Be a generalist before you specialise

Be a generalist before you specialise

I started my PR career 28 years ago and I did everything — launches, promotions, crisis and issues management, listings, mergers and acquisitions, internal communication, events, media coaching, media engagement, press releases — if the client needed it, I did it. But over time, I was lured by a passion for specialising, driven by a desire to learn more and to add more value by becoming an expert as opposed to a generalist.

But for at least 15 years,  I was able to gain a helicopter view of the entire industry which, with the benefit of hindsight was a good thing.

Deciding to specialise is a complex decision. It is dictated by, among others, your circumstances, the opportunities, trends impacting the sector in which you work, your fears, your appetite for risk, your passions and whether, as my good mate Richard Sauerman asks: “Are you are living your resume or your eulogy.”

Why being a generalist first matters

First let’s define the difference. A generalist tends to have a broad range of skills and experience across a range of disciplines, while a specialist typically invests time becoming the expert in a certain niche. The threat of course to any specialists is what happens to their offering if the market or the sector shifts — one only need look at the seismic shifts in jobs and skills required in information technology, financial services and manufacturing to mention a few.

While specialists are often in hot demand, being a generalist probably makes you more adaptable to new workplaces, jobs and culture change.

In his book Evolutionaries, Carter Phipps says that generalists are the ones who will ultimately thrive because it is important in our society to know “a little bit about a lot.

I agree and I don’t agree.

An area in which I have specialised over the past eight years and in which I have done a lot of research is thought leadership. When I interview thought leaders who are making a significant contribution, often to an entire sector, it is clear that their specialisation and, as a result, their depth of knowledge has made them sought after locally and, in some instances, globally.

But not everyone can be a thought leader. There are lots of specialists who are never going to be nor do they aspire to be thought leaders. What about them and does where they fall on the spectrum of specialist to generalist mean the difference between whether they survive, thrive or get passed over?

Being a generalist first gives you context — an understanding of the bigger picture — a picture the pure specialist rarely has. It also gives you the opportunity to test your options before specialising.

Is there such a thing as specialising too early?

Those who want to specialise should remember that it could impair their ability to move up the organisational ladder, because moving up inevitably means managing a team. Not having the opportunity to demonstrate leadership and people management skills could stymie any career advancement opportunities.

If you add to this the important aspect of how you demonstrate you are able to use your talent and skill to helping the organisation achieve its strategic and financial goals, you soon realise that to do this is difficult for those who specialise too early in their careers.

I believe that having a generalist background is an important building block for success. But there is no doubt that adding an area of specialisation, particularly one that turbo-charges your organisations products, services or strategic goals, can significantly boost your career, your standing, your salary and your opportunities.

Ultimately, the combination of a generalist with some specialist knowledge married with business, strategic and financial acumen, make you a very attractive employee proposition.

Which are you?

While all sectors need specialists they also need generalists. In fact, it is often the generalists who are the glue for innovation because they are the ones who are better placed to see the patterns and connections across multiple areas.

So when considering the career path you take, think of the following 4 things:

  1. Can you afford to only be a generalist?
  2. When was the last time you heard anyone at your business say: “Find me a generalist”?
  3. When last did you see a job advertisement asking for a generalist or a jack-of-all-trades?
  4. As a specialist in one area only, can you bear the risk if the market changes?

From my personal experience I have found that being a specialist in one or two areas has allowed me to get my foot in the door, because I offer something different. Ironically, once the opportunity has landed, it will often require more generalist skills.

And if all else fails remember what Richard Branson said:

Setback is never a bad experience, just a learning curve.


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