generalist specialistAre you a “Generalist” or “Specialist” at your company?   Both exists in most companies and serve distinct purposes.  According to Merriam-Webster dictionary

  • Generalist is defined as “a person who knows something about a lot of subjects.” –  a Partner in a consulting firm is  a generalist as he or she would sell work, build relationships, and lead execution teams.
  • Specialist is defined as “a person who has special knowledge and skill relating to a particular job, area of study” –  a Director in a consulting firm is a specialist who usually go deep on a topic but focus on a specific set of tasks (e.g., Lead execution or serve as SME for all Salesforce implementation for financial service industries)

Are you more likely to be promoted as a “Generalist” or a “Specialist” in a company?   Many may actually say Generalist are more likely to be promoted.  This is because many of our famous leaders, including the US President, are “Generalist.”  Our president needs to deal with domestic issues such as gay marriage, abortion, health care, education, etc.. and at the same time know what to do in foreign policy with every major country.

However, I would say who is more likely to be promoted depends more on how you position yourself.   There are also plenty of companies who values specialization.  In such a case, how can a generalist get promoted.  Gloria, one of our Executive Authors, approached me recently to discuss exactly this challenge.   She is up for senior level promotion.  However, she is a “Generalist” in a company with many “Specialists” in senior positions.  She wanted to know

  1. How to value her own skillsets as a “Generalist”?
  2. How to position herself for promotion when she is a “Generalist” in a company full of Specialists?

High level, I believe this requires a combination of self confidence, communication, self-promotion and selling skills.  At the end of the day, “Generalist” “Specialists” are imperfect categories for lots of professionals who may have both skills in some degree.  The magic is figuring out how to position yourself as someone that can help your company solve some of their biggest challenges – how you have done it already today and how senior executives can count on you to solve even larger issues in the future.

Listen to this 15 min discussion between Gloria and I addressing her questions in details.

Audio Transcription

Gloria: Lei, I think the question is that when you are a people manager or really passionate about talent management and you want to balance being a generalist with a company that really values specialist skills, and how you balance that, but also how do you then value what you have yourself – in yourself?

Lei: Are you asking this because from a general stand point – like building your brand? Are you asking about getting promoted and being known for it at each level? What’s the context?

Gloria: Yeah. great question. I think the context is getting promoted and getting to a more senior level in your career, and how you balance that and how you navigate the story you tell yourself in a company where specialization – but actually more than that. Subject matter expertise is valued. It’s prize above all.

Lei: Yeah. You know, that’s a really interesting question. Because a lot of times I’ve listened to podcasts or read articles, they talk about two distinct paths. People managers versus specialists. And I find sometimes that there might be an overemphasis. And there’s a little bit of a middle ground where when you’re people manager, and maybe it’s just definitional, right? When you’re people manager, that doesn’t mean your only skill is to manage people.

Because being a leader of a team has two sides to it. One is you have to have a way to be able to define the strategy, the vision, and the high-level wrapper of how that team should work together, and delegate responsibility then ownership accordingly to the right teams under you. And then two, be there as the leader who is a people leader who motivates and watch out for their development and really address this issue when it’s escalated.

Both of those things are very important to be a people leader which sometimes you know – And then as a specialist, my definition of specialist, someone who’s like deep. They may not manage anybody and they just know from soup to nuts a subject. But I think at different companies people use those words differently about what you specialize.

Because a lot of people leaders who are becoming senior leaders at a company actually kinda have to know how to solve problems for their department. And they may not be specialists meaning like to the enth degree answer the most detailed questions about that problem, but they have a team to do that. But they understand the larger drivers of what is the company strategy, what is the large big issue that the company gave that department to solve very ambiguously, right?

And then you’re that leader who needs to take that ambiguous thing, figure out what should be the direction to follow today. What is urgent. You prioritize. You got a whole team of people to then allocate that. That may not be the utmost specialist that I described before, but that takes business expertise. And that’s not just hey, I’m good at managing people.

A good leader has a combination of those skills. You gotta have a vision. You gotta expect to have vision. But you gotta inspire a team to follow and sort of really inspire them to high performance. You gotta be the lead for that. If you don’t know anything about that subject matter expert, it doesn’t matter how well you inspire other people, you can’t be at the top.

Gloria: Absolutely. And how do you do that in an organization that – it may not value people management. How do you spin that in a way – actually spin is the wrong way.

Lei: No, but I think it’s true. Everything is about perception at work. It is very much about – I think you asked a really interesting question. You said, how do I perceive myself that way? What words do I use to then communicate that? And that’s really a great level of self-awareness.

Because frankly unless you start believing that you are a leader and a strategist and can own a subject matter, nobody else will believe it if you don’t believe it yourself. So I’m here to kind of talk about those things. Because one, you absolutely have to be to be successful. And what department are you in now? Kinda tell me a little bit about…

Gloria: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a leader in technology. And specifically, we are responsible for the websites of a financial services company.

Lei: Are you technical or are you there as a technology leader but to make the technology work to support the business vision and strategy?

Gloria: It would be the latter. Not a technologist. I’m a leader to bring everything together.

Lei: Right. Which requires you to understand a business context, enough about technology, and leveraging the expertise from some of your specialists on your team to actually solve the longer term larger issue that your department owns, right? And that actually isn’t – and this is worth wording right.

That means you have to be a kind of business strategist leveraging technology. That’s what you’re good at already. And if you’re being successful now and they’re considering a promotion, I think you gotta give yourself more credit that you been doing it.

Gloria: I think you’re right.

