Shaping Your Career: Generalist vs Specialist

Oftentimes there is debate regarding how one should steer their career.  It is, of course, a personal decision on which way you want to go.  At times, you just happen to steer your career in one direction without realizing it.  Getting to the point where you have a label is the fun part.

The two ways to shape your experiences and the direction you wish to take your career are: 

  • Generalist
  • Specialist

In Corporate America, generalists are typically the people who “know enough to be dangerous” about all topics.  These people have spent time in different departments or teams.  They have gained a breadth of experience and have networked across many business units.  Generalists are able to adapt to many different roles and opportunities as a result of their wide range of knowledge and experience across categories.  A great example of a generalist, if I may make a sports reference, is Chicago Cubs utility player, Ben Zobrist.  In the 2016 season, he played 6/9 positions on the baseball field.  He has positioned himself into being someone who “knows enough to be dangerous” at all positions, which keeps him in high demand.

Ben Zobrist, Generalist

Ben Zobrist, Generalist

Donnie Hart, Specialist

Donnie Hart, Specialist

Specialists, however, have spent all of their time focusing on one portion of the business.  They have found an area or topic they are really passionate about and stay in that part of the business.  These people are seen as experts and have a depth of knowledge in their given field.  They have carved out a niche for their level of expertise so others know to come to them when they have a question about their product or area.  Sticking with a sports reference, Donnie Hart, a lefty-specialist for the Baltimore Orioles.  In the 2016 season he almost exclusively faced left-handed hitters.  Why?  Because he is a specialist in getting them out.  He has carved a niche for himself as the expert at doing this.  There are very few lefty-specialists in the game, so he is in a unique position, which, like Zobrist, keeps him in high demand.

Is there a right way to go?

The short answer is “no.”  It is a personal decision which works better for you.  You may start out with the intent of being a generalist and fall in love with UX design and become a specialist in that area.  Recognizing a passion and honing in on it is not wrong, it is just a different path.  The same is true for people that wish to be specialists and decide it isn’t for them and become generalists instead.  

If your goal is to make it to upper level management, there may be a better direction for you.  Based on my experiences and observations, members of upper management are generalists.  They have spent time in different areas and have developed an understanding of all aspects of the business: finance, marketing, operations, etc.  They know they can leverage the wide network they’ve built in order to find a specialist to address any specific questions where a level of expertise is required.

That’s not to say you cannot move up the rankings as a specialist.  If you prove yourself to be strong as a specialist in primary research, you can move up to higher roles within the primary research division and industry.  You will need to take some skills from generalists and be able to converse and work with those outside of your department as you move up.  

As roles are more advanced in the company, they broaden in scope.  This is important to understand as either a generalist or specialist because it will allow you to better understand how to get work done and leverage the right people to do so.

Is there a wrong way to go?

If you are dead-set on being a specialist your whole career, and have not found your passion or interest, yet you continue to force yourself into being a specialist - then, yes, there is a wrong way to go.  There is no need to force yourself into being one or the other.  Doing something inauthentic will show in your work.

As mentioned previously, there is no “right” decision when it comes to the generalist or specialist career path.  There is a “wrong” decision, but that will only come about if you force yourself into one area or another and do not listen to yourself and your passions.

Just like the baseball references made above, there are many different ways to leverage your passions and skill sets in order to be successful.  Know your strengths and weaknesses, as this will help you better understand how you can leverage your assets in the work place.

Thought Starters

  • Do you classify as a generalist or specialist?

  • Where does the leadership of your organization fall on the generalist/specialist spectrum?  

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