Episode 111

Published on:

1st Nov 2023

Building T-Shaped Talent: How to Create Agile and Adaptable Teams

´╗┐Summary: Tracy St. Dic, the Global Head of Talent at Zapier, joins the HR Impact Show to discuss the concept of building teams with T-shaped talent. T-shaped talent refers to individuals who are highly skilled subject matter experts in one area (the vertical line of the T) and have a broad range of skills, knowledge, and experience (the horizontal line of the T). Tracy explains that T-shaped talent is optimal for organizations that require adaptability, collaboration, and innovation. She shares how Zapier focuses on hiring and developing T-shaped talent, cultivating a mindset of flexibility, and rewarding employees who demonstrate T-shaped skills. Tracy also emphasizes the importance of knowledge sharing, cross-functional opportunities, and continuous learning in building T-shaped teams.

Key Takeaways:

T-shaped talent combines deep expertise in one area with a broad range of skills and knowledge.

T-shaped talent enables adaptability, collaboration, and innovation in rapidly changing environments.

Hiring and developing T-shaped talent requires considering transferable skills and diverse experiences.

Cultivating a mindset of flexibility involves prioritizing the team's goals over individual KPIs.

Knowledge sharing, cross-functional opportunities, and continuous learning are essential for building T-shaped teams.


00:02:00 Tracy's achievement of building a strong and unified talent team

00:05:00 Definition of T-shaped talent and its benefits

00:08:00 Talent density as a strategy for hiring, onboarding, and culture

00:10:00 Examples of implementing T-shaped talent in hiring and learning/growth

00:12:00 Encouraging team leaders to build necessary skills within their teams

00:15:00 Broadening the scope of potential hires and promoting diversity

00:17:00 Cultivating a mindset of flexibility and curiosity within the organization

00:21:00 Benefits of optimizing for talent density and T-shaped talent

00:23:00 Additional consideration: promoting a T-shaped talent mindset and flexibility

00:24:00 Tracy emphasizes the importance of continuous learning and development

Join us at HR Impact to learn and connect with a community of HR leaders just like you. This is the space where top people leaders share actionable insights and practical playbooks in fostering a high-performing workplace of the future.

Sign up as a member today for community updates on the latest HR resources and exclusive event invites: www.engagerocket.co/hrimpact

CheeTung (CT) Leong: [:

Thank you so much for being on the show, Tracy.

Tracy St Dic: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me.

CheeTung (CT) Leong: Could you share a little bit more about Zapier, like any kind of behind the scenes the listeners should know about and about your role in the company?

Tracy St Dic: Yeah. Zapier is a no code automation platform. And our mission is to make automation work for everyone. It's software that empowers users to connect the apps that you already use into automated workflows, but now with the power of AI.

st the idea is that everyone [:

My role at Zapier, like you said, I'm the global head of talent which means I run several functions of our talent team, which include talent acquisition, talent intelligence and sourcing, employer branding, all of the related diversity, recruiting partnerships, and also our internal mobility strategies and talent pathways too.

Prior to that, I spent about 14 years in the nonprofit education sector first, actually as a kindergarten teacher through Teach for America, and then played a variety of different roles. Recruiting, strategy, people related, and spent my last few years leading our mighty national recruitment team at Teach for America.

nt that you're most proud of [:

Tracy St Dic: Oh, where my head goes first, honestly, is just I'm so proud of my team. When I came into Zapier, we were really building our talent team, like lots of new folks coming in from all different companies. We're just trying to become more unified. And so I think moving away from a more reactive recruiting model with silo teams to a proactive recruiting model, what we'll call a flex capacity model, which I'm sure we'll talk about later.

Just a team that really understands each other's strengths, and this tricky tech environment. We're hiring swells and then it slows. The work is always changing. And my team is just incredible and generous and how they lean in to support each other and partner together..

CheeTung (CT) Leong: That's incredible. To continue on this rapid fire questions, what is your moonshot goal for next year?

erprise talent, good for the [:

CheeTung (CT) Leong: And what is one leadership myth that you wish would just go away?

Tracy St Dic: The leadership myth I wish would go away is that: You should spend more time working on your areas of growth. I know that may be blasphemous, right? Cause you get feedback from your manager. I know a lot of people get that. And like myself, I dig it. I'm like, okay, where do I need to grow?

What's my action plan to grow? I think you need to mitigate risk on areas of growth and weakness for sure. Especially if it's something that's, impacting others, but I subscribe to the idea that you actually get more bang for your buck if you focus on your strengths. So you should lean into them until they become superpowers.

