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Growing the T-shaped content strategist

Example of T-shaped expertise

“We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they’re willing to try to do what you do,” writes IDEO President and CEO Tim Brown. “We call them ‘T-shaped people.’ They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T […] but they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills and do them as well.” He documented this ideal designer—who could be an engineer, anthropologist, industrial designer, anything—in the June 2005 issue of Fast Company; while that’s a generation ago in internet years, his ideas have only grown in relevance. His thinking applies in industries, specialties, and disciplines that didn’t even exist when Brown developed that recruiting goal.

David Armano picked up the thread a couple years later, in a 2007 blog post where he posited “T-shaped people” against “Sun-Shaped People.”

“When I began with my core passion vs. competency, it was easy for the ‘rays’ to flow out from the center,” he explains, depicting skills like creative direction, writing, visual thinking, and marketing that radiate out from his passion in creative problem solving. In closing, he offers a statement that contrasts with Brown’s focus on empathy: the sun model is “about sharing warmth vs. keeping it to yourself.” While Brown focuses on how people develop latent interests to understand others, Armano reasons that those broad competencies let us spread our strengths to others.

I read Armano’s post when he first published it and it resonated with me as I grew and flexed my expertise on a team. It prompted some questions that continue to inform my career: In what areas could I lead? In what areas could I contribute, and in what areas did I need to keep my head down and learn?

As an independent consultant, I shift through those questions on a daily basis as I grow my practice, engage with clients, and ask questions of my colleagues. Content strategy offers a demanding forum to answer those questions as it matures as an industry. Today, the problems I uncover and the questions my clients ask demand expertise in business strategy, branding, and myriad other areas of organizational communication. We need to draw on the empathy Brown expected as well as the radiating competencies Armano described.

I often probe the competencies of my clients as I examine their editorial workflow. Whether they’re T-shaped or sun-shaped organizations, I need them to clarify the practical aspect of content. Who can develop concepts for the blog? Who can write, and who is better in a position of reviewing content? Where are the opportunities to shadow, and where are the opportunities to mentor? As teams and individuals churn through these different mindsets, their energy—a sort of mental convection—powers learning organizations. When those organizations hunt down candidates with new expertise, they expect them to plant roots, grow, and spread the seeds of their wisdom to others. That’s how we invest in people, and how people invest in themselves.

I’m a T-shaped person. My trunk, my deep expertise, is in problem solving through content strategy. I’ve invested in growing branches in visual design and branding. Sometimes I reference another branch, expertise in the footwear industry, which I gained by working with clients like Puma, Timberland, and ECCO. Other times, I reference a branch in corporate social responsibility, experience I gained by working with brands that focus on philanthropy and environmental initiatives in addition to their core money-making efforts.

Perhaps those socially responsible brands are T-shaped too.

“My deep expertise is writing,” says Gigi Griffis, a travel and inspirational writer at gigigriffis.com. “If the branches are representative of skills that make my career possible, I’d say they are content and marketing strategy, travel planning, and (interestingly enough) psychology.” Gigi writes about inspiration, anxiety, and love from perches in Mexico, Belgium, Belize—all around the world, as she travels fulltime. Her research in psychology feeds a travel blog and allows her to offer insight that transcends simple tourist tips, and more appropriately pitch editors and position stories.

“I consider myself a T-shaped content strategist with deep expertise in writing, editorial strategy, information architecture, governance, and measurement,” writes Rick Allen. Rick is a content strategy consultant and co-founder of Meet Content, an online resource and consultancy dedicated to content strategy in higher education. Though he works with many academic institutions, Rick sees his skills as industry agnostic. “The branches that help feed my expertise are in project management, training, creative writing, and publishing.” His experience in those areas enriches his perspective as a content strategist; for example, his work in publishing provides context for how he approaches editorial strategy.

In the content strategy community, I often talk with people about making the leap into independent consulting. I ask them where they’re passionate, and about their related interests. What can they offer, and what do they want to learn?

Their responses are becoming more and more diverse, and that’s a sign of how our profession is maturing, in its own T-shaped or sun-shaped way. Content strategy offers many branches and specialties: content management, technical communication, editorial strategy, structured content, and other areas. But if it is sun-shaped, as Armano describes the individual, the question remains: what is at the center of those many areas of expertise? What core passion or principal skill ties together the community as a whole?

I’m curious about that big question, but the individual answers that feed it are equally important. What is your T? What are your branches—and how do you nurture them so they thrive and feed your main area of deep expertise?


  1. Corey V. says:

    Despite my years of writing and planning, my T tends to be more basic: organization and logic, with branches into writing and design as they relate to that organization. This naturally fits into disciplines like content strategy and IA, and explains why I’m more drawn to IA despite my CS posts all about soft skills and empathy and that mushy stuff.

    I suspect I write about those things because they are the things I HAVE to write about – I have to work through them in words in order to understand them better, while organization and structure feel like natural things I don’t need to explain.

    • Margot says:

      This makes so much sense, Corey. Your expertise in structure comes naturally and you don’t have to wrestle with it to figure out how to make it meaningful, while your “branches” give you ways to grapple with the things you work to understand–and clarify for the rest of us!

  2. Eileen Webb says:

    If you pile all the T-shaped strategists on top of each other, do you get a CS community that is a big blobby sun-shape? I think the core passion of that sun is “Thinking Things Through”, where “things” takes on a lot of different shapes depending on your own trunk – structured content, editorial quality & guiding, governance & workflow, and so on.

  3. Rick Allen says:

    I struggle with the “T-shape” question. But, I’m glad you asked. I think it’s important to answer because the content strategy “branches” I nurture shape and distinguish me as a content strategist. In that way, while content strategy guides my information architecture work, my information architecture experiences help me to be a better content strategist.

    The reason I struggle with the “T-shape” question is because I want to plan for it — that’s my nature — but, more often the T takes shape on its own. The branches I nurture are born out of a need to enhance my work overall. Content measurement has become a core competency because I need to assess the quality of my work and effectively make the case for content strategy. I never aspired to be a web analytics wiz.

    As for the core passion or principal skill that ties the content strategy community together, I think it’s active learning. Because our work brushes up against so many other disciplines, it requires us to actively learn new skills to do our work effectively. I like Eileen’s “Thinking Things Through,” too. In fact, I’m doing that right now.

  4. Sascha Stoltenow says:

    Hm, I would say at my core is curiosity – leading to so many branches that my shape will rather resemble a cauliflower then a tree.

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