Leading Through Zones of Genius and T-shaped Skills Theory

By Martha Blakely on

Working Outside Laptop

Uplight had our all-company remote meeting called the Upsite this January. Like most all-company get-togethers, we took advantage of the time in order to align our goals and priorities, building stronger connective tissue throughout the team.

Zones of Genius are the things you do that while you’re doing them, time falls away. You could go all night and you wouldn’t notice your lack of sleep.

Sadie Fulton

One of the best sessions (if not the best!) of the event was hosted by our own Sadie Fulton and guided Uplighters through distinguishing their Zones of Genius – or the elements / skills that magically come together to get you in the “zone” of enjoyment and of particular prowess. One of Sadie’s Zones of Genius is facilitating sessions just like this. I’ve already had several conversations with other Uplighters about what their Zone(s) of Genius is/are and how the knowledge is going to help them approach work in a slightly different way.

In addition to your unique gifts and interest, I find it interesting that there are ways in which each of us as leaders can continually level-up. We all know this; almost to the point that it’s a universal truth that you must self-improve (the size of the global personal development industry attests to this – standing high at $40B in 2020). 

However, I have a hypothesis that the reason this Zones of Genius exercise was so successful is three-fold: (1) it allowed us as a group to help each other level-up in ways that we could not do on our own, (2) it pushed us just out of the boundaries of our comfort zone, and (3) it fostered connection with people outside our normal day-to-day teams in that feel-good way we all crave (a rare treat when we’ve all been at home staring at Zoom for now 10 months!).

So how does this translate to leadership? As a leader (and I’m one of those people who subscribes to the theory of servant leadership in all areas), we must continually walk this balance of bringing a group of people together to level-up and perform in ways that separately we could never do (whole being greater than the sum of all parts.) We also need to push each person just outside of their comfort zone to help them be the best version of themselves. When we give this to each other, we present an opportunity to get in our collective Zone of Genius where everyone is in their flow state.

Things are still hard when we’re all in our flow state. Goals are still ambitious but through thoughtfulness, nurturing, and growth we can together help scale many if not all of the seemingly insurmountable barriers in our way.

Investing in T-shaped skills – across your org or individually – strengthens collaboration and communication for team members and between teams. You’ll open up silos and increase the agility of employees, which improves an org’s overall efficiency.

Forbes, Aug. 2020

This leads me to the T-shaped skills theory that to truly be well-rounded one must both have the ability to go deep in a subject (the vertical bar) and get smart quick across the whole range of subjects (the horizontal bar). Based on the research out there on this subject, the vertical bar (or the “I”) is what most people spend their time on – becoming more and more the subject matter expert. As we gain experience and expertise, going deeper is the clearest unobstructed way to increase the feeling that we’re moving forward in our career. Potentially harder to do, but very important in being a well-rounded leader is stepping out of your expertise comfort zone and building your horizontal bar of breadth, too. 

In order to meet people where they are and where their particular vertical bar lives, we must be able to go shallow in order to coach effectively. To me, the key value in a leader is in how they can bring out the best in others, not just because of the leader’s unique knowledge, experience, or gift.

Compassion, empathy, the ability to leave their ego at the door. These qualities describe the best managers I’ve had, the best leaders I’ve been inspired by, and also are some of the skills required in order to be a servant leader who can get a whole team of different people to flow in their collective Zone of Genius.

I’m excited about putting this into practice and ensuring that my own “T” is fully detailed. The knowledge of myself and the thoughtfulness about others is the best gift that I can give to my colleagues.

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