T-shaped Skills: A Simple Approach with Big Results with Boehringer Ingelheim

4 minutes read
Jonas van Wees
How T-shaped skills can bring clarity, alignment, and focus to employees and the employee journey.

By Jonas van Wees, HR Auditor, Top Employers Institute 

Like many other companies, Boehringer Ingelheim, a certified Top Employer, had to expedite operational changes during the COVID-19 pandemic to meet customer needs while adhering to safety recommendations like social distancing. Face-to-face meetings were the norm in the pharmaceutical industry, making Boehringer Ingelheim’s transition to remote meetings a significant adjustment. However, maintaining the highest level of service remained a top priority. “As a business we sat down and asked how can we support our customers and patients in the best way possible? That is when we really sped up the T-shape initiative,” Helen Doeswijk-Lindley, People Growth Manager for Boehringer Ingelheim, explained.  

Helen and I discussed how a T-shaped approach enhanced company operations and benefited employees as part of our conversation during the 2022 Top Employers Institute Best Practices Week. In this article, I want to share the wealth of insights we discussed, highlighting how this approach not only enhanced overall efficiency but also empowered employees to recognise and voice their needs effectively. 

What is a T-shaped Approach?  

The T-shape is a symbol that illustrates an individual’s strengths. The vertical line represents expertise and knowledge in a specific field, while the horizontal line represents cross-discipline competencies and the ability to collaborate effectively with professionals from various industries or roles. Helen simplified this concept, stating for employees, “The T-shape allows you to understand what general skills you need, the horizontal line, and what you need to be an expert in, the vertical line.”  

Boehringer Ingelheim began implementing T-shaped job descriptions with the customer-facing teams. Helen explained that the first step was for everyone to individually consider the skills and competencies required for a specific role. After comparing notes, they compiled a list of thirty-four competencies. Helen described what happened next to narrow down the list, “We really got crisp. What are we asking our team to do? Where does responsibility start with one team member or one job role and where does it end? We really defined the skills for each role.” They arrived at a final set of fourteen competencies, nine general skills and five unique skills, that everyone agreed fit the respective role. 

Their process of individual and team workshops was used throughout the organisation to define roles using the T-shaped approach and followed these general steps:  

  • Employees individually consider the required skills and competencies for specific roles, 
  • Teams gather and discuss the skills and competencies each person identified, and 
  • Teams collaboratively narrow down the identified skills and competencies to one list.  

Helen shared that they were pleasantly surprised by this approach’s far-reaching impacts, “What actually came out of those workshops is that we could take the T-shape and really start looking holistically at what we were offering to our employees – all the way from providing a clear job description to assisting with career progression planning to helping us recruit talent.”  

Benefits of the T-shaped Approach 

The T-shaped approach offers numerous benefits to both employees and the company. Employees are better able to engage in self-reflection with a T-shaped job description. They can evaluate their competencies and have meaningful conversations with their managers about growth opportunities. Helen elaborated on this benefit, “I can say from [the] feedback I’ve received that the T-shape has given employees clarity. It’s also given them a voice to express where they need support to do their job effectively, whether that’s from an educational standpoint or from a process standpoint.”  

Furthermore, the T-shape creates a shared understanding of skills and competencies across the company. Helen explained how this clarity led to the restructuring of various roles, “We actually started to change key processes. We didn’t want certain roles to have to do certain things anymore because it was slowing them down.” To support these changes, Helen developed skills-based training tailored for the newly defined roles, which enhanced operations and better-equipped employees for career advancement.   

A T-shaped skills approach is a powerful tool for self-reflection. As our conversation concluded, Helen challenged the audience, “Create a T-shape for your role. Review your job description and ask yourself: Is my role the same today as when I started in terms of the required skills? What is needed for the future? The T-shape is a straightforward way to look at your general skills and expertise and identify opportunities for growth.”  

Whether utilised by individuals or organisations, investing in T-shaped skills brings clarity and focus to future development. This approach enhances efficiency and facilitates meaningful discussions, ultimately driving progress.  

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T-shaped Skills: A Simple Approach with Big Results with Boehringer Ingelheim

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