Everyone keeps saying how the employee of the future is M-shaped, and I couldn’t agree more!
Ecologists. What a fascinating breed of the scientific branch! Did you know that those neat geeks fancy classifying species, diligently trying to identify what kinds of food and habitat resources fauna relies on to survive? The way these cool weirdos see it, species make two groups: Generalists and Specialists. Generalist species can eat a variety of foods and thrive in a range of habitats. Specialist species have a limited diet and stricter habitat requirements. National Geographic chimes in at this point to casually remind us how different Raccoons and Koalas truly are.
Koalas are Specialist herbivorous marsupials. They feed only on the leaves of the eucalyptus tree. Therefore, their range of habitats is restricted to this that support eucalyptus trees. Within this diet, some Koalas specialize so deeply, that they end up eat leaves from only one or two specific trees! Talk about a lean diet!
Raccoons, on the other are pure Generalists: they can live in a wide variety of environments including forests, mountains, and large cities. Raccoons are omnivores and can feast on everything from fruit and nuts to insects, frogs, eggs, and human trash. There’s no way you’re sleeping on an empty stomach in Raccoon-land: where there’s anything remotely edible, there is a way!
I don’t know who initially thought to bring this creative Analogy of Specialists and Generalists to the workplace, but this is pure genius! This concept makes so much sense for employees as well! In the world of work, people are no less on the species spectrum than Raccoons and Koalas: casually grouped by their professional competencies into either Specialists or Generalists.
How much stuff you know, how deeply you know your stuff, how often you change your work tune feeds mainstream Human Resource Management professionals with the necessary info to group you into one of the two categories, like any ecologist worth their while!
As my Mentor and Global HR Industry Analyst Josh Bersin wrote in his article on the “full-stack HR professional”, in all aspects of our lives, there is a tradeoff between depth (specialization) and breadth (perspective). Raccoons vouch for perspective. Koalas go for specialization. Both species are valuable to the ecosystem, but by focusing and developing expertise, one adds ever-increasing amounts of value to create an identity and become well known. That’s why Koalas are a considered vulnerable and are protected by national environmental law, whereas Americans struggle to keep Raccoons out of their back yards and crops! Still, as many studies show, it is the combination of depth and breadth that matters!
Here’s where Josh points us to the direction of a book titled Range: While Generalists Triumph in a Specialist World, where author David Epstein makes a compelling case that specialists fall behind generalists over time, and that the highest performing people in sports, business, and the arts are always increasing their depth and range at the same time. They specialize, but only after they have done many things and learned how the world fits together. And these professionals are widely known as T-shaped people!
T-shaped people are employees with broad experience in different disciplines (which is illustrated by the horizontal bar of “T”) and they have a deep expertise in their field or discipline (which is represented by the “T’s” vertical bar). Therefore, T-shape people have a specialty and, in addition, they have a wider breadth of experience with other skills. No wonder, as Josh notes, that companies like T-shaped people! Too bad for our sanity that people tend to cling to word-games, though!
It was only a matter of time after David Epstein’s book that newer articles popped up to populate the list of letter-shaped professionals. From Pi-shaped to E-shaped, it seems that no letter deserves to be left alone to enjoy a life in peace. Some of those acronyms I find hilarious, most I find unrealistic, but one in particular fully resonates. Because I know that particular profile very well, and I can vouch that it’s definitely a thing out there: it’s the M-shaped person.
Unlike T-shaped, M-shaped has two vertical bars. Those bars represent people with multiple expertise in their fields or discipline. A person with more than one specialty. M-shaped are equal -or more- knowledgeable in the skills expected of a T-shaped, and M-shaped employees are oftentimes members of high performance cross-functional teams. A Product Designer who can also Code. A Musician who can also do Animations. A Project Manager who is also a Parent. Wait…what?
For the past two years I have been devoting my metal energy (and an entire blog for that matter!) to spreading the word on acknowledging Parenting as a competence-intensive state, and Parents as multi-competent knowledge-workers. To help societies and employees see Parents as people who possess uncontested amounts of knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) developed outside their professional standpoint, yet fully transferable to their work-life. And my quest to unearth them has been smoother than I thought.
Using Mothers as my paradigm, and revisiting competences ranging from Project Management and Planning, to Resilience powered by a Growth Mindset, I have been working to solidify the case around Parents owning multi-skilled profiles, whose ability to apply knowledge across situations and domains is uncontested. Mama-Leader, Mama-Storyteller, Mama-Planner, Mama-Taxi-Driver are only a handful of the M-shaped versions of the basic Motherhood profile that can be found in nature.
If you’ve been browsing through this space, you should have already stumbled upon tons of evidence around specialties that Parents arguably own. Do all Parents have them all by default? Of course not. But Parenthood is too powerful of an experience to simply ignore: it offers countless opportunities to actually work on new competencies and make them your own. Therefore, if you are a person who listens and dares to act upon a good cosmic hint, Parenthood could eventually lead to a revamped version of you, powered by tons of newly-acquired traits you can develop and transfer to any setup you like: the work environment, your social life, your leisure. And it saddens me to realize that, although companies are undeniably on the lookout for M-skilled people, Mothers are still viewed as the laggards of the workplace, faced with a wall of bias!
Can one be a great Mom and at the same time an exemplary Leader? You bet, my dear Hiring Manager or Recruiter! Parenthood is a transformative path that can lead to solidifying that M-shaped profile you say you are looking for, but you expect to find it elsewhere, preferably in white males!
As for you, Momma, you are an M-shaped professional, and let no workplace bias (however loudly expressed) convince you otherwise. You bring competence along with hands-on experience to the business table, traits that are both crucial and business-relevant. You are a Generalist, and at the same time a multi-Specialist; as precious to the Workforce as it can get. And while Society and the Workplace struggle to grasp and make room for you, they are forced to realize that they both need to deeply re-invent themselves to finally be able to “get” who you are and what you do. Meanwhile, you keep doing what you do best, and keep walking down that M-path in pride.
For all us Working Moms out there, M-shaped stands for Mom-shaped. And we got this!