Lei: And I don’t think it means that oh, you need to know HTML and how to build websites. No, you have a team of people who are developers who build that. You can’t be a specialist there and also be the leader of technology. Leaders, and going to the next level, is all about sort of connecting that at the macro level and having a breadth of knowledge that moves the needle for a company versus – imagine if you’re such a big specialist in a technology yet, I don’t know.

There’s kind of this balance to be so technical. Cause technical people can build great stuff but they may not have the relevance for what the business needs. They love code, right? And so I think that the skill – it’s like move away from almost positioning yourself in front of your executive leader as oh, I’m not a specialist. Cause that is not conveying values, knowledge. Business knowledge to solve problems.

Gloria: Yes

Lei: So you to say I’m not a specialist you’re actually turning people off. And I don’t think – you’re actually not. At the level that you are, I would say you avoid saying that. Instead you say I’m excellent at integrating – figuring out what technology could meet, or exceed, or support the business vision that we have.

And here’s my crew. I build a team and here’s a big meaty problem that I solve. Here’s another big meaty problem I solved. What you’re saying to them is that I am a leader that will solve your issues by integrating different competencies together in a way that is ambiguous, and I can lead a team that can make that happen.

Gloria: Yes. Yes. And I think what’s so important is I don’t think I’ve been using that language. I have been hiding behind – I’m not a technologist. I don’t know this. I don’t know that. But not using the language that – I think one thing that you said that was just so key is knowledge, right? They want to know that I have the business knowledge in order to do this. My words and the way I say it is not coming across as presenting that. In order to present that I would need to really first of all speak the words that resonate with them and that I believe in.

Lei: Exactly. I think it is both things, right? Because if you speak the words but you don’t believe it they’ll feel it at some point. But I do think that you’re not giving – there’s also a little bit of an under self over-deliver tendency I’m hearing from the way you position yourself. It’s not uncommon, right? And the recognition – especially the example you gave me. I’m not this. I’m not that. It’s almost always coming from a negative.

And just avoiding those terms altogether and say I am this. I am this. I can solve this for you. Connect the dots about how you been helpful to them. How you can be even more helpful. Because I actually think sometimes it’s rarer to find a people manager who can be so good at looking at ambiguous issues and connect the dots between different departments and actually solve and be effective in managing different disciplines under that.

And you are that, right? Because you know technology – you are leading effectively technology teams and non-technology teams, and aligning stakeholders who are technology stakeholders, non-technology stakeholders. And that’s actually something to boast about with actual tangible facts.

Gloria: Got it. Yes. And I think that that’s the ones that I need to work on that I have not. I think that it has been coming I think to be honest, from like you said, a negative area of oh, gosh, and then I’m overvaluing or over representing just people, people, people, people, without wait a minute…

Lei: Yeah, exactly. And the word people don’t resonate. The word special, they do. Right? So you could potentially – you specialize in solving large ambiguous issues that different departments need to connect the dots to have to solve. And the most recent example is you understand enough about technology to manage a technology team. You understand enough about the business issue to figure out what they need and come up with the solutions that is technically feasible and elegant but delivers business value. That’s your value.

Gloria: Yes. Yeah, definitely. Definitely. And I think that what I undersell and under appreciate is many times the technologists are coming up with a technical solution and therefore I’m splitting hairs between did they do it? Did I do it? Don’t wanna, you know…

Lei: Do they work for you?

Gloria: They do.

Lei: Yeah. And do you believe that you should always hire people smarter than you?

Gloria: Yes.

Lei: And there’s always that factor out there, the most successful leaders are the ones that get out of the way and know what they know and know what they don’t know. That doesn’t mean self deprecating yourself all the time. But you’re there as a leader. You’re not there as an individual contributor. And so you’re there to motivate them.

So giving them credit is also your strength, right? To be able to motivate that. That doesn’t take away from – I think there’s a little bit of that self-confidence. Overachievers like our self, we tend to get a little more critical of ourselves because we don’t know everything. It is such a interesting follie to fall in because there is no one out there that knows everything.

Gloria: There isn’t. There isn’t. And the thing is, like you said, when you’re an overachiever and you position yourself as a talent or a people manager, you kind of box yourself in cause you’re not talking the language that really shows how you deliver that. Because to your point, there’s strategy, there’s vision, everything involved to actually make your team effective to solve ambiguous problems, to connect the dots with stakeholders. And that all is a talent and a skill-set.

Lei: So I would recommend two things. One, exercise for yourself where instead of looking at yourself and how you manage people, and how long people stay with you, which is like almost a given, you can talk about… Look at the latest big issues you’ve been able to solve in the last two, three years, for the customers and for the company and start talking about that as your predominate thing. Because a company that values specialization will value the type of needle you move for the business.

Gloria: Yes.

Lei: If it’s there and it’s a defecto, hey, I did that really because I could really retain and motivate as well as define a strategy for a big team, that’s the context they can listen for. How did yo do that? Well it’s a team effort. But I set the goal. Claim your credit. Don’t give credit too much to everyone else and don’t claim any for yourself.

Gloria: Got it.

Lei: And the second one is just practice not saying I don’t know this. It’s a little bit of a crutch to make sure people don’t over expect things from you. You’re trying to get promoted, you’re there to tell them why you’re better than everyone else.

Gloria: Got it.

Lei: So own that and do that. And you know, practice that. I think you’ll do great.

Gloria: Thank you. This is really wonderful advice and I’m gonna take those things to heart.

Lei: Awesome. Glad I can help.

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