Does Your Office Have More Generalists or Specialists?

Author: Amy Rossetti | March 27, 2017

You’ve probably heard of “generalists” and “specialists,” and you might have a sense of what each of those types of employees do. But what exactly are the differences between them? What roles do they excel in? And which one should you have more of at your firm?

Generalists are the people you can count on to understand and manage any problem, since they know a little bit about everything and see the higher-level connections between issues. Startups and nonprofits are often filled with generalists, because they can take on a number of roles when the budget is too tight to hire more specialized employees. Younger hires tend to be generalists, which gives them space to explore their career options and interests before becoming more specialized. And it’s particularly important for managers to be generalists, because they have the transferable skills necessary to lead people effectively in any industry.

However, being a “Jack of all trades and master of none” has its downsides. Generalists may overlook details because they’re focused on the bigger picture, and they often lack the deep knowledge that’s necessary for innovation. Plus, by definition, they are common and, therefore, easy to replace (sorry, generalists!).

Bottom line: If you need a great manager who’s capable and dependable in a number of areas, hire a generalist. These are the people you can count on to get the job done pretty well—or at least figure out who they can ask for help to get the job done well—even if it’s in an area they’re not overly familiar with.

Specialists, on the other hand, know a ton about one niche area. They’ve probably spent a lot of time in school or had specialized training. They tend to be less common because of this, but their knowledge is often essential to the organization’s success. Basically, specialists are the competitive advantage, the magic, the secret sauce—and their paygrade usually shows it. Older, more established companies usually hire more specialists because they have the need and the money to do so.

But in a way, specialists paint themselves into a corner. Take them out of their environment and they might not have the skills or experience necessary to succeed. As specialists move up, they have to be cautious about learning new things while maintaining their unique advantage. The company takes a risk in hiring a specialist too, because if they leave, it can be very difficult to find a suitable replacement.

Bottom line: Hire a specialist if you need a thought leader. These are the employees who bring something special to the firm, so take advantage of their exceptional skills and knowledge.

So which work style is the right one? Several studies have been done, but they don’t conclusively show whether employers feel more successful with more generalists or specialists. Ultimately, it’s important for every office to have the right mix of both, and for every employee to have some qualities of each. Which category do you see yourself and your coworkers fitting into?

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