Expert vs Generalist

My recent blog on the importance of experts prompted one reader to comment that he preferred the term “specialist” (in a non-medical sense) to “expert”. This got me thinking about the notion of “experts” as distinct from “generalists”, and whether we need to re-evaluate our assessment of skill, competence and aptitude when assessing someone’s suitability for a task, project or role. (And these days, is “generalist” itself something of a pejorative term?)

A few days later, I was having coffee with a strategic consultant who is known as a future thinker. He describes himself as an “extreme generalist” (with no hint of irony), because he has wide-ranging and multiple interests, some of which, of course, he has deep domain knowledge and experience. But because his work and his curiosity take him into different realms, he maintains a broad perspective which also allows for the cross-pollination of ideas and concepts. (I think we all recognize the value of analogy when problem solving – taking the learning from one discipline and applying it to a new scenario.)

Separately, but in a similar vein, I was discussing career options with a senior banking executive, who did not want to be pigeon-holed as a banker, because her core skills and professional experience would lend themselves to many industries, not just financial services. So in her case, this expertise would best be applied in a particular type of role, not in a specific domain, or a specialist capability.

And during an earlier discussion on leadership with yet another futurist, I found myself debating the notion of situational styles, as opposed to structural models – both of which require skill and expertise for CEOs and managers to be successful. But broad experience will be just as important as formal methodologies, and general business knowledge just as valuable as technical specialisation. (On reflection, as with so many constructs, it’s not a case of either/or – more a question of adaptation and dynamics.)

As a result of this ongoing dialogue, I was challenged to develop what I might describe as a 3-D model, comprising the following axes:

“Generalist”/”Specialist”: In product management terms, for example, the generalist understands the full end-to-end customer life cycle and the production process. Whereas, a specialist might know their particular part of the process extremely well, but has little to no awareness or understanding of what might come before or after. (Think of those frustrating customer calls to utility, telco and insurance companies – in fact, any business with highly siloed operations – where you get passed from one “specialist” to another, often revealing contradictory information along the way.) At the extremes, this dimension might be described as the difference between knowing a subject “a mile wide and an inch deep”, and knowing it “a mile deep and an inch wide”.

“Novice”/”Veteran”: This is probably obvious, but I don’t necessarily mean seniority, age or tenure in a specific role. When it comes to new technology, for example, someone who is new to the role, but who has just been trained on the latest software and equipment, may have better technical ability than someone who has been doing the same role for several years (and thus, has more knowledge and experience), but has not refreshed their skills. Although I concede that in many situations the incumbent veteran may have better developed problem-solving, trouble-shooting and decision-making capabilities. This axis is also really important to consider when transitioning older employees to new roles within the same organisation or team – if they were younger, they would probably be given more time to adjust, adapt and grow into the role. Whereas, an older employee may simply be expected to “pick it up” much more quickly, with less leeway for learning on the job, because of assumed expertise.

“Broad”/Narrow”: Here I am thinking about aptitude, rather than the degree of specialisation. Drawing on the idea of using analogies, someone with wide experience and a broad perspective (sees the big picture, displays both critical and design thinking) will have quite different qualities to someone with a very narrow focus (especially within a very specific domain or area of practice). Based on the particular context, do you need an all-rounder, or a placekicker? This axis also relates to the age-old issue of organisations only wanting to hire square pegs for square holes – it might make sense in the short-term, but risks stagnation and lack of fresh thinking over the long-term.

Assessed along these three dimensions, we might see that an “expert” could be qualified according to how highly they rate based on their overall “depth”, measured by criteria such as experience, knowledge and reputation, as well as formal qualifications.

Next week: Making an Impact at Startup Victoria’s Pitch Night

 

It’s never too late to change….

Few things annoy me more than when someone in their late 20’s or early 30’s says: “I’m stuck in my job, and I can’t do anything about it.” My immediate reaction is to shout, “No you’re not, and yes you can!” But I stop myself, and ask instead, “What’s stopping you from making a change?” Usually, there is a mental blockage, and an inability to think outside or beyond the immediate situation. In turn, this is often linked to a distorted perspective about how they got to where they are, coupled with unreasonable (and therefore, unrealised) expectations.

