Generalist or Specialist
How you manage your career depends on whether you are a generalist or specialist.
When I started my career in the 1970s, large corporations valued generalists. In my 22 years of working for IBM, they let me take a variety of career paths. It also suited my personality, because I have a lot of varied interests. After a few years in a job, I would get bored and wanted to do something new.
IBM allowed me to work with a lot of leading-edge technologies that are still around today. Some of these included:
- Word Processors – I worked with early word processors even before the IBM PC was released.
- 3D printing – I was working with early 3D printers in 1989.
- HTML and Internet Applications – I was designing Internet applications in the 1990s, long before it was common.
- Advanced Router Design – When I left IBM in 2000, I developed curriculum to teach major equipment manufacturers how to design next-generation routers and switches.
- High Definition Video – In 2007, after spending a couple years teaching high school math and working in the non-profit arena, I went to work for an HD video conferencing startup developing a training and certification program.
I am a generalist. I have enjoyed working with a lot of different technologies and methodologies. My challenge was that I got bored about every three years and wanted to move on to something different.
A fundamental shift started about twenty years ago. As technological change sped up, the need for specialists increased. Starting in the mid-1990s, I saw many of my colleagues move on to become specialists—and they were generously rewarded…for a while. If you developed skills and became a specialist in an area that was in the early adoption phase, you could make a lot of money, again, for a while. That was only true until others developed those same skills. The key was to identify correctly which skills would be desirable to have a year or two ahead of the demand.
This is easy to see in the world of technology, but does it apply elsewhere? YES!
In the world of Human Resources, you could be a generalist or a specialist in recruiting, compensation, benefit programs, diversity, HR IT, etc…
In the world of sales, you could be a generalist or a specialist in B2B or B2C, Internet sales, Channel sales, etc…
The challenge is that, if you are a specialist, your skills may not be valued in 5, 10 or 15 years. Let me give a few examples of skills that have become obsolete:
- Experts in direct mail (snail mail) marketing – With the exception of credit card offers, what industries still market through direct mail?
- Travel agents – When was the last time you talked to a travel agent? Fifteen years ago, this was still a valued skill.
- Specialists in the complex process of laying out newsprint for your daily newspaper – When did you last pick up a paper newspaper?
- Photo-Journalists – Why have photo-journalists when everyone has a camera?
These were all valued skills just a few years ago.
What If I Am a Generalist?
Generalists are typically more valued in smaller organizations. Small organizations typically cannot afford to hire a lot of specialists. I have a client who is a marketing generalist. She likes to write press releases, e-mail marketing, social media, direct mail, the creation of collateral… You will be more valued in smaller organizations who need their employees to wear a lot of hats.
Many generalists may also be multipotentialities. I am one of these, where I have so many interests that I get bored with a job after 2 to 3 years and want to move onto something new. What I do to keep things interesting and fresh is to purposely make a change every year. In 2016, I launched the Repurpose Your Career podcast which continues to grow every week. I am now launching the Career Pivot membership community. Both endeavors are to help the community but also to keep things interesting and new to me.
I can do this because I work for myself. What if you work for someone else?
What If I Am a Specialist?
Specialists need to stay on top of their areas of expertise and be willing to move when their expertise becomes a commodity or obsolete. This requires vigilance and the willingness to move with industry trends. You must be aware of disruptive trends in your industry.
I had a discussion several weeks ago with a gentleman who has been a contract project manager for Electronic Medical Record (EMR) system projects. For the last 5 or more years, business has been brisk and when one project ended he was able to pick the next very easily. The wave of EMR projects has crested. Most hospitals and clinic have now implemented EMR systems and suddenly he is having trouble finding work.
Another person I know jumped on the Ruby on Rails train. Just a few years ago to have Ruby on Rails programming knowledge you were a hot commodity. This person jumped on the train just as the demand was cresting. Now to be in demand you have to know how to program Ruby on Rails but also have multiple years of experience. She is struggling to get established now that skills she worked so hard to attain are not hot any longer.
Specialists have to stay on top of their game if they want to stay relevant in the ever-changing world of work.
Creative Destruction is Accelerating
New technology is being introduced at an ever-accelerating pace along with the opportunity to destroy entire professions and industries but also creating new ones.
The world of automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics is changing everything. I claim that if you think your career is immune to these factors you are smoking something and you are inhaling.
If you are not careful you could end up just like a couple of my clients who I wrote about in the post Living in a “Career Disaster Area” at the Age of 65. One of these individuals I would consider to be a generalist and the other was a specialist.
Whether you are a generalist or specialist you have to stay on top of things.
Give it some thought.
Are you a generalist or specialist?
Are you prepared for the creative destruction that is coming?
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Sherry Lowry says
Marc, you’re making extremely important points in this post on the necessity of staying current – regardless.
The professionals I see struggling most mightily today have failed to do this – OR their own practice is to drill deeper, deeper and deeper into their CURRENT specialty. This does will only support them as you reference IF and WHEN there is a short-term impact they seek like it helps them gain or maintain an otherwise useful credential, or it lets them better fulfill an actual deliverable better.
In contrast, those I see thriving (and this includes YOU, btw, vigorously take on new learning REGULARLY in related or tandem but more directly related FUTURE areas of significance.
…OR those consistent thrivers career-long make it a sacred practice to always be ready to literally let go of one area of endeavor gracefully – to always have time, space, and creative energy to respond to opportunities of the moment as they arise. These also are the folk who such opportunities often present to because they gain the reputation of being somewhat available and they are very accessible.
The lesson: whatever you are up to…DON’T settle in. That’s truly dangerous.
Thanks for the reminders that once again, managing yourself comes first in managing your career success.
Hatem Kotb says
I keep trying to be a Specialist but it doesn’t last much, and I don’t think I get to the point of reaching the “peak” of the specialty.
I guess I am more of a Generalist. I’m currently working at a Startup so I hope I get noticed for my Generalist skills, even though they hired me for a “specific role”.
Tanya Coller says
Any tips for navigating the career ladder as a Generalist? I am people-oriented and thrive on helping people reach their potential and self-discover solutions. I’ve noticed though that the higher up the ladder you search (i.e. Director, VP), the more Specialist-focused the job descriptions tend to be and actually do not tend to mention skills in Emotional Intelligence or managing teams. But perhaps I am not searching correctly. Job titles, search criteria or other suggestions welcome. Thank you!
I would be looking at smaller companies where you can wear many hats. The bigger the company the more likely they will pigeon hole you into a specialist.
Eric Weigel says
I look at this issue in terms of risk management. If you’re a specialist you better become extremely good at that “thing” and be willing to change your identity and move on to the next “thing” on a dime. Your human capital will likely jump up and down with the demand for your skillset.
If you are a generalist, I think that you have more bases covered. The default for many people as they enter their 40 or 50 and get displaced by the corporate world is to become more entrepreneurial and/or switch to smaller companies. If you are able to do multiple things and you are used to learning new things you have an edge over somebody that’s the done the same thing over and over.
Finally, research shows that as you age your brain processing speed slows but your ability to integrate multiple perspectives improves.
In the end, I think that a generalist mindset coupled with a couple of in-demand skills creates the necessary value-add to stay employed or even better to be entrepreneurial.
Very well said.