Which is Better: Being a Generalist or Specialist?

In a potential future of frequent career moves and an ever-changing work environment, is it better to be a generalist or a specialist?
Generalist future work

Nicole Ashe’s background highlights a career specialized in learning. However, the senior vice president of talent, diversity, culture and learning at Atlanta-based digital marketing, financial, retail and wholesale solutions provider Cox Automotive wears more hats than only that of a learning specialist.

Human resources professionals generally must focus on payroll, benefits, talent management, employment law, diversity and inclusion, Ashe said. But they must also become business strategists, using baseline knowledge of these different areas and seeing how these forces interplay, making them generalists.

“You use all of those skills combined with your knowledge of the business, and boy, you’re powerful,” Ashe said.

There is still a place in business for specialists. There will always be value to having deep knowledge of certain topics. Still, the ability to see across business units and fields helps in forecasting trends and getting ahead of competition.

Thus, many people feel their roles are transitioning to that of a generalist. A survey by PageGroup, a specialist recruiting firm, surveyed 2,000 white-collar specialists, or those whose time and focus is spent on a certain specialism. These specialist skills diminish after only two years on a job, leading 51 percent of those surveyed to now consider themselves generalists. Efficiency suffered, as 31 percent reported negative impact on their productivity.

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Still, leadership roles require generalist tendencies. “I do think that leaders need to be generalists,” Ashe said. They must bring together teams of specialists, gather information presented and use an open mind and fresh perspective to innovate.

Especially as the world increases in complexity, leadership roles require the ability to integrate many perspectives and fields, said Carter Phipps, co-founder of Institute for Cultural Evolution, a Boulder, Colorado-based nonprofit think tank focusing on evolving America’s democracy. He’s also author of “Evolutionaries: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea.” That capacity to think across one’s area of expertise is only going to grow, and it’s what makes a great leader. Leaders aren’t superhero generalists, but the ability to bring together specialists’ knowledge is a huge talent, he said.

But in the end, it’s not a binary issue of generalist or specialist. “Most people who are generalists are specialists in something,” Phipps said.

Balancing the Binary

“The question is not specialist or generalist; it’s intentionally getting the mix and timing right based on what is required to achieve business agility and objectives,” said Greg Pryor, vice president of leadership and organizational effectiveness at Workday Inc., a Pleasanton, California-based provider of enterprise cloud applications for finance and HR.

Rather than having everyone in a company focused on their time in a role and diving deeply on their subject matter, some could transition between roles frequently. In a future of technology continuing to disrupt how work gets done, switching careers often could be necessary. However, this requires concerted efforts of human resources professionals to be open to diversity of career experiences and mobility. Tour-of-duty employees, Pryor said, should be able to contribute quickly, see where they’re needed next, evolve their skills to match and then move on to the next business challenge.

“Every job is evolving,” said Angela Jacobs, director of talent acquisition and development at the University of Chicago. Thus, workers need to stay ahead of the curve and continuously lean into the fast-changing world of work.

But hiring managers should be open to change, too.

It isn’t always ideal to seek out a person perfectly fit for a highly specialized role. For example, if a manufacturer is looking for an accountant, they should consider a broad pool of accountants, not just ones who have previously worked in manufacturing. Especially in large organizations that have the resources for training, they can bring that worker up to speed on the specialized knowledge needed.

“We all need to think differently because the available workforce that is ready-made isn’t always there for what we’re trying to do,” Jacobs said.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.