What is the best way to advance your career? Is it by being more of a generalist or a specialist? Here are some thoughts that may surprise you…
I often find with my career coaching clients that one of the most useful questions I can ask someone is whether they see themselves as more of a specialist or a generalist.
Now, if you are like many of my clients, you probably see that as a loaded question. In other words, that there is one answer or another that is more likely to bring you career success. In fact, I have had clients tell me that they need to be a specialist to advance their careers and I’ve had them tell me that they need to be a generalist.
It is true that among physicians and attorneys, specialists do tend to get paid more (assuming there is demand for their specialty), but in the broader business world I seldom find that things are so simple.
In fact, at the highest ranks of corporate America, I see both people in the upper echelon of management. There are often specialists (e.g. chief counsel, head of R&D, chief compliance officers, chief financial officer, etc) and there are generalists (chief operating officer, chief executive officer, etc).
Of course, those aren’t hard and fast rules either. You will see generalists in roles where they oversee divisions of specialists and you will see specialists that have generalists reporting to them.
All of which is to say that I believe the best course of action is to choose the approach that seems more natural to your personality.
I am naturally someone who enjoys the steep part of the learning curve tremendously and then gets less and less enthusiastic about a subject. Thus, I have a number of hobbies where I’ve progressed out of the beginner realm and then more or less gotten bored. (You should see how little my golf game has advanced over the last few years…)
Personally, I like knowing a little about a lot of things. It is actually one of the things that makes me effective in a career coaching capacity because I have a breadth of experiences to pull from and share with my clients.
On the other hand, I know some people who absolutely love being specialists. They are the people who love the feeling of knowing the answer to any question that might be asked. They pride themselves on their depth of expertise.
For those people, I say go forward and be a specialist. Yes, you do need to have a cursory understanding of other parts of business (operations, for example, if you want to rise through the finance ranks), but the key thing is not trying to be something you are not.
Trying to be a specialist when you are naturally a generalist is painful, as is trying to be a specialist when your natural tendency is to be a generalist.
In other words, choose roles that allow you to be yourself and then let your strengths to rise to the top. Just remember, despite myths to the contrary, that we do need to shore up weaknesses as well (see The Danger of the Strengthsfinder Test).