These are the things that you build a personal and professional back brand around that become your unique contribution that people turn to you for. So I say, put more energy there and make sure your growth areas just aren't slowing you down. I know what I'm not good at. I just accept it.

y attention to your areas of [:

CheeTung (CT) Leong: You are speaking my language. We spend so much time thinking about closing gaps . When actually, in that era of strength, we could be one of the best in the world, but if we spend all our time trying to close these gaps, we never get that ability to shine.

To get us started, could you share what T shaped talent is?

ernal McKinsey concept in the:

So these are people who are highly skilled subject matter experts in one area, which is likely their core job. If you think about that as the vertical line visually on a T, and then they have a broad range of skills, knowledge, and experience, and that creates the horizontal line. It also usually means that because you have those skills and experience more [00:05:00] broadly, you can also collaborate across disciplines, cross functionally, with other experts, and you can support work just outside of your one specific job description.

I think of T shaped talent as having both depth and breadth.

CheeTung (CT) Leong: So this is very interesting because it's counter to the idea of having talent that's all rounded, people who are just good at everything. Why do you think that model is superior to trying to find someone who's apparently good at everything?

Tracy St Dic: So, Just to round it out you have T shaped talent, and then on the other end of the spectrum you have what would probably be considered I shaped talent, right? If you just think about the vertical, a subject matter expert in one area having a niche specific skill set.

And then, you described a generalist. Broad experience, can do a number of different things, but not an expert in one. I actually don't think they're necessarily better or worse. It depends on your talent model and the work you need done and the way you want to staff to meet your goals.

s what they live and breathe [:

Most of us do have a skill or an area where we're expert. And then we have a broader set of skills that we can pull on based on where we're most needed. For Zapier today, and I think in a lot of organizations, T shaped talent is really optimal because it's win for the company, and it's also win for the individual as well.

CheeTung (CT) Leong: So there are some contexts in which T shaped talent just function better than the I shaped talent. And If I were to guess, the context in which T shaped talent perform the best are when the job to be done is decently well defined, but can change at a moment's notice. So we need people who are relatively flexible, but at the same time can get their core job done.

nt, in the organizations. And[:

Alongside that, I think what goes along with adaptability and agility is also collaboration. T shaped talent can work really effectively across different teams due to their broad understanding.

They can all speak the same language, even if they're not expert. And then there's innovation too. You can bring multiple perspectives to others work, and that diverse knowledge facilitates the fusion of ideas from different fields, and that can lead to sometimes more innovative solutions, again, going back to your point of, like, when context is changing rapidly, too.

a part of your company where [:

CheeTung (CT) Leong: We talked about talent density as well as a concept. So let's flesh that out a little bit. How do you define talent density?

Tracy St Dic: So I think the term talent density really is attributed to Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix and his book. How we define talent density at Zapier is every single person in the company has an unusually specific and impactful role, as well as the context and tools that they need to succeed at a high level.

And of course, the more people who can do that, the more talent dense your organization is. So that everybody is operating at or above, or at or close to the top of their potential. When you have an environment where people can do their best work, then they can really thrive.

That's what a talent dense organization looks like, where you're maximizing people's potential.

lso about how that talent is [:

Tracy St Dic: If T shaped talent is your talent strategy like it is at Zapier, then it's really everything. It's hiring, it's onboarding, ongoing training. It's also building a mindset and culture around T shaped talent. Because we're not just building and configuring teams by putting, all these subject matter experts and puzzle pieces together.

We're really trying to create a versatile and agile workforce, from the very beginning. If you're trying to build a team that is full of T shaped talent, there's aspects of hiring, L and D, daily operations and mindsets that you have to consider.

CheeTung (CT) Leong: So let's take a real example. Would you be able to talk about a T shaped team that you've encountered or you've built. How does that look like?

Tracy St Dic: There's some really good, and I think specific examples that we share about how we're operating at Zapier that's coming, all the way from our CEO and chief people officer of how we want to operate as a team.

T shaped talent for hiring, [:

We're considering how do you add qualifications into job descriptions that would enable that person to lean into a larger scope of work if needed. So it's like a really concrete example that teams could do now with roles that they have open. Then the second thing would be learning and growth.

We often ask our executives and heads of teams to think about the talent capabilities that they want to have on their team. What that means is we say, consider what are the one to two skills that if they were built within your team, if they were really well developed, that would enable you to accomplish goals with fewer dependencies on other teams or experts.

ngential to their core work. [:

But we want to be really pointed and ask team leaders to say, if there are a few skills that your team can build that would enable you to do a lot more. How are you going to start building those? How are we going to encourage that? How are we going to spur that learning and growth? So that's the second thing.

