Last night, I had a conversation with a fellow coach who coaches senior executives of Fortune 500 companies focused on stress management. A very specific skill, and a very specific customer group. And that’s all she does; she is an expert in this niche and is successful. Is that what I want?
When I rattled off the work I do and who I work with, from 1:1 coaching in organisations and personal engagements, high-performance team coaching and facilitating a wide range of soft skill workshops, I thought: ‘Wow, I have a lot to offer.’ But it also got me thinking: Am I spreading myself too thin?
‘A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.’ – Isaiah Berlin
This is a dilemma many of us face, not just business owners and practitioners. The question of becoming a specialist or a generalist occupies us from when we leave formal education and throughout our career paths. So, what is better, being a generalist or specialist? It depends, and for me, the magic lies in being both.
The definition of a generalist is a person who knows something about a lot of subjects, a jack of all trades. A specialist is defined as a person who has special knowledge and skills relating to a particular job and area of study.’
What Are The Advantages?
As a generalist, you can often see the bigger picture and offer flexibility as you have a more comprehensive range of knowledge, and your skills are transferrable. It is probably easier to think outside the box and change direction, making it easier to adapt. There are more generalists in our growing landscape of knowledge workers and also more opportunities for generalists.
As a specialist, you have deep knowledge in a certain area or skill, which brings a competitive advantage in itself. There is often a financial reward to it, and it’s seen as a rare commodity. You follow your one passion, and you are recognised for being an authority in your field of expertise.
Where The Magic Happens
Reflecting on the conversation with my coaching friend to answer the question of whether I am spreading myself too thin being a generalist, I found this solution: the magic happens where being a generalist and specialist intersects.
Be Both, But Not The Same
As a generalist, I focus and specialise part of my skills and business to avoid spreading myself too thin. While I have broad knowledge of running a business and working with an array of industries, my focus and specialisation are helping leaders in organisations develop as leaders. I facilitate online, but I don’t offer public courses. I help executives with their career paths, but I don’t edit resumes. I stay true to myself, who I work with and add value to.
If you are a generalist, no matter if you work for yourself or for an organisation, use your transferrable skills and big picture thinking to grow, but don’t fall into the trap of being everything to everyone. Know your personal brand, your strengths and how you add value and tap into that intersection of expertise. Your generalist part is much bigger than the specialist area, but they do intersect.
If you are a specialist and want to grow, take on some generalist views and skills. For example, many of my clients are technical experts, engineers, analysts etc. To become team leaders, department heads or executive-level leaders, specialists need to venture into the generalist arena to work strategically, lead people and business units. The specialist part of the diagram is still big but clearly intersects with being a generalist.
No Size Fits All
Being more of a generalist or specialist depends on many aspects, including our personal preference and personality, the situation, career path or type of business we run. There is no clear rule of what is better. What is clear to me is that we all need a bit of both. Be proud of being either a generalist or specialist and find the magic of the intersection that makes the difference to you.
I am a generalist focusing on leadership change, helping people lead in this fast-changing and ambiguous world. I am obsessed with assisting leaders in creating workplace cultures for the future of work, where people are happy AND productive.
For Team Leaders
Have a mix of generalists and specialists in your team: specialists for deep knowledge and expertise, and generalists to connect and work across departments.
In a world where change is the only constant and the future is uncertain, we need a bit of both to make the magic happen.
‘Everybody knows something, and nobody knows everything.’ – Dusty Barker
Get in touch on email@example.com to chat about how I can help you find the perfect intersection between Generalist and Specialist