Leadership Yin-Yang: How to choose between a generalist and a specialist

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Explore these two leadership approaches – generalist and specialist – and the best path forward beginning with a student just starting their career, to a leader, to an organization, and an industry.

Becoming a specialist or a generalist is not an easy choice, primarily because of the ever-changing nature of roles within large organizations and occupations in general.

Business evolution occurs more rapidly year after year, resulting in new specialized fields eager to recruit individuals with specific skills. Therefore, should we expect a spike in demand for deep learners and go-to experts or is there still a place for proficient generalists who can wear different hats?

Which is the better path in today’s dynamic, interconnected world and is success dependent on choosing one of the two?

In this segment of my Leadership Yin-Yang blog series, I explore these two leadership approaches – generalist and specialist – and the best path forward beginning with a student just starting their career, to a leader, to an organization, and an industry.

Generalist

A generalist is competent in several different fields or activities. Generalists can understand the perspectives and additional areas given their understanding of the breadth of issues related to an ask.

In some cases, it’s better to turn to those who know multiple things and accept ambiguity and contradictions than so-called experts. Relying on a single perspective can be problematic, even detrimental to predicting an accurate outcome.[1] Generalists are those with broad experience and ‘expertise.’ They can connect dots where others may not see a link.

Students who start their careers with a generic path and then search for niche specialties can manage their learning curve effectively by creating a balance between depth and breadth. As a generalist, a student can venture into multiple domains.

Swiss professional tennis player Roger Federer was 36 when he became the oldest tennis player ranked number one in the world. However, as a child, he dabbled in skiing, wrestling, swimming, skateboarding, and squash. He played basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis, and soccer (and badminton over his neighbor’s fence). Federer later credited the variety of sports with developing his athleticism and coordination.[2]

A mid-level corporate generalist with knowledge of a broad range of issues is prepared to visualize interconnected domains and find solutions that a specialist might not see. A generalist can help colleagues understand the bigger picture, develop ideas and solutions that benefit the business, and think out of the box at the right time, and during the most opportune conversations.[3]

At the industry level, a generalist strategy is less prone to market risks and industry complexities because it relies on multiple products/services for revenue. Conglomerates such as Amazon, BAE Systems, Unilever, Vivendi SA, and Aditya Birla Group are successful because of the general range of their goods and services. Similarly, technology firms such as Samsung, which primarily dominated the electronics market, are now venturing into the financial services and payments landscape to reach more customers and target more domains, thereby reducing risks linked to the dynamic tech and IT landscape.

Specialists, on the other hand, try to create a differentiated strategy with a narrow scope. The risks of failure, in general, are high, and the markets are usually highly competitive. For instance, the Eastman Kodak Company (a one-time trendsetter in cameras and photographic film) began to decline as a result of consumers’ transition to digital photography and computer-based photoelectric and mechanical techniques.

Let’s now take a look at the other side of the spectrum.

Specialist

“Equipped with knives all over, yet none is sharp,” warned people in China. In Estonia, it went, “Nine trades, the tenth one — hunger.”

A specialist has specific knowledge and skill relating to a particular job or area of study.

To attain a world-class skill, 10,000 hours of concentrated practice are required.[4] The 10,000-hour rule is not really about the number of hours you put into something; it’s about deliberate practice. If you want to become great at anything, dedication and commitment are key.

American professional golfer Tiger Woods was seven months old when his father gave him a putter, which he dragged around in his circular baby-walker. At age 2, he showed off his drive on national television. By 21, Woods was the best golfer in the world. There were, to be sure, personal and professional bumps along the way, but in April he became the second-oldest player, at 43, to win the Masters Tournament. Woods’s tale spawned an early specialization industry.[5]

At the corporate level, some say today’s job market is all about specialists. Currently, the drive toward even more specialization in business is continuing, with most business leaders saying their department or organization would be more effective if more of their subordinates were more specialist than generalist.

Specialists have gained knowledge in their subject, which is hard to come by and therefore, the position of a specialist can be valuable for a company. The organization often has a few specialists operating in different sectors, which means the whole of the organization could rely on their expertise.

