Breadth vs. Depth – What’s Better For Your Career?

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?

6 thoughts on “Breadth vs. Depth – What’s Better For Your Career?

  1. Hmm. Very interesting thoughts by Mike. I stuggle with this as well. However, it seems lately the more I learn about a certain area the more I realize there is to know! Here’s to hoping one day someone will figure this out.

  2. I believe you need to be a mix of both to really succeed. I am definitely a specialist in what I do focusing on fitness but am also a generalist doing a little of everything from within the fitness field but also on the business aspect of it (marketing, networking, etc). Being both is very necessary these days. People relate to both types – when you’re a specialist they can develop a trust in what you do as they know you’re the best in that field, as a generalist, they can rely on your vast knowledge to branch out, and do it all.

    The only problem with those that possess both is that they are more than likely spread too thin over too many projects and overworked. Which is what I often feel when I’m at the spa running the place…

  3. I’m with you, Mike. I have mixed feelings. I’m in the generalist camp, in that I love having the mixture of experiences and knowledge. I’m also looking to start a business. On the other hand – if you’re looking for an actual job in the existing economy, employers are looking for specialists and not generalists. They want someone who has done the exact same job for 10+ years, and they have a plethora of people to choose from. So, to further agree with you, a person’s individual career goals determine which is better for them.

    1. I agree that most large organizations are looking for specialists, as they are typically in optimization mode and have the budget to hire experts for specific roles. But I think startups and growth firms benefit from generalists who can run with a wide variety of tasks and projects that just need to get done.

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