Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Offering a unique value proposition as an employee 28: specialists and generalists

Posted in career development, job search, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on October 8, 2013

This is my twenty eighth posting to a series on offering defining value as an employee, and on presenting yourself as the answer to problems faced while doing so (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 311-337 for Parts 1-27.)

My area of focus for this posting can be summed up by the terms “specialist” and “generalist”, and is about

• Parsing an overall job requirement into general and specialty-knowledge and skills and
• Strategically pursuing the right blend of specialist and generalist options, both in specific jobs and job searches and across a career.

And I begin this by noting two very important points:

• Specialist and generalist are two terms that everyone has an opinion on and certainly when it comes to jobs and careers, and getting and staying employed.
• But these are also terms that tend to get caught up in what might best be called cartoon thinking, and stereotypes.

My goal here is to at least try and cut through all of that to take a more strategically sound approach to them, where both approaches hold fundamental value to anyone who seeks to succeed in the workplace. First some of the stereotype:

• It is often said and assumed that hiring managers and the businesses they work for only hire narrow specialists. According to this, anyone who comes across as too much of a generalist, of necessity comes across as lacking the depth of skill and experience in any one specialty area that they would need to be hired. So generalists and people who come across as generalists are less employable.

Like any cartoon stereotype, this has a grain of truth to it. Businesses in general do hire in order to address specific functional gaps in what their current personnel can provide. And that almost always means finding and securing best candidates for carrying out specific tasks that are not currently being adequately addressed. Success at that, almost always calls for specific skills and experience. This means their hiring currently required specialists, and except for intentional short-term and temporary hires this usually means candidates who hold specific skills that are likely to retain importance for that business too. But at the same time, most businesses need to find candidates who can professionally grow and evolve in ways that keep them relevant, and as their critically essential skills and skill sets requirements change. And this can be crucially important for businesses that operate in rapidly changing industries where New is always coming along and employees have to in some way keep up with that if they are to be retained, and certainly long-term.

At least as importantly, and certainly for anyone who seeks professional advancement up a table of organization, employees need to understand the larger context that those specialty skills fit into and are applied in – their own and those of their perhaps completely specialist colleagues. The higher up you go, advancing up a table of organization, the more and the more diverse the range of specialists and specialties that you will have to be able to work with.

Think of my two paragraphs after that bullet point as mapping out specialist, serial specialist and generalist positions, and certainly for more senior managers and executives. But even there and even at the top, most C level officers have at some point in their careers proven themselves for their hands-on skills and for their capacity to master specialist knowledge sets to expert levels. This can even be considered a part of how they pay their dues in qualifying for advancement.

A more senior manager or executive in particular, lives professionally on their basis of their soft people skills: their communications and interpersonal skills and on their being an effective generalist who can see and understand and work in the context of a meaningful big picture of the overall business and its context. But they do not in most cases start that way and that way alone as they began their path up.

• So I come to a more nuanced vision of specialist and generalist, where a good candidate at whatever stage in their career has to know and understand what blend of specialist and generalist skills would be more important to them to have mastered.
• And I come to a more nuanced position where success means presenting and marketing this blend in the right way to meet immediate here and now needs, but with an eye to longer-term possibilities.

A strictly narrow specialist might get hired for a here and now high-priority skill set that they have. But their very success can get them dead-ended as only being a narrow specialist and take them out of consideration for advancement later. And if their particular specialty skills that they are known for loses importance and priority at their place of work they might very well find themselves caught up in a layoff or downsizing or in a workforce refocusing if that occurs.

The flexibility of being at the very least, a serial specialist who can and does actively learn can be essential for long term employment at the same business – and definitely where New, and the new technologies and skills needed to produce and service it define the industry and its marketplace. At some point, and certainly for any employee who has dreams of senior management, generalist skills and the wider knowledge base that they create become essential too.

As a final thought here, at least in my experience the shortest path to micromanagement from the top can be found where executives are primarily just specialists and in single areas of expertise. And they focus to everyone’s detriment on that one area of the business and on what is being done in it, among all that is taking place and all that needs to take place in their business.

I have briefly touched upon a wide range of interrelated issues here and am considering at this point, writing and posting an entire series on this topic area. I am, however, concluding this posting here at this point. I am going to turn in my next series installment to address the need to continually reinvent yourself in new directions and into new areas of interest and capability if you are to stay relevant and competitive in an ever-changing jobs market and workplace. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2 and at its first Guide directory page.

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