Sculpture, Ueno Park, Tokyo (Photo © Rory Manchee, all rights reserved)

” A new perspective?” (Ueno Park, Tokyo – Photo © Rory Manchee, all rights reserved)

Helping my clients to identify the barriers in their way (in particular any deeply entrenched obstacles), and to explore ways to dismantle or overcome them usually leads to alternatives: a new job opportunity, a potential career transition or a new business direction. It may not be an easy or comfortable process, but it’s not impossible. At its heart is the need for self-awareness, the willingness to embrace change, and the commitment to making it happen.

“See You At The Barricades”

Here are some of the initial objections I hear when people say they can’t make a career change or transition:

  • Financial security
  • Lack of time
  • No access to resources
  • No idea what to do next, where to look, how to plan
  • Enjoy the job, but not the organisation (or vice versa)
  • This is the only work they know, or studied/trained for
  • Non-transferable skills or inadequate training

My usual response is to get them to re-contextualize. It’s rather like using cognitive behaviour therapy, to reframe the situation. “How could you look at this differently?”, “What if you did this?”, “Who could help you overcome that?”, “What would be the ideal situation?”.

“Money’s Too Tight To Mention”

I understand that financial insecurity can be a major cause for concern. The certainty of a regular salary (even if you hate the job) can be preferable to taking a pay cut for a more rewarding role, or having to forego immediate financial return during a period of retraining or re-skilling. But if you are only doing a job because of the money, the likelihood is that you may never be entirely happy in your role, you may come to resent the work you do, and eventually you may lose sight of what is important to you. Plus, the knock-on effect on your personal well-being and that of your family can be significant. After all, no job has a lifetime warranty or even a 2-year guarantee, so the paycheck will probably run out anyway.

“Time Is On My Side”

Even if your financial circumstances or apparent lack of time mean that you can’t leave your current job or explore other options without securing a comparable income in another role, there are several ways to prepare for a career transition:

  • Re-train in your own-time – use on-line courses, evening classes and weekend workshops to access new skills and education
  • Ask your current organisation about options for study leave or flexible work hours
  • Suggest a personal development plan that draws on existing resources – e.g., shadow another colleague, or do a rotation or secondment to another team or department
  • Workers in some industries or older employees may be able to access public funding to support retraining and re-skilling
  • Use your annual leave to intern or volunteer at an organisation where you might like to work in the future

“Possibly Maybe”

There are many new opportunities for personal development through short courses, skill sharing or peer-to-peer platforms, and alternative learning paths to re-connect with your purpose. It might even be possible to reconfigure or restructure your current role to better suit your needs. Besides, the job you were originally hired for (or the industry and/or the career you trained for) has probably changed significantly; if you are not doing some regular re-engineering, you risk being confined to outdated thinking or processes, or worse, becoming obsolete.

“This Is Your Big Opportunity”

In fact, you have an obligation to yourself to invest in your own career, by re-training, updating your skills, or embarking on new challenges. Increasingly, organisations expect employees to take personal responsibility for self-managing their career, their professional development and to maintain the technical currency of their skills. Even better if you can demonstrate that learning a new skill can support innovation, generate efficiency gains, or deliver customer benefits. There are increasing examples where collaboration, co-creation and cross-pollination of ideas, skills and people between organisations and their suppliers/vendors/clients/distributors can have mutual outcomes, and employers are looking for people who can identify these opportunities.

“This Is The Way”

From personal experience, curiosity, pro-active networking, asking questions and generally taking an interest in what is going on in and around the organisation and wider world can reap huge rewards. In my own case, having a sense of enquiry prompted a transfer from London to Hong Kong to open a new Asian office for the company I worked for. Earlier in my career, I took evening classes so I could transition from a role in the public sector to a new career in publishing. And I continue to find new learning opportunities through meetups, hackathons and startup pitch nights, and attending workshops on innovation, collaboration, design thinking and technology.

I’ve written previously about the changing economic relationship of employment, because it’s incumbent on all of us to learn resilience and adaptability. We have a duty to equip ourselves in order to cope with and prepare for the continuous change and volatility we are all experiencing in the nature of the work we do.

Finally, for anyone who says they are “too old to change”, consider this: I recently met a man in his 60s, who had retired from a lifelong career in teaching, quickly got bored, and so he went back to college and is now a licensed horse trainer. He gets up earlier than he used to as a teacher, but he has connected with a passion and made it his career choice.

Declaration of Interest: I am a member of the Slow School of Business Advisory Council, which delivers Slow Coaching and Talk on Purpose

Next week: ANZ’s new CEO on #FinTech, CX and #digital disruption