Do Generalists or Specialists Win in 2020?

Over the past 5 years I have had the opportunity to volunteer at two different animal rescue organizations. They both have the same ultimate goal, which is to save the lives of animals. However, their volunteer executions plans are vastly different. This is because one leverages a generalist approach, while the other leverages a specialist approach.

What is the difference? In her May 2020 article, “Deep or wide: Should you become a specialist or generalist in your career?”, Sharlyn Lauby did a great job describing each option.  Per Lauby,

  • “Generalists are competent in several different areas or activities within a profession. Consider an accountant who’s knowledgeable in accounts payable, receivables, and payroll. Or a family practice doctor who provides general health care versus an oncologist who specializes in cancer treatment.”
  • “Specialists are focused on one subject or area within a profession. Examples are job recruiters versus human resources professionals, or a chef specializing in cold dishes — versus an executive chef knowledgeable in all areas of kitchen operations.”

The Generalist Approach

As a volunteer, this is what I experienced at the first animal rescue organization. 

Generalist Specialist

It loosely defined roles for both paid staff members and volunteers. On Monday you might be cleaning animal crates. On Tuesday you might be approving adoption applications. Another day you might be answering the telephone. 

When volunteers arrived at the physical animal shelter they viewed a list of work options. Then it was up to them to choose a task or to figure out what needs to be done.

This approach can work well if you are a self starter and can work with little direction. Sometimes, it gives volunteers an opportunity to learn a little about a lot of different tasks. There are some people who might find this approach very frustrating. The lack of structure could feel very disorganized. It is hard to know if the volunteer work you do actually makes an impact.

The Specialist Approach

The second organization, clearly defined volunteer roles. It trained volunteers to own specific tasks and then scheduled those tasks. Volunteer leads were assigned to oversee each type of work, and ultimately hold volunteers accountable.

Checks and balances were in place. It had documented rules and guidelines. As a volunteer, it was easy to track progress, or lack of. This organization also celebrated successes and recognized volunteers for his or her contributions.

If you like structure and organization, and want to be able to measure the impact of volunteering, this approach may work for you. For those who are not a fan of rules and guidelines, you might feel frustrated.

Which approach did I like better?

From the standpoint of the animal rescue organization, I believe the second approach was more effective. This was because everyone had a position, and was expected to play their position.

As a volunteer, I think a combination of both approaches would be most effective. 

When I volunteered at the first animal rescue, I learned a lot. This was because I got to practice many different tasks. I also had a clear view to the end to end process. This environment made me feel creative and free.

I felt very productive at the second organization. This was because I could easily track my contributions and was often recognized for my work. There was no guessing or wasted time. When assigned a task, there was a clear way to complete it. I knew when I was done.

Generalist Versus Specialist In Corporate Settings

In the corporate world there are a lot of opinions about specialists versus generalists, and which approach is more appropriate or successful.

In the Harvard Business Review article, “Generalists Get Better Job Offers Than Specialists”, surprise, HBR’s study showed that when looking for a new job, generalists do better, because “they are more unusual, have diverse skills, are redeployable, and are more likely to be tapped as leaders”. However, there was also research to suggest that once hired within an organization, specialists may be more successful.

In late 2019, Forbes published “Move Over, Specialists: The Rise Of The Generalist Is Here”. The author, Nicolle Smart Series shared,

“The thing I love most about generalists — and ultimately why I love hiring them — is that they’ve learned, repeatedly, how to adapt. They’ve got problem-solving minds, and they’re comfortable feeling uncomfortable (because what feels more uncomfortable than learning something new?). And they know, because they’ve done it, how to translate skills for different industries or roles. Who wouldn’t want to hire someone like that?”

What about in 2020- a time of Pandemics, Crises, Artificial Intelligence?

Generalist Specialist

In 2020 and beyond, I believe it’s less about using a specialist or generalist approach, and more about using a flexible, adaptable approach.

These are unusual times. We have to question whether past methods are still ripe or have gone stale. Our team members must flex as the environment flexes. Sense of urgency is more important than ever before. We have to be ready for anything.

Vikram Mansharamani, PhD, and lecturer at Harvard University, recently said, “The one certainty about the future is that it will be uncertain. The rapid advancement of artificial intelligence and technological innovation have commoditized information.

The skill of generating dots is losing value. The key skill of the future is, well, not quite a skill; it’s an approach, a philosophy, and way of thinking — and it’s critical you adopt it as soon as you’re able.”

What is that skill or approach? It’s up to us, leaders, to figure that out.

© 2020, Marci Reynolds. All rights reserved.


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