I’ve thought a lot and have had many discussions about this throughout my career. Should I be a generalist and build a broad base of skills and knowledge so I can be flexible and work different jobs in many industries, or should I go deep into one specific skill and/or industry and become a specialist? What’s best for long-term success? Forbes and the Harvard Business Review thinks generalists will rule the future; I tend to agree but I don’t think it’s that cut and dry.
There are some careers where it’s necessary to be a specialist, otherwise you likely wouldn’t have a career. College professors and scientific researchers come to mind; you need to be an absolute expert on a particular subject to be successful.
On the other hand, industries like consulting, which is where I started my career, breeds generalists. Consultants, especially in the early stages of their careers, work on a wide array of projects across many industries. As they become more experienced, some may focus on a particular function (such as strategy, marketing, or operations) or a specific industry (e.g. healthcare, technology, consumer packaged goods), or a function/industry combination. But overall, consultants are armed with a broad array of skills and knowledge that many take with them to executive positions at other non-consulting organizations.
So, like with many questions, the answer is, “it depends” – on your goals and your personality.
If you want to start or lead a company, having breadth is a must because you have to understand all aspects of your business, including sales and marketing, product development and management, engineering, finance and accounting, human resources, and more. Sure, you can outsource or hire specialists to handle many of these functions, but you must have at least a cursory level of knowledge of all of these to effectively run a company.
You can also do really well by being a specialist. You can focus on a particular sector of finance (e.g. fixed-income investing), marketing (e.g. email marketing), engineering (e.g. Java programming) or any other function, and be the go-to guy or gal in that specific field within your organization. Additionally, you will presumably really like what you do, since you’ve found enough affinity for it to specialize.
I’m in the generalist camp. Like I mentioned earlier, I started in consulting and enjoyed jumping from client to client and working on different types of projects. As a marketer for the Washington Caps, I liked touching many different aspects of the business, such as CRM, database marketing, advertising, mobile, social, and analytics.
And in my current career of launching a tech startup, I believe being a generalist will serve me well. The various marketing and strategy roles I’ve played will help me acquire and retain customers and map out the future for my company. And I’ve broadened my skills even further by learning programming so I can work more closely with software developers and add value to them when I can.
So for me, the preference for being a generalist boils down to a couple of reasons: 1) I want to start and lead a company, so the generalist business skills are necessary, and 2) I would probably get bored if I focused on only one specific function. And while I think a broad array of skills is powerful, augmenting that with some deep knowledge of a particular industry makes for the best recipe for professional success.
What do you think? In your field, are you a generalist, specialist, or a mix of both? What pros and cons have you seen being so?