Blessed Are the Generalists, For They Shall Inherit Your Company

By David Hassell

The business world and the natural world often parallel each other. We borrow terms from nature like ‘dog eat dog’ and ‘low hanging fruit’ to describe competition or the relationship between talent and resources. Environments of scarcity or plenty will determine who survives.

Two ‘species’ have emerged in the business world, each with a different set of leadership strengths. Generalists are valued for their broad knowledge and skill sets, and specialists who have in-depth knowledge of one or two specific and usually related fields.

Survival of the Best Work Culture Fit

In Who: The A Method for Hiring, Geoff Smart and Randy Street advise companies not to hire a generalist, hire a specialist who can do the specific job you need done. Specialists’ depth of knowledge and leadership strengths in one or two areas is certainly valuable, but there are far more considerations at play here. If you can’t find someone who fits in with your work culture, whether they are a specialist or generalist is not going to matter.

The question is not which species to hire, but when is the right time for each and for what role. For tech startups that first hire or two is inevitably a specialist (the rare and ever in-demand software engineer). As your business grows, you are ready to spend money on someone with a different set of leadership qualities. For example, you may be ready to implement marketing for that great product you just built. It is then time for a multiple-hat-wearing hustler to come in and get you to market.

Adapt to the Quality of Leadership You Need to Survive

In many early stage startups, resources are few and money may be non-existent, yet tasks and responsibilities abound. For example, it is far more cost-effective to hire a marketing generalist with a little bit of knowledge in each area where you desire growth vs an affiliate manager, SEO guru, social media maven, and user acquisition specialist.

This is the game that most startups play — see how far you can get on a limited budget. You have a mission critical specialist (your developer) and two generalists (sales and marketing — each one handling a variety of duties in each position). Can they successfully get potential clients to be aware of your product and purchase it?

If you can generate revenue and look sexy enough to investors, you can then accelerate growth by building your team. At that point you once again are left with the decision of which species to hire based on their quality of leadership. You have reached the tipping point when generalists are no longer preferred for their broad set of leadership abilities and specialists are again sought after. You may have the resources to hire talent for specific roles and to pursue depth as well as breadth in your team, but choosing the type of hire you want is only half the battle. The other main concern is finding the talent you seek.

Leveraging Scarce Resources

The workforce has shifted in the last decade or so. Baby Boomers are becoming endangered, and you are highly unlikely to find any employees who went to school for the one thing that they are planning to do for the rest of their lives.

Nowadays employers are dealing with a completely different animal, the Millennial. This interesting breed wants to try everything and comes with an entirely different set of leadership strengths. Even if they remain in one area, they experiment there.

For millennials, satisfaction is not born of deep expertise. They are predominantly interested in finding several fulfilling and meaningful roles that allow them to exercise their diverse leadership abilities. Even software engineers are really proficient in one area, but like to work in several others. Your hiring choices are limited to a generation of intelligent and resourceful dabblers.

A New Species Emerges

Hire the dabblers! Millennials are less expensive and more available, but costs go up unless you keep them happy. Be willing to give them the flexibility they need to learn a variety of interesting roles over time. Millennials also crave feedback so let them know that you see their potential for leadership and be willing to guide them through the process. Mentorship takes time, but it is a great investment in the future of your company and the quality of its leadership.

Malcolm Gladwell has said that it takes 10,000 hours to become specialized in any discipline. No matter the level of education or intelligence, psychological research makes a very solid argument for apprenticeship.  Millennials don’t stay very long so you run the risk of starting a mentorship that you will never finish. But the generalist you hired who writes code and great ad copy, is a whiz at Xcel, and is an amateur web designer, could one day be your next CMO.  

Top of the Food Chain

If you hire well, you will have chosen employees that can one day be crafted into great leaders. Your top performing talent wants to fulfill purpose, as they travel the path to achieving their highest potential. All things being equal, who should you promote? Generalists have breadth of knowledge, while specialists are…well, special. They have the ability to exploit a niche that few others are using. Like bats that developed echolocation to hunt at night because no other predator was exploiting that niche.

Performing marketing, sales, product, Q&A and other roles purely because of need eventually provides that individual with a holistic understanding of the company. They are better positioned to see the bigger picture and can take a leadership role even if not perfectly equipped to fulfill each piece.

Obtaining a telescoping view provides context that cannot be taught in any other way, and working from the ground up creates an excellent foundation of supportive leadership that appreciates the interplay between the myriad departments in a company.

Building management and leadership from the ground up takes time and a willingness to learn. Choose to mentor those with promise in one area of deep expertise, and varying depth at all other aspects of the business. A specialist is certainly an indispensable part of your team but the varied leadership abilities of an experienced generalist can take your company to a whole new level.

Photo Credit (edited image): Ally Mauro

This post was originally published on Firmology.

When do you choose generalists or specialists? Why do you prefer one over the other? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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