopreneurship phase is an important phase in their development as business owners. Yes, it’s a grind, but it’s essential. You can’t hire someone to do a job when you don’t have understanding of what the job entails.

The solopreneur phase will help you develop into a T-shaped talent. You are responsible for the solution to every problem — even if that solution is to outsource a task that you simply can’t do or find is a waste of time for you to do. Even the process of outsourcing will give you valuable insight into what it takes to run the business you have chosen.

Related: Top 10 Hiring Platforms for Small Business

How to nurture T-shaped talent

I tell new hires, “Ideally, I want to forget you exist. If you don’t talk to me for months, that’s awesome.”

How rude, right? But I actually mean it in the nicest way possible. What I mean is, “I want us to get to the point where I trust you to solve your own problems.”

Time gets burned as a result of “empowerment failure” — not trusting people to do the jobs they were hired to do, imposing burdensome systems of accountability and quality control — creating hoops employees have to jump through before they can simply do their job.

Late in my hiring process, I usually give my candidates a tryout task. To motivate them, I tell them that I will pay them a nominal fee for even making the attempt. I pay the fee to everyone who attempts the task, and I hire the one who does the best job. Money well spent.

Here’s the critical point, though: I provide them with detailed task instructions, and I make it clear to them that I will not answer any clarifying questions. Period. If I have five candidates, I can’t have them all peppering me with questions. I just don’t have the time. And of course, they will pepper me with questions — all of them want to find out exactly what I’m looking for to have the best possible chance at getting a job offer. But I want to see how well they answer their own questions and solve their own problems. They can ask me questions once they are hired.

The candidate who rises to the top and does a bang-up job without any input is a T-shaped talent. They will find their own answers; they’ll keep the team lean, mean, scrappy and chugging forward.

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