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How being versatile can save your career from mundanity

Even when you're an expert you're still not good enough in today's competitive market. Shane Cubis explores the art of getting ahead by using your secret weapon: versatility.


Mr. T from the hit 80s television show ‘The A-Team’ was a truly versatile guy. He was the muscle, the mechanic and the no-nonsense motivator to his teammates.

In the career-building world it’s important to be like Mr. T. You can start by pitying fools, then move on to the rest of this plan to become a more well-rounded person.

Let’s assume that you’re an expert in something. It could be organisational psychology, networking systems engineering or perhaps you’re a mechanical genius with one of the worst conduct records in the army. Whatever it is, you’re the best in the business. Or at least in the top 10.

The truth is, that’s not good enough anymore.

Nowadays, in addition to being geniuses at their core role, all the best humans are turning themselves into ‘T-people’. Before you think excessive gold jewellery, a Mandinka hairstyle and a feather earring, it actually means spreading your wings beyond the traditional purpose you’ve seen yourself fulfilling in a work-based context.

Remaining expert in one field while becoming highly capable in a wider range of areas. So instead of being straight-up-and-down like a capital ‘I’, you are now a capital ‘T’.

Make sense?

Organisational benefits await the versatile

The benefits to an organisation are obvious – having crossover skill sets among your workforce means fewer bottlenecks, more flexibility in scheduling priority jobs, and stronger communication between teams, because there’s a shared understanding of what everyone does.

So how do you become a T-shaped weapon without treading on anyone’s toes?

The best way to start is by learning skills that are adjacent to the work you’re already doing. This means an expansion of what you know, rather than a leap into some totally unrelated area.

The main upside here is that you are able to help out, if required, with whatever happens before and after your usual spot in the workflow. Ideally the people you’re helping out are relieved to have this support, but you have to watch out for political animals who think you’re trying to nick their job or undermine their authority.

Another good way to look at it, especially from a whole-team perspective, is where you can best fill a skill gap. If everyone knows how to drive a getaway car, you don’t need to prioritise that skill. But if only one person is across your organisation’s project management software, you’ll be valuable as a back-up when they’re snowed under, off sick or arrested for a crime they didn’t commit.

Get support for your cause

Finally, you should be pitching this as a tit-for-tat arrangement; you show these would-be tutors the ropes of your role, too. Not everyone will be keen to move beyond the work-to-rule mentality, so it helps to have strong, ongoing management support for this process.

This means having company time carved out to actually learn and practise this stuff, as well as friendly pressure on the jobsworths and gatekeepers who kick up stinks in their silos. That’s the ideal situation – everyone continuing to learn and expand beyond their remit.

But even if you’re the only Mr. T in a building full of ‘I’s, it’s worth spending your own time to pick up new skills.

You never know when a fresh opportunity is going to come along, and being a soldier of fortune on the run from the law is great training to step in the ring with Rocky Balboa.

Read next: Essential life skills you need to succeed in business

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