This model took life in a quick draft years ago on my notebook after one of the usual brainstorming nights me and Gianandrea did at that time. It came out trying to answer a simple question: what are the qualities that we appreciate in the people around us?
It seemed at first just an aside on more interesting discussions we were having on collaboration, teamwork and personal evolution, but what happened is that the model came back to my mind when I was hiring for my team some time later. The model worked perfectly in supporting my thinking: it helped me evaluate the cultural fit and skills.
After some time I was having individual conversations with my team on their professional progress and development path. I was surprised again that the discussions and interests were directly mappable to the elements of this model.
A few months later I was discussing with other design directors the traits of a good team leader and a manager and – surprise!– I found again that the criteria in the model were an excellent guide on the topic.
All these experiences and evidences on the field led me and Gianandrea to take some time and review that early model draft, making it as simple as possible to understand and use.
There’s a small insight at the beginning, so small it seems obvious. When we collaborate, work with colleagues, or with the client there are two parts playing a key role. One part is always taken as granted: we are using our skills as professionals. The other part should be obvious as well, but is strangely ruled out in a professional context as something that “shouldn’t be part of it”. And that’s the person. We are professionals, but we are also humans. This is an obvious but key understanding that still needs to happen on the workplace.
There’s this unstated rule that at work we are professionals and we should put aside the personal side. That won’t happen at any point in time, and assuming this will just make things harder and situations impossible to explain. Luckily this misleading perception is slowly fading away.
This model covers exactly these two sides.
The professional and the person.
The Professional Pyramid
The professional pyramid deals with the clear elements that fall under the umbrella of what’s usually defined as professionalism. This part of the diagram shows and expands a few traits that are valued as of today in organizations, even if to different degrees of awareness.
The first trait of the pyramid is about being skilled. This is clearly what makes us the professionals we are at work. It’s the thing on which we are evaluated, the set of activities we do, the subjects we learnt at school and university and so on. When we say we are visual designers, developers, mechanical engineers, dentists… we are referring to this level.
As you can see, almost everything we usually discuss about professions fits inside this element. Even differences between vertical professionals, with deep expertise, and T-shaped people, all fit inside this part of the model.
“McKinsey and Company came up with the idea of hiring what they termed ‘T-shaped’ people. People with deep analytical skills (the vertical stroke of the T) but also broad empathy toward those other skills and disciplines encountered in business (the horizontal stroke of the T). These highly adaptable, rapid learners turned out to be ideal management consultants.”
— Tim Brown
I want to pause here for a moment: this first element alone, skills, is already filled with quite a huge amount of richness and diversity. This tells you two things: the first is that this model is more complete, showing different things than usual; the second is that we usually value very poorly, if not at all, all the other traits this model highlights. I personally find this a bit scary, because this makes evident how often we rely on our gut reaction and blindly choose from our personal experience, instead of having a proper understanding.
The second trait is about being responsible. This is when you can trust someone that, once they start working on a task, it will be done. In other words, this trait highlights the ability of being trustworthy and taking ownership of activities.
The way I usually express this in a work context is that I can assign you a task and I can close my eyes. I know it will be done, in time. And if that’s not going to happen, I know you’ll raise a flag and discuss with me or others about it.
You can probably relate to this easily. You can go through all the people you worked with and you can clearly see to what degree this is true. It’s not of course black or white, everyone could be at a different level.
This trait clearly depends directly on the skill, but don’t be misled. A person with the responsible trait will see an assigned task through, no matter what. I’ve seen people with this trait incredibly developed, way beyond their skill trait. This meant that even if they weren’t able to do something, they learnt, they asked, they moved mountains. You can see this clearly if you have lots of experience with students and juniors, or in general people that can’t “hide” behind their skills: with some of them you can close your eyes, with some others you can not.
The professionals with the responsible trait are the ones you want to have as team lead. You give them a task, a project, something to do, and you know it will happen.
The third trait is about being proactive. This clearly seems similar to the responsible trait, but the difference is that the proactive professional will find the next thing to do even if nobody will assign a task, a direction or a project. The reason is that this person is more involved and cares about the end goal of the company, the unit or the team.
