The Expert Generalist
In a hyper-specialized world, these people pull it all together.
When you scan job descriptions these days, they often feature a seemingly impossible list of requirements: expert communications skills; ability to motivate teams; deep understanding of design and programming; extensive experience in project management; experience leading large organizations; experience working with small teams; uncanny ability to define and target strategic initiatives; high degree of awareness of current events and industry best practices; adept at social media; familiarity with PC and Mac computing platforms and mobile operating systems… and the list goes on.
There’s no university degree for this. It’s not business, it’s not project management, it’s not branding, it’s not design, it’s not IT. It’s all of those things. This kind of person is what I call an expert generalist. Don’t confuse this with “jack-of-all-trades, master of none.” This person is highly skilled in many trades. Their knowledge and ability in any one area is only surpassed by a specialist.
Most companies shoot for the moon with these job descriptions knowing they’ll be lucky to achieve liftoff with whoever they hire. But we’re drowning in data and information, and there is a desperate need for people who can turn it into knowledge and wisdom. And trust me—these people are few and far between. When the fate of our planet (much less the success of an organization) depends on long-term, broad vision, most people are myopic.
The main reason expert generalists are rare is because there are no shortcuts. You don’t become one without having worked in the world for at least a couple decades or more. Sure, a bright college kid can study up on lots of things, and there are plenty of young employees who wear many hats in one job. But that’s not enough.
The best expert generalists have actually worked full-time in many different capacities. For example, they might have been a copywriter for a few years; then a web developer for a few years; then a branding consultant for a few years; then a video producer for a few years. They’ve been in the trenches with the production people, know their challenges, and speak their language.
It’s a model that was once common in manufacturing: a young adult got a job on the assembly line of a large plant, then was promoted—over decades—through every job in the company. If they were bright, they eventually rose to top-level management. The CEO who followed this path literally knew everything there was to know about the company.
According to the BLS, the median tenure for salaried employees in a given job is 3-4 years. This isn’t a bad thing, because it’s a condition ripe for the development of more expert generalists. But only if people move around within an industry, and don’t keep repeating the same kind of work.
Why do we need more expert generalists? Because the world is increasingly hyper-specialized. As knowledge and technology increase, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay on top of it all. Specialists are mandatory.
Specialization has also been viewed as a ticket to job security. With stiff competition for jobs, many people view specialization as a way to carve out their niche and be more attractive to employers who need that skill. (A classic example: web and software developers.)
It’s also a lot easier to train specialists than generalists. (How would you train a generalist? Where would you start? This is something I ponder often, and will write about someday.)
But the shift toward specialization has made us like a ship full of engineers but no navigators. The expert generalists are the navigators.
There are, of course, plenty of successful leaders in the world who are skilled at management. But without being an expert generalist, those leaders often must rely on many trusted specialists to keep them informed.
The expert generalist sees the forests and the trees. They aren’t mired in any one field, but exist within them all. Their diverse experience gives them a greater ability to understand different needs, different languages, and different audiences. In short, they are invaluable—and one of an organization’s greatest assets.
None of this is to put the expert generalist on a pedestal. They’d be nothing if not for the specialists—who are vital for production. Consider them the yin to the specialist’s yang, both essential to success.
Aside from the time and experience required to be an expert generalist, another reason they are so rare is because too many organizations don’t understand their value. Leaders are too busy searching for specialists…and assume that they (as the leader) can serve as the expert generalist. In a small business this can work. But in a large organization, leaders need a lot of expert generalists.
I suspect human resources types are also averse to the phrase expert generalist. It bothers their tidy orgchart-sensibilities not to have a more specialized job title (even manager or director are more specialized titles than expert generalist). As a result, many companies advertise openings with specialized titles, when what they really need is an expert generalist.
Ultimately, what distinguishes the expert generalist from the specialist is their courage and openness to change. When you’ve worked in one position for a few years, it takes courage to jump that ship and climb onto a different one. It requires the confidence to start over, to be a rookie for the second, third, or fourth time. Equally important, it requires the creativity to sell this career-jumping as an advantage in job interviews (which it definitely is).
Courage, openness to change, creativity, and intelligence: these are all characteristics of the expert generalist—and you’d be wise to hire one. If you can find one.
2016 UPDATE: Not much has changed in the three years since I wrote this. Except it seems to me that expert generalists are more necessary than ever: increasingly organizations are being pressed to do more with less. I often talk with people who are overtasked and understaffed in their workplaces, and people wear many hats. This makes an expert generalist a valuable employee.
Amusingly, job descriptions still insist that applicants do everything. And yet, in interviews, there is always an agenda—employers say they want everything, but they really want a manager…or a coder…or a designer. Still, an employer can do no better than to hire an expert generalist.
And after working for several years in higher education, I still believe that colleges and universities fail to train expert generalists; it’s far easier to train someone only to write, or only to design, or only to code. (And this, of course, is partly because the professors are typically narrow specialists.) Maybe someday they’ll get it.