What shape is your talent in?
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What shape is your talent in?

Identifying every dimension of each individual’s strengths is essential

For far too long organisations have taken a one-size-fits-all approach to managing their talent. The traditional approach is to hire people for a specific role, and then train employees to fulfil that role as replacement or spare parts for a machine.

It worked in the past. But now the machine is being rebuilt around us, and this traditional replacement approach cannot succeed when we do not have the blueprints for the future. More importantly, this rigid model fails to account for the unique talents, motivations and potential each individual brings.

People are not machine components to be crammed into a pre-existing mold. It is also not just the younger generations either who crave a new approach. All people want to develop and use their abilities. We are all multi-faceted individuals with dynamic strengths.

I believe the future of talent management is moving away from pigeonholing people into static roles. Instead, successful organisations must embrace more strategic approaches — identifying and cultivating diverse talent shapes to create an agile, responsive workforce.

In recent conversations with business owners and Human Resources leaders, and in my work advising companies, the pitfalls of forcing everyone into the same talent model are clear. It leads to disengagement as employees feel unasked, unheard, underutilised and unfulfilled.

It breeds homogeneity of thought and skill sets, hindering innovation. And it results in talent mismatches, with people in roles that do not maximise their potential. In my opinion, one-size-fits-all talent management is outdated and ineffective.

So, what can leaders and organisations do instead?

I believe the starting point is for leaders to analyse the talent makeup they already have. HR teams can use skills inventories, psychometric assessments and work samples to map out the diverse shapes present in their organisation. They can then facilitate environments where employees can flex different talents and strategically develop and deploy each type.

What do I mean by shapes? The concept of talent shapes has been around for a long time and is again gaining traction. These multidimensional models of human potential have existed for decades because management thinkers have long recognised that individuals possess unique configurations of knowledge, skills and cognitive abilities.

The most well-known example is the T-shaped professional model — people who possess depth in one field coupled with breadth across disciplines. The X-shape highlights deep subject matter experts who also possess strategic leadership capabilities.

The I-shape represents pure subject matter specialists. The M-shape describes people with multiple areas of deep expertise, while the “Comb” adds generalised breadth. And Pi-shape connotes applying a primary specialisation across broader contexts.

A world-class violinist may be an I-shaped talent, while a chief technology officer could be an X-shape. A surgeon demonstrating the Pi shape might excel at combining medical expertise with entrepreneurial skills to launch a medical device startup. The combinations are limitless.

What are some potential first steps? Let’s take a look:

Let go of defined career paths. Development should be personalised to each individual talent’s working style preferences.

Design diverse, cross-functional project teams. This allows talents of different shapes to learn from each other in real work situations.

Use metrics beyond narrow roles. Evaluate employees based on their broader impact and value added.

Foster an entrepreneurial mentality. Give people opportunities to self-organise and rapidly prototype innovative ideas that capitalise on their talents.

Many companies in Thailand and beyond have already adopted this approach. The IBM Corporate Service Corps programme, for example, sends employees on pro bono consulting assignments in emerging markets, allowing them to apply their technical expertise while developing broader business skills.

Procter & Gamble’s Marketing and Brand Management programmes cultivate T-shaped talents by providing cross-functional exposure and training in areas such as consumer insights, product development and supply chain management.

Many leadership programmes develop comb-shaped talents by blending broad business acumen and deep technical knowledge across various domains. Novartis develops Pi-shaped talents by providing opportunities for scientists and researchers to gain broader business and leadership skills while maintaining their deep scientific expertise.

The bottom line: A modern workforce must treat talent management as an art rather than a science. Your workforce reflects your potential. Do not force people into the same rigid shapes.

Instead, intentionally cultivate your talent, and you increase your chances of creating breakthrough performance. Over the coming weeks, I will share my firsthand experiences and approaches to developing different talent shapes in my organisation.

Arinya Talerngsri is Chief Capability Officer, Managing Director and Founder at SEAC — Southeast Asia’s Lifelong Learning Centre. She is fascinated by the challenge of transforming education for all to create better prospects for Thais and people everywhere. Reach her email at arinya_t@seasiacenter.com or https://www.linkedin.com/in/arinya-talerngsri-53b81aa

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