So who wins in business - a Specialist or Generalist?
Specialists have a great deal of value in business by providing specialised services and expertise that can help to make a business more profitable and successful. Specialists can also provide invaluable insight into how to best use a business’s resources to achieve its goals. Additionally, specialists can offer advice and expertise on how to best utilise technology and digital tools to increase efficiency and effectiveness.
Specialists, tend to possess stronger and sustained interests and are hyper specialised in one area. They are dedicated to problem-solving and considered subject matter experts in their fields. For example, C# developers are specialists who are mostly hired for roles where they develop programs in C# instead of other programming languages such as Swift or Python.
While the role of a specialist is more defined and valuable to recruiters, it only pertains to a specific area. Most specialists tend to deal with a similar work structure and flow each day. For example, a pediatrician will always cater to children, unless they specialise in other areas as well.
Here are a few examples of specialist careers:
Machine learning engineer
The problem for growing businesses is that, Specialists also normally come with a hefty price tag; after all, they have practised for years to fine tune their craft.
Some other negatives include; the endless need to stay up to date with changes in their industry, limited employment opportunities (until they have fine tune their craft) and because of this commitment to succeed, Specialists normally have fewer skill sets.
Unfortunately for businesses, it is not practicable for the whole business to be run by Specialists; it is expensive and given their narrow focus (their subject matter), organisations will typically exhibit siloed behaviours leading to inefficiencies and cultural challenges. This may be why Specialists are normally called upon for very specific tasks or activities, not to help grow and scale a business.
Having said that, if you have a very specific task that requires very specific focus, Specialist's are your answer.
What about the humble Generalist?
Generalists bring a wide range of skills, experiences, and perspectives to the table. They are often able to think outside the box and develop creative solutions to complex problems. They can also act as a bridge between different departments and functions in an organisation, helping to bring different perspectives together and foster collaboration.
Generalists tend to grab more diverse and loosely defined roles within organisations and are considered to have growth mindsets. They also gravitate toward leadership roles due to their multitasking and collaborative abilities. There's a reason why Bill Gates recommended Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein as one of his top reads of the season in December 2020.
Generalists often have the ability to identify and address systemic issues that require a more holistic view, making them good at most things, but not specialised.
Here are a few examples of Generalist careers:
Sales Director / Business Development
Project / Program Management
Chief Operations Officer
In business, especially a growing or scaling business, you may be wise to hire Generalists, certainly until your business has matured.
Generalist will get things done, no matter what and will typically be open to a challenge. Generalists can be brilliant for organisations on a tight budget. Instead of hiring several people for specific but related skills, businesses can hire a Generalist. Generalists have a broader approach and way of thinking. They visualise the big picture and are usually the first to find problems.
It isn't all roses though. There are some downsides to employing a Generalist. It is possible that they will exhibit fatigue quite early as they're focusing on may things at once, they're lack of specific expertise means that they're not able to dive deep into specific problems areas and Generalist's won't attract the same salaries as a Specialist would.
So who wins in business - a Specialist or Generalist?
In the battle of the Generalist vs. the Specialist, it all boils down to the interests and professional aspirations of an individual and the needs of the firm employing the person. While some people might get bogged down by switching job gears all the time, others might hate the idea of performing repetitive tasks daily.
Generalists might begin at the lower end of the spectrum when starting out their careers, but climb the corporate ladder later down the road. Specialists enjoy a good salary as soon as they put their foot in the door, but are less employable outside their fields.
So, at the end of the day, it's the context that's most important. In an article by Harvard Business Review, they research whether it is possible to boost creativity using Specialist and Generalists. They conclude that there is no one-size-fit-all strategy to promote creativity. But their study suggests that leaders should assess how many Specialists and Generalists they have on their teams.
If the pace of change is slow, teams will likely benefit from employing Generalists, who can challenge the industry’s taken-for-granted assumptions and bring in new ideas. If the pace of change is rapid, teams will benefit from Specialists, who are more likely to help the team innovate.