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Your Career Track: Specialist or Generalist?

The Debate between Specialist or Generalist as a Career Track for Future Business Needs

By Ron Rex

For decades the workforce has debated on the most valuable career track: is it specialist or generalist? Do I focus on deep specialist credentials and experience, or will I be better off in the long run by being a generalist? The argument has merit on both sides, but there are some basic considerations anyone will have to keep in mind.

First, the presence of specialists and generalists in a workforce is often governed by two factors that are not always on the radar of an employee. First, the challenge is to understand that many decisions made by a company are based on expense ratio impact.  To remain competitive in an industry the correct mixture of specialists and generalists must be just right. On average, in the ranks of the workforce, specialists cost more than generalists do. So, a company must have all the specialists necessary to produce high quality complex work, but no more than necessary. The remainder of the workforce is commonly filled with less expensive generalists than what the market dictates as necessary. Second, the advancement into specialist areas may be attractive in the short run but be less attractive in the long run of a career as generalists operate comfortably across broad sets of business objectives and issues. The generalists make very good balanced decisions across disciplines mixed with true business needs.

The search for the right balance of specialists to generalists is complicated (no surprise here) by the fact that most employees see their company as organized around their particular function and service delivery team. Data analysts see the business world through lenses of data storylines whereas technology experts see the world as anchored by their particular requirements and point of view. Often this leaves leadership the challenge of inspiring various departments of professionals to appreciate the perspective of others. Specialists can become so mesmerized with “their world,” they don’t appreciate the importance of other team’s contributions. As an example, this concept of “everybody matters” comes to maturation when sales professionals can realize and embrace the fact that to the Chief Financial Officer, their ability to control costs is as important to the company as is hitting top line revenue goals is to the Chief Sales Officer. Or likewise, when Marketing can appreciate the complexities of the IT systems that underlie the CMS system, cooperation ensues. All staff have to be competent enough to focus on outcomes important to the entire company versus just their silo of interest.

It is the bias toward a siloed view of the business world that runs specialists into trouble, and ultimately a discounted value in a company. Here is where the generalist gains real career momentumWhen all operating goals can be integrated into a single view, the generalist gains real career value. A company simply needs cross-functional expertise in order to make day to day decisions that create true financial balance in a company. Thus, often an experienced generalist will gain career advantage over the narrowly equipped specialists. 

It is the competition between specialist senior leaders that frequently creates chaos in a company. When senior leaders compete for the next promotional opportunity, such as Executive V.P., they tend to create imbalance in company interests. Their run for promotion actually causes corporate strategy to disaggregate and lose potential. Huge business results often require complete synergy of a leadership team and their capability to “act in a sequenced manner” to best support total company results. 

The American culture, at times, fosters this chaos in business. We have an individualistic culture and consequently see the world as what is best individually for ourselves. Again, the mature functioning of a generalist trumps the lofty credentials of a specialist when it comes to keeping a company focused on the long term view and making balanced strategic decisions. Whether a company has a large workforce or a small workforce, the balanced viewpoint of a generalist and knowing the sequence of actions needed to achieve overall company goals is critical. Work is best done in a sequence, and subsequently the timely integration of strong specialist preferences is challenging.

You cannot conclude this conversation on balancing specialists and generalists to achieve a proper blend of functionality in the work place without acknowledging the disruptive presence to both of them of new cutting edge technologies. In fact, relatively mature new technology is able to frequently negate the value of human weakness. The rapid entry of more and more technology allows companies to achieve results without the human competition for favor, bonuses or dominance. In fact, use of technology to deliver work can enable a company to achieve multiple steps of work simultaneously and stay above the negative impact of human self-absorption or intentional seeking of competitive advantage over our colleagues.  However, immature new technology can easily disrupt business processes and strain cross team employee relations (not to mention client loyalty) when the new technology does not to live up to what was claimed on the glossy vendor brochures. The moral of the story is to never use version 1.1 of an app in your operational workflows.

Imagine the stability of a company and its merit in the workplace or with investment analysts, when a company offers clear goals, correct balancing of costs between workforces of specialists and generalists AND aggressively shifts work to properly vetted and mature technology systems. It is not about choosing the right career path to gain advantage. It is about seeing the organic big picture of the business needs of the future and making aggressive but well timed and balanced decisions.

Say hello to the generalist!