Charlie Munger, the T Professional

CharlieMunger smallBefore we get to Charlie Munger and what a T Professional is, I want to be up front and say this article has two basic purposes.  If you find that you are similar to Mr. Munger, I hope this article helps you recognize some of your strengths or eliminates a sense of stigma that sometimes accompanies this kind of skill set.  If you are not a T-shaped professional yourself, I hope this article helps you understand why you want to hire, partner with, or in some other way have around this type of person for the benefit of your business.

Who is Charlie Munger?

A while back, I read an article about Charlie Munger. Never heard of him?  I hadn’t.  He’s the vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, so he’s Warren Buffett’s right hand man.  I’d heard of Warren Buffett before.  There’s more to Mr. Munger than just that, of course, but that’s enough to give you a sense of how successful he is at business. When Warren Buffett calls you his business partner, you probably know what you’re doing. But that’s not what I found interesting about him.

What I found intriguing was the term used to describe him: an expert-generalist.

It was a term that resonated for me. And described me.

The term “T-shaped individual” or “T professional” also refers to this same concept but is a little more popular in human resources circles.  It refers to the strengths of a particular approach to learning and life experience.

When I was growing up there were lots of terms people used to describe me: “Jack of all trades but master of none,” and “professional student.” These terms seemed to say, “You are incapable of picking one thing, but until you pick, you can’t specialize. And if you don’t specialize, you can’t achieve success.”

But I never bought into that model. Sure, it used to be that you could get a job where specialization meant career advancement, and career advancement meant moving up the ladder at the company that hired you in your 20s and from which you retired in your 60s. We no longer live in that world, of course, but the attitude that specialization is the only gateway to success still hangs on.

Charlie Munger is an obvious example of how wrong those attitudes were.  Warren Buffett is successful, in no small part, to having Charlie Munger sitting next to him.  He represented the successful “Jack of all trades” — the expert-generalist, or the T professional.

What is a T Professional (or Expert Generalist)?

It is a person whose interests are both broad and deep. That is, they are interested in lots of different topics. But they also go deep in many of those topics. Not as deep as a true specialist, but deep enough to understand how that field, area, or topic generally works.

In my case, I’ve got lots of very diverse interests. To list a few: British literature, business, chocolate (not just eating it, but how it’s grown and processed as well), education, genealogy (both through historical documents and genetics), green technology, history, language, music history, neuroscience, non-Western music, publishing, tea (not just drinking it, but how it’s grown and processed, its cultural history, economic significance, and more), technology and how it both helps and hinders people, and world culture.

Some of these are fairly shallow areas of interest, like non-Western music and chocolate. I’ve taken a couple of classes, or read a couple of books, and found it all fascinating. I’d learn more if it happened to come up.  But some areas are pretty deep, like British literature (my college degree), business (one part or another of my work since I started my first company in 1998), education (I’m a State-certified teacher with years of classroom experience) and tea (training people since 2003 and now writing a book).  These are areas where I’ve spent multiple years actively studying in the field.

But so what?

Strengths of the T

In preparation for this blog post, I watched myself for a while, looking for specific examples of what characterizes the T.  The strengths derive from taking models and concepts from one area, and applying them to an entirely different realm.  For example:

  • I used the mating strategies of shrimp to explain different approaches a client might take in dealing with a business problem.
  • I applied understanding of the cognitive biases that lead to various “denial” groups (climate change denial, moon-landing denial, Holocaust denial) to a marketing issue in social media
  • I avoided making a bad electronics purchasing decision because I know how health claims about tea tend to skew (or get dead wrong) the actual facts.

Put another way, I used my knowledge of biology to further a client’s education, neuroscience to improve business, and tea to reduce costs.

The strength, then, is the something like a metaphor.  Or of systems thinking.  It’s applying models and patterns that are useful in one realm into areas where they’re less common but equally applicable.  It’s recognizing that problem X is hard to solve, until you notice that it has essential qualities of problem Y in another field, which was solved in that field by approach Z, and therefore, the best answer might be to find the analog solution in the field where problem X appeared.