Then for daily operations, our CEO wrote a post to our company that I actually think is a great example of this. So Wade Foster, the CEO of Zapier. He said, if you have a product manager with amazing design skills. They might even hesitate to do very lightweight design within their product area, if they're already thinking, Oh, we have tons of talented designers elsewhere, and that's their role and I don't want to step on their toes. That might actually stall a project or it might pull on capacity in a place where it's not necessary. Or similarly, like a product marketer with strong writing skills might wait for a copywriter to be available to work on something that actually like they themselves could do.

mplete it. That's one of the [:

And obviously things like company culture around transparency and communication practices ensure that this doesn't turn into people stepping on toes or becoming really disorganized. But it's a simple question that you can ask yourself. Can I do it? Is there someone on my team who can do it?

Or do I need to wait for the expert or the person who has the title or the job description to do it? And then I would say the last thing is mindsets. So you can work on hiring, you can work on ongoing development, you can look at your operations. But I think the mindset piece is so important for a talent dense organization and for T shaped talent, because you want to make sure the goals, the missions, and the priorities are ultra clear to everyone.

product faster, right? It's [:

CheeTung (CT) Leong: If you're a team of eight people, like a two pizza team that's very doable. But when you're a few thousand people running around that you need systems to be able to control how this is propagated through the organization.

What do you think Zapier is doing differently in the hiring process to be able to suss out how T shaped the person really is?

playbook, maybe had the same [:

Especially looking at types of companies at different industries , skills are really transferable and if you as a recruiting team can think about in hiring, what are the skills that are transferable? If we just gave people the right context, I think that's opening you up not only to potentially broader T shaped talent so that you're thinking about different profiles of people who could be good for your role, but it also can really brought in diversity so that you're not just focused on who's the one person who's done this job before.

en that could be in slightly [:

You're also broadening your pool of potential candidates in terms of identities and backgrounds and general perspective as well.

CheeTung (CT) Leong: All the way from the CV screens. Just going through that resume, making sure there's a little bit of diversity there that can help provide clues as to the ability of this person across multiple domains. And then through the interviewing process, I guess you can ask certain things as well.

of your job that you saw an [:

How did you do that? And why did you do it? So asking questions even around, getting at this curiosity. Almost an entrepreneurship mindset. To identify and spot opportunities to support and help and jump in on different things, knowing that it's all connected and just default to action for the good of the team.

I think these are all things that we can look for in a hiring process, but also a mindset of flexibility. That has to be cultivated once people are here.

CheeTung (CT) Leong: Once you've brought these talent into the organization, how do you cultivate that mindset that rewards flexibility for the team?

Tracy St Dic: So a couple of things on mindset, it helps with the change management. It helps with the adaptability.

others or do work that's not [:

It starts with knowledge and investment. Are we all clear on what we're trying to accomplish? Are we all invested in the idea that our team is accomplishing the most important thing? Like I said, I have five different functions on my team, five different core teams, but we spend a lot of time looking at our overall road roadmap for talent, how that ladders up to the overall strategy and roadmap for the people team, how that ladders up to the overall strategy and roadmap for Zapier.

It's very clear what we're doing and why, and what is actually the most important thing. So that's number one, one team, one mission. I would say the second thing is my managers have to know their people. Not only do they have to know their skill sets and experiences because our employees are not just their job title, they're a whole person. And they likely had many different professional experiences before they got to us. We try to get really clear on knowing our people and knowing their interests. So even if they have a less skill or knowledge in a particular area, but are highly motivated and have the interest per your point, then they're hungry to learn.

project where they can build [:

So demonstrating flexibility, as a manager team leader, you might have to orchestrate situations where people can practice this approach, you want to encourage people to jump in to volunteer to help. For example, on my team last spring, we had a member of our talent operations team go out on leave and she, manages our tech stack and reporting and things like that.

Instead of having her team have to scramble to cover for her or, us have to hire a temporary person. We asked a recruiter from our tech recruiting team to step in and support, and that recruiter got to learn all those skills that are outside of her day to day work.

e able to bring that back to [:

There's a lot of examples on my team. We've done things like secondments or in other organizations I've worked in before, we do externships.

Then the last piece is actually rewarding that flexibility. So as a team leader, it's up to me to shout out examples at every opportunity of people who are flexing in our flex capacity model, rewarding with praise, rewarding, if your team does spot bonuses. Or rewarding monetarily. So we also write cross functional work into our goals as well so that people are held accountable to it. And we also then can praise it and celebrate it, at the end of the quarter at the end of the year, too.