Often people with the proactive trait will ask questions to get a clear vision before starting a project. They will ask where we are, and where we are headed. They’ll try to get a broader picture. And then, they go. In a sense, this is also one of the traits that defines entrepreneurs.
That’s the difference between the proactive and the responsible trait: responsible doesn’t inherently mean proactive. In a sense, a person who’s responsible but not proactive will be sitting in a corner of the office if nobody assigns them something to do. Of course, everyone has some degree of proactivity, we aren’t vegetables, but even so, the difference is striking.
The professionals with the proactive trait are clearly the ones you want to have as managers. They will work toward an objective, setting new ones, discussing and changing them. This is often defined as passion or drive, but I prefer to avoid these terms because they aren’t so clear-cut, they are too emotional. Proactive professionals instead are just that: proactive. They take initiative.
While all the traits will be damaged by poor morale or bad culture in the company, the proactive person will just stop taking initiative, thus this is the trait most sensible to these environmental factors. On reverse, this is one of the evidences of good culture: you’ll find more people taking initiative.
Notice how we steer clear from the word leader, because there are different kinds and different levels of leadership, and that’s not what we are talking about here. However, even if leaders have characteristics that go beyond the scope of this model, still the traits of the professional pyramid can outline a few different kinds of leader you can have.
- You can find leaders that excel at the skilled level, and might not have any ability on the responsible or proactive level. These people are often the go-to person for questions and clarifications on a subject and are seen as the experts in the team.
- Some leaders will be instead there due to their level of responsibility. Even if they aren’t that skilled they are able to bring a project or a task home in the most difficult situations and that’s a value that can bring a team together.
- On the other side you can find leaders that excel at the proactive level, with just a small proficiency on skills. These are usually seen as the “pure managers”, but in other words it means they are the ones that keep pushing forward. They are often heading new initiatives, bringing in new visions and challenging the status quo.
- And of course, any combination of the three.
The last trait of the professional pyramid is about being a learner: a person with this trait will keep moving forward, keeping up to date and growing the skills. Notice also that learner means learning how to work better with a complementary professions (like art directors and copywriters, designers and developers, and so on) in order to improve the teamwork. It’s not strictly about the vertical skills.
You can notice people with this trait because they are the ones that keep asking how things work and how they could integrate better with other, they ask colleagues how to improve and value other’s opinions. They keep being active in their day-to-day activity.
It’s also important to clarify that this isn’t about schools or certificates. A person that has loads of certifications doesn’t necessarily correlate to a learner, because that could be done for a variety of reasons (achievement, insecurity, strategy, etc).
Even more, this is one of the key elements that the learning organization model explains to a great extent.
The Personal Circle
The personal circle is more difficult for two reasons. First because even if we worked to make it simple and usable by everyone, it still deals with the overwhelming complexity of human beings. Second because these traits are incredibly undervalued, to the point that sometimes we aren’t even aware of their existence. Thus the personal circle takes a little more to use and apply, but it’s also the part of the model that gives more insight in these elements that directly correlate to a great culture, great teamwork and overall an enjoyable way of working together.
There are four key traits, that interplay along two axis.
On the horizontal axis we have empathetic, this is the ability to connect with others and feel what they are feeling. Yes, feelings in the workplace. This might sound surprising but they must be taken into account: if in a meeting the person in front of you isn’t reacting well, you need to develop the sensibility to understand why. If a client is angry, you need to connect to that in order to see it and do something about it. The empathetic trait creates this critical connection without which there’s no understanding and very little effective teamwork.
Empathy will help you from the big to the small things. If a person got a little upset about something you said, it helps to clarify and discuss it: this will improve communication and the overall relationship. Without empathy you wouldn’t have noticed and you would have a person on the team that trusts you less, even maybe without you being aware of that.
Imagine also being in some lead of management role: you can clearly see how useful it is for you and the team if you’re able to walk in a room and get the overall mood of the people there. That will help to decide if that day is better to motivate people, let them go or if there’s a more important subject to discuss that might slow down the work in the next few days.
On the other side of the horizontal axis we have compassionate, that plays with empathetic, and is the ability of being gentle and understanding toward others. While empathy is in a sense a form of input, compassion is instead a form of output. Because being empathetic isn’t enough. Tania Singer expresses the importance of compassion in an excellent way.
