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Is it Better to be a Specialist or Generalist?

Is it Better to be a Specialist or Generalist?

Is it better to specialize or be a generalist? This question is one that most people often have to ponder at the start of their career and career progresses. In the corporate world, you’re either a specialist or a generalist.

In my post on How Covid Is Driving Growth In Talent Management Technology, I referred to David Epstein’s new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

While there are differing opinions on this subject, I share sentiments with folks like Epstein. I also draw inspiration from Tiedemann Advisors Roberta Sydney‘s piece on Why Generalists Are A Better Fit For Small Private Boards (confirmation bias I know since I sit on several private boards).

Let me tell you about myself.

I’m an entrepreneur, retired from the Army, and former Aerospace Engineer major with a policy degree in government. I manage a non-profit in civic engagement and I’ve never been in the same job title for more than three years. You could say I’m a generalist, yes! So far, I think it’s working. While I can’t speak for you, if I had to choose a subject to specialize in it would be in the Mentorship side of Leadership Development.

Making a case for generalists

Bill Gates said of David Epstein’s book, “If you’re a generalist who has ever felt overshadowed by your specialist colleagues, this book is for you.” A statement is noteworthy as the conventional path to success has always emphasized specialization in a single field or discipline over being a generalist.

Regardless of which side the debate you are on, whether you believe it is better to specialize or generalize, there are significant benefits associated with pursuing a career path with more options. As I mentioned in a previous post, How Covid Is Driving Growth In Talent Management Technology, more hiring managers and employers are emphasizing good moral character, work ethic, and talent, above a specific skill set nowaday-s.

Knowledge is power

In his book, Epstein remarked that specializing could be beneficial in “kind learning environments” where patterns and feedback repeat and are somehow consistent. An example of such an environment is sports, where players can easily recognize patterns they’ve seen before and instantly know if a particular move was bad or good. 

However, this is not the case in what Epstein refers to as “wicked environments.” The corporate sector as well as our rapidly-changing world serve as excellent examples of these “wicked environments.” In these environments, randomness is common while repetition is not.  Here, there are more chances for success for a generalist who can draw into their varied knowledge and background and embrace diverse perspectives and experiences. Knowledge is power in every aspect of our lives. Being able to think broadly can be a significant advantage as well.

Skills transferability

Epstein writes that “mental meandering and personal experimentation are sources of power.” 

While specializing early on can help people get ahead of the curve, such as the reference to golf legend Tiger Woods, a training approach focused on creativity, curiosity, and experimentation is the best path for permanent growth. Generalists are more prominent within most organization’s management and leadership ranks.

The world continues to evolve at a rapid pace, making transferable skills more valuable than ever. 

People who can manage employees, for instance, can do this in different organizations, with little to no regard to the type of industry. The skill-set of good people skills, effective communication, and project management will be required whether you’re leading a team of national security experts or web designers. These skills grow with you and can translate to new roles as you move up the ladder.  This realization is essential for anyone in their career contemplating whether it is better to specialize or generalize.

Generalists develop more flexible knowledge, thanks to their background in various subjects, skills, and methods. It is with a broad understanding of various subjects along with the plethora of transferable skills at their disposal that helps ensure their value transcends roles and career boundaries.

Navigating uncertainty

In her recent piece, Specialists, Generalists, and Private Company Board Composition, Roberta Sydney reiterated the need to have more generalists rather than specialists with a single area of expertise on private company boards. Sydney put this down to the fact that generalists tend to bring more value to the table for these boards, make for great communicators, and have more experience than specialists at handling uncertainty.

I can relate to that considering I have also garnered some experience sitting on several private boards myself. Then again, a 20-year study by Professor Philip Tetlock, Annenberg University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, had also revealed that generalists seem to have an advantage at predicting outcomes of issues, even in areas beyond their scope and expertise.

Sydney observed that while specialists can make occasional contributions in the boardroom and can find much more value on scientific and technical boards; generalists are needed in navigating uncertainties and complexities during a crisis where leadership demands much more than a predefined plan or response.

Conclusion: Is it Better to Specialize or Generalize?

This debate is not a matter of deciding which side wins or which side loses out. 

Clearly, there are domains where specialists will thrive better than generalists. I recently conducted a non-scientific poll on LinkedIn on this topic of whether it is better to specialize or generalize. Results from that limited poll showed that (from my network) more generalists are finding success in business and the corporate sector than we tend to think. That poll also showed that while generalists may still need a niche, there’s also a need for specialists to broaden their horizons.

We tend to overrate specialists while underrating the value of generalists. I’m in total agreement with Roberta Sydney’s submission that while we’ll always need subject-matter experts, generalists with subject-matter expertise, broad business skills, and experience are often able to add more value that transcends their subject matter expertise

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