So I think those things for mindsets are really important, making sure everyone's on the same page, really knowing your people and making sure you're actually teaching people what this looks like in practice and rewarding it every chance you get to.

elop skills outside the core [:

Tracy St Dic: Oh, that's a good question. It probably varies based on manager ability. Just like individual contributors, there are new managers, there are managers developing, there are really strong managers.

I would imagine that really strong managers do this well because Two reasons. You're always looking for ways to maximize your team goals or business outcomes. You're thinking about the people on your team as one lever in which to do that. Talent is a huge lever for impact, as we know.

So if you're a strong manager, you're always thinking about how you might need to shift work around to meet goals. And then you're also thinking about your people's development. What's going to be engaging, exciting, and motivating to them. It's certainly something that I think about as a manager.

ut T shaped talent or moving [:

There's very few things in people work that don't come with trade offs, talent, T shaped talent companies have more capable teams, better business outcomes, and also individuals can grow and develop skills to be even more effective and impactful now and in the future. It's their personal development. So you're not sacrificing saying either one. I think great managers look for that and probably newer managers need to be trained on how to do those things too.

ronger. It grows more robust [:

Tracy St Dic: Absolutely. Especially if you're in an environment or in a company where maybe you've slowed down on hiring a little bit, for whatever reason, and you really need to maximize the talent you have. If you are already doing things that promote T shaped talent, it's just going to be so much easier.

It's going to feel so much more natural to your company as well.

CheeTung (CT) Leong: wonderful. So one team, one mission, know your people and show a certain amount of flexibility in how they're developed and reward that flexibility.

A pretty good framework start with to build that T shaped talent mindset optimizing for talent density. Is there anything you would add to that?

talent mindset all the time [:

Then I think there are really tactical things though that companies can do to create opportunities for developing these skills. And I'll just very briefly say, I think it's a lot about knowledge sharing, like making it easy for someone to get the context they need to flex in, like we're fully remote at Zapier.

So we're very big on writing things down as a part of our culture of working async. Someone could have incredible skills, but they have to understand the context of another project or team. Make it easy for them to get that. So knowledge sharing is one. I think looking for cross functional opportunities for your people all the time.

That could just be like jumping in on a project for another team, shadowing. It could be leading a project or initiative that involves multiple perspectives and expertise. The benefit there is that not only do team members get exposure to different leaders and teams, which can actually strengthen culture, but then of course they're supporting work and they're building skills.

eath on your team or in your [:

Focus on knowledge sharing, cross functional opportunities and have a real point of view for how continuous learning will happen to build breath at your organization.

CheeTung (CT) Leong: What's the best way for them to find you?

Tracy St Dic: You can find me on LinkedIn. Tracy St. Dic. You can find me at Zapier. That's probably the best way to connect. There's also so many opportunities to get engaged with work Zapier is doing, whether you're interested in the organization, interested as a customer, as we said, automation and AI are for everyone.

So that's also just a great way to get involved with us and our organization too.

CheeTung (CT) Leong: So Tracy, thank you so much for hanging with us today. And for those of you who are listening, I hope you enjoyed this and that you have a ton of different takeaways to build your own T shaped team your own talent dense team full of T shaped talent. Thank you so much for listening. My name is CT signing off.

Show artwork for Engaging Leadership

About the Podcast

Engaging Leadership
Engaging Leaders to Build High Performance Teams
How do you build a high-performance team?
That question occupies the minds of most leaders.

Answering that question in today's environment is especially challenging.
You need to outperform previous years on a fraction of the budget.
Do more with less is the mandate.

How do you pull this off?
That's why we're here.

Each week we will interview executive and senior leaders in HR, IT, and Sales. They'll share their best practices and playbooks for empowering managers and building high-performance teams.

Engaged leaders empower managers to build elite teams.
Tune in every week for game-changing insights.

About your hosts

CheeTung Leong

Profile picture for CheeTung Leong
I'm committed to helping people live their best lives through work.

I'm one of the co-founders of EngageRocket, an HRTech SaaS startup and we are focused on helping organizations build empowered managers, engaged employees, and elite teams.

I'm a big nerd when it comes to economics and psychology and regularly use data and tech to help folks live their best lives.

I've been recognized by Prestige Magazine as one of the top 40 under 40 business leaders and have been featured in Forbes, Bloomberg, Business Insider, and Tech in Asia.

Jim Kanichirayil

Profile picture for Jim Kanichirayil
Your friendly neighborhood talent strategy nerd is the producer and co-host for The HR Impact Show. He's spent his career in sales and has been typically in startup b2b HRTech and TA-Tech organizations.

He's built high-performance sales teams throughout his career and is passionate about all things employee life cycle and especially employee retention and turnover.