For executives who are specialists, the opportunity exists to become a true thought leader in their area of expertise. If one is passionate about the subject and willing to learn more about it as time goes on, they can become recognized in their field. The ability to become a thought leader can further improve one’s career prospects and open new opportunities. After all people tend to seek experts, rather than generalists, when faced with a challenge.

If you need a unique type of surgery for a rare disorder, you will probably feel more comfortable receiving care from a specialist rather than a primary care provider. In certain specialist industries – such as information technology and science – an individual’s entire career progression is often dependent on expert knowledge as a functional specialist.

At the industry level in sectors such as information technology, the needs of specialist versus generalist can be distinct. In some instances – think of quickly evolving fields such as quantum computers and gene editing – generalists may struggle to stay up to date, while specialists can more easily make sense of new technical developments and opportunities as they arise.

Conclusion

Going forward, what may work best is a mixed approach and one that evolves with time.

Just like in old times, students are still completing their education in one sprint and then moving into their careers. However, this will need to evolve, and successful, long-term careers will be based on continuous learning. Building a career is no longer a static process; it is more dynamic in nature.

The lifespan of workers is increasing, and so are career spans. You can start with one profession but may evolve over the years to keep up with changing market trends. Although cricket as a sport is moving from test (multiple day matches) to T20 (one-day series), our life is moving in the opposite direction.

At the corporate level, diversity is becoming more critical than ever and building a diverse team will require both generalists and specialists. Horizontal and vertical contributors bolster the success of agile teams. Horizontals/generalists take the role of the management activities and overall solution packaging while verticals/specialists focus on the specifics.

There might be a hint outside of real life! Hollywood films such as “The Avengers” and “Inglourious Basterds” feature heroes with a specialty (knife thrower, demolition, smart guy, to name a few) that serve the team because no person can do every job and be as effective as someone who only has to concentrate on one thing.

Considering the unique strengths of each, the best answer in today’s dynamic world may be a hybrid approach – that of the expert-generalist. Expert-generalists interface with many different subjects, understand the principles that connect to those subjects, and then apply the principles to their core specialty.[6]

Elon Musk’s interest in a variety of fields has helped guide his success. For the most part, his investments and ideas are seeded in technology, which allows Musk to explore and reconstruct already-existing cases.[7]

In a way, the approach of being an expert-generalist with deep expertise over a few major areas provides direction to the generalist. It helps ensure that their expertise gets channeled in domains that are relevant in current and upcoming market conditions.

To learn more, feel free to get in touch with me on social media.

The author would like to thank Divyanshi Bhansali, Shelly Goyal, and Tamara Berry for their contributions to this article.

 

 

[1] Harvard Business Review, “When generalists are better than specialists and vice-versa,” Florenta Teodoridis, Michael Bikard, Keyvan Vakili, July 31, 2018, https://hbr.org/2018/07/when-generalists-are-better-than-specialists-and-vice-versa.

[2] The New York Times, “You Don’t Want a Child Prodigy,“ David Epstein, May 24, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/24/opinion/sunday/kids-sports-music-choices.html.

[3] Cleverism, “Ultimate career choice – generalist vs specialist,” May 23, 2016, https://www.cleverism.com/ultimate-career-choice-generalist-vs-specialist.

[4] Develop Good Habits, “10,000 Hour-Rule: Does It Take This Long To Master Something?” July 23, 2019, https://www.developgoodhabits.com/10000-hour-rule.

[5] The New York Times, “You Don’t Want a Child Prodigy,“ David Epstein, May 24, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/24/opinion/sunday/kids-sports-music-choices.html.

[6] Core Planning Strategies, “The Business Case for the Expert-Generalist,” May 25, 2017, https://coreplanningstrategies.com/blog/the-business-case-for-the-expert-generalist.

[7] Business Insider, “Elon Musk credits his success to these 3 steps,” Sarah Young, July 4, 2017, https://www.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-credits-his-success-to-these-3-steps-2017-7

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