Empathy is “a precursor to compassion, but too much of it can lead to antisocial behaviour”. For example, healthcare workers or caregivers who are frequently faced with trauma victims can become intensely distressed themselves, feel overwhelmed and burn out. Brain scans have shown that similar areas of the brain are activated both in the person who suffers and the one who feels empathy. So empathic suffering is a true experience of suffering.
In order to avoid this, we need to transform empathy into compassion. Compassion is a feeling of pity or a warm, caring emotion that does not involve feeling, say, sadness if the other person is sad.
— Tania Singer (2012) Compassion over Empathy
With a more contextualized example: if in a meeting the other person is angry, you can’t be angry. Sounds obvious, right? The first step is to connect with the person and understand that anger and the reflection it creates in yourself, but then it’s important to transform this in compassion.
Don’t be misled too much by the strength of the word. We aren’t trying to be monks, but we are trying to be better people, collaborating together better and in the end driving better business success while being happier.
I had a colleague that was impressive on this trait. She was able to deal with the angriest and weirdest of the clients with an incredible gentleness. It was always a matter of time: the anger disappeared and the weirdness smoothed out while working with her.
On the vertical axis we have individuated, that in a professional context means finding your own truth, your own center and something that translates to your core skill. Inside this trait there’s the depth of Jung’s individuation process here, but what we refer at this level is the ability of finding your true ability and start using that as you most important asset and value. This is very, very important, and it’s stressed in multiple management, brand and business books out there: you need to find your focus, your true calling.
In the design teams I led I always tended to highlight the specificities of each member: if there’s someone shining on research, that’s the person to chat with if you want to clarify something on the subject. This helps both ways: the person feels even more valued and the question gets answered in the best possible way.
It’s likely that this trait will be initially superficially identified with the profession and with time and experience it will get deeper, more focused and clearer. I’ve seen people moving from liking computers, to being developers, to a specific language developer, and finally understanding that the reason they liked their work was the ability to make impact on the society, thus moving to a no-profit company. If this seems something strange, this is a common progress in finding your calling, and you can clearly see how you’ll be both happier as a person and more effective as a professional by searching for this core trait.
On the other side of the vertical axis we have adaptive, that is the ability to move in a constantly changing world, taking the right decisions without being scared of change and flow with the events without being overwhelmed by them. This translates directly to the ability to achieve a common, shared benefit, because adaptation happens both in the market / project space and in the personal / team space.
As you can see, the vertical axis and specifically the adaptive trait interplays heavily with the others, because empathy and compassion are two kinds of sensibility both required to achieve a better adaptiveness, and individuation is something that once found can unleash its true force through the ability of making impact on the world.
Being adaptive is very similar to the concept of being mindful by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the ability of being present and aware in the moment. While mindfulness is defined as a form of complete attention to the present experience to a moment-to-moment basis; adaptivity is the internal and external behaviour exhibited by the people that are mindful. Similarly to compassionate and empathetic, adaptive can go very deep inside, but can be applied and understood first at a very pragmatic and practical level.
Not surprisingly, this is one of the other elements that the learning organization model highlights.
This model, with its personal and professional side, shifts away the attention from the specific role, skill or company culture you’re building and highlights instead traits that you want to have and nurture in your organization. I’m sure you can see how you would enjoy working with people that developed all these traits, and it’s likely you can now see your colleagues in a different light.
This model has also another benefit that will pay off in the longer term. If we look around today we see even senior people, managers and CEOs that are deeply lacking in many if not all of the non-skill traits. We see “rude” people raising ranks. Or people with no leading abilities in lead positions.
By understanding and using this model – or anything else that shares the key insights with this model– we could imagine in the longer term that people will be recognized and valued professionally for traits other than skills, as it’s true today for the skill trait alone. I believe that this might happen, because we would definitely hire a person with such profile in a team lead role, even if they are weaker on the skills side. This is however a benefit built on an understanding, experience and maybe even business organizations we have yet to build.
The final reason why we found this model useful is its universality. While we don’t claim it to be exhaustive, we found it works in many different fields: you can use it for hiring purposes, you can use it to evaluate performance, you can use it to evaluate better who to promote, you can use it to help people grow, you can even use it on yourself as a form of self-growth and self-analysis.
Give it a try, I’m sure you’ll find it useful.