Generalist or Specialist: How Can You Best Serve Your Team?

Generalist or Specialist?I recently read in a LinkedIn business blog (December 2014) that employers are having great difficulty filling specialist slots these days—even with new college grads. I find this ironic. During the Great Recession, most businesses had no choice but to require specialists to stretch themselves to do more and different work as team sizes declined. In the process, the business world developed a culture of generalists.

Apparently, business schools noticed and responded appropriately—or so they thought. Even if this didn’t happen, individual student no doubt took note of the trend and opted for a more generalized business education.

Now that the economy has recovered, no one wants more generalists. Jacks of all trades remain useful, but we also need masters of specific functions—like deep knowledge of specific programs, or expert skills at business analysis or talent management.

This does not change the fact, however, that a sudden shift in direction or strategy can cut a specialist off at the knees. All it takes is the automation of a particular skill, the adoption of a new product, or the bankruptcy of a program’s manufacturer to render a specialization obsolete.

When times are good, companies will always call for more specialists. But here’s the thing: ideally, maximizing your personal interests depends largely on what’s best for your workplace team, since the higher your productivity, the more success you’ll all earn. This can change over time as the team and circumstances evolve, meaning you’ll benefit from a skill-set that’s broad as well as deep.

So here’s what I recommend. If you’re a generalist, find some aspect of your field to specialize in. That way, you’ll have the right key to fit the ignition of a specialization  that employers desperately need someone to drive right now. But maintain your generalist stripes, just in case something eliminates your specialty or renders it redundant. If you’ve already specialized, expand your professional interests to other aspects of your field—just in case you have no choice but to move into something else, especially if your specialty drops off the map.

Generalize on your own time, especially if management hired you to fill a specialist slot; it’s your duty to fulfill your team’s specialist needs first and foremost. That said, realize that maintaining generalist interests and abilities has also become a must at the team level. Someday, you may need to cover for someone else temporarily—or permanently, if events force a team reduction. At that point, those who generalize best will most likely keep their jobs. Just make sure your manager knows the full range of your knowledge, skills, and abilities as you improve your personal ROI.

© 2015 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, a.k.a. The Productivity Pro®, helps professionals achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. For over 20 years, her keynote speeches and workshops have helped leaders boost personal and team productivity, increase results, and save time at work. Laura is the author six books, most recently Execution IS the Strategy. Widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the field of performance and workplace issues, Laura has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and USA Today. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.