Article: HiPos – Specialists or Generalists?

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HiPos – Specialists or Generalists?


Which role suits a high performing employee: a specialist one or a generalist one?
HiPos – Specialists or Generalists?

Most of us while growing up have heard the adage “Jack of all trades, master of none”,  which generally implies that in an attempt to learn everything, one gives up having mastery on any one of them. The term is derogatory at best; however, with the changing world; this worldview on being a master at only a single thing is changing too. An organization generally employs an employee in a niche specialist role; however, according to HRreview, U.K Reports, more than half of employees who were employed having specialist skills now consider their job to be mostly Generalist in nature despite the fact that all of them were employed because of their niche specialist skills. Oliver Watson, Managing Director at PageGroup in an interview to HRreview quoted “If this trend continues, we risk creating a generation of generalists, which will undoubtedly hinder an individuals' career development and ultimately damage the UK's ability to compete effectively in a global economy."

So the question for today’s organizations remains that for a high performing employee, should a specialist role suit him or a Generalist one?

The basic difference between a 'generalist' and a 'specialist' is that a generalist has a strong understanding of the larger business role and has an overall grasp across all the disciplines of business functions, whereas a Specialist is the “go to guy” for a specific area of expertise. A specialist’s view of looking at a business generally becomes myopic and concentrated over a singular aspect. While a Generalist holds a more holistic view towards an organization. Even in a team of specialists, a high performing achiever is always bestowed with additional responsibilities which are over and above his specialization and thereby generalizing his role.      

Mark H. McCormack had famously quoted in his bestseller ‘What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School’ that “If Thomas Edison had gone to business school; we would all be reading by larger candles”. One of the finest examples of a generalist, perhaps is Thomas Alva Edison. An Inventor par excellence having 2,332 patents worldwide, Edison was also a business man of great acumen whose company Consolidated Edison, Inc. still lights large portions of New York City. Edison’s success possibly throws a light on the most pragmatic situation which we have in the present world, that for an organization to excel; its High Performing Employees necessarily need to be a Generalist. Thomas Edison not only himself contributed to the field of electricity, but also hired great scientists like Nicola Tesla to assist him in bringing many practical applications of electricity. Like a true Generalist, Edison focused on the larger picture rather than being bogged down in scientific quagmires of electricity. 

Moreover, an organization pushing it's high performing employees towards the role of a generalist or a specialist is hardly dependent on the organization alone. Rather the prevailing economy pushes the organization into deciding the same. The Guardian newspaper reported a PageGroup survey, which showed that 23% of employees across organization reported that the present economic climate was responsible for their role becoming more Generalist. Nannette Ripmeester, founder of Expertise in Labour Mobility agreed in the same article stating "There's a cutback in people but the work isn't getting less, so lots of people are doing things that are not entirely part of their job." 

Modern evidences, too corroborate with this implication. Antonio Falato, Dan Li, and Todd Milbourn; in 2010 had pointed out that more MBA’s, heads large business corporations than individuals with a specific and distinctive specialized background and such patterns have become even more pronounced since the rise of large business corporations.

Ultimately a business organization does not thrive in isolation and is a part of an ever-changing society and economy. Hence, a leader in a business world cannot remain a specialist throughout their career and has to adorn a generalist role. Elon Musk brings the whole debate to a conclusion when he states: "Some people don't like change, but you need to embrace change if the alternative is a disaster." Hence, in conclusion, the future of all business Organizations remains in the hands of their jack of all trades.

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Topics: Talent Management, #HiPoWeek

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