It’s not just recognizing similarities between things.  Anyone can make a metaphor.  X is like Y.  It’s deeper than that.  As mentioned in another article, the expert generalists like Picasso and Kepler depend mainly on two cognitive traits: openness to experience, and need for cognition.

The first is based on the basic neurological fact that you can’t put the pieces together in new and interesting ways if you don’t have any pieces.  The habit of collecting more and varied experiences and knowledge support innovation and creativity.  Someone in my family once called me “brave” for buying a cheese at the grocery store that I’d never tried before.  My behavior–trying a new product–was openness to experience.  Her reaction illustrated the reverse.

Need for cognition, on the other hand, is essentially the trait of enjoying thinking and learning.  (When someone says to me, “You think too much,” I have a hard time not immediately replying, “Are you sure you don’t think too little?”  I stop myself because I know not everyone enjoys thinking.  For some people, it’s unpleasant and they see it as a drawback.)  It’s this enjoyment of mental activity that leads to taking those pieces and putting them together.  It’s looking for ways of using them in unusual ways. It’s of asking deeper questions to understand how they work, and how those revelations can be applied to new situations.

It was probably someone with need for cognition who came up with something a friend said in college:  a cat is like a sidewalk because neither can play the piano.  Someone thought about the qualities of cats and sidewalks and pianos long enough to recognize a new, innovative, and surprising way of putting those pieces together in a completely true statement.  It is what “thinking outside the box” looks like.

In short, then, an expert generalist is a specialist of a sort.  But it’s not a specialist in a subject area, but in a group of mental skills that prime them for being extra creative, problem solvers, and solution finders.  It’s an expertise in learning things and a specialization in figuring it out.  And that’s a hugely beneficial trait in the constantly changing landscape of a small business.

How Can I Use This?

That depends.  Are you an expert generalist yourself?  Are your skills truly T-shaped?  If so, I’d say take a moment and revel in your awesomeness.  Then keep an eye out for the societal pressures to silo yourself into a narrow band of expertise.  Pull as much interdisciplinary strength as you can into your business.  I have no doubt you can figure it out.  It’s what you do.

But what if all that doesn’t seem to fit right?  What if I didn’t describe you above?  It might even sound horrible.  What if you realize you’re not that open to experience, or you don’t enjoy sitting down for a long session of pondering?  Well, get someone like that on board.

I started Ardea Coaching in part because I recognized that I could lend my brain–my rather unique way of dealing with information and situations–to those who found it difficult to do what I found easy.  If you want me to apply relevant things I’ve learned from my palate of deep-learning subjects to whatever your marketing or business strategy problems are, that’s what I’m here for.  I do this mainly in the area of online marketing and business strategy, but there are other T-shaped consultants, mentors, and coaches out there whose particular background make them great at other areas of business.

You could also get that boost by looking for that kind of person when you hire employees.  If you go this route, though, be sure you actually listen to their suggestions and recognize that although they might be saying some things that seem oddball to you, those suggestions are precisely why you hired them.  It does no good to ask a T professional to solve a problem and then throw away the solution, even if you struggle with how and why they arrived at it, or how you might carry it out.  That’s just a new problem for them to solve.

Free bonus interview question:  You see a kind of cheese in the supermarket that you’ve never tried before.  It’s next to the kind you usually get.  What do you do?  (Just kidding, but describing a situation that might have multiple solutions and seeing how creatively they address it could be a good approach to revealing some of these traits.)

Whether it’s you, a consultant or coach like me, an employee, or a business partner like Charlie Munger, be sure you have at least one expert generalist, or T-shaped professional somewhere in your inner circle.  Their skills will really boost the flexibility, creativity, and effectiveness of your small business.

Image credit: Nick Webb


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Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  1 Comment  |  in General Marketing

About Michael J. Coffey

Michael started learning about online marketing as the web store manager for a scrappy little game retailer during the "dot com bubble" of the 1990s. Since then he's helped fitness companies, tea wholesalers and retailers, lawyers, clothing designers, restaurateurs, and entrepreneurs in many other fields. In his spare time he drinks very high quality tea, writes letters with a fountain pen, and reads literature.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Being the T Professional, and Why It Could be the Best Thing for Your Career - "What's HAppening" Blog

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