Generalists are the New Unicorns

Posted by Maria Milanetti & filed under Leadership Development.

Have you noticed that more and more we have too many specialists and not enough generalists in our society and in the workplace? Do you think we are off-kilter and overloaded on the specialist side these days? I would argue yes, but you’re welcome to decide.

As a career coach and executive leadership coach, I wanted to share my observation about “the specialist era” we are currently in, as we enter 2020. At 14 years of age, our children, entering Grade 9, are being asked to choose a specialty such as business, technology or the arts. In Universities and Colleges we emphasize STEM career options: Engineering, Business, Nursing, Information Technology, Accounting, Communications, Physiotherapy, X-Ray Technology, Fire Fighting, Paramedics, and the list goes on.

This emphasis on specialties has caused the generalists among us to become increasingly rare. This may, however, soon change, with recruitment becoming more difficult in 2020, as we look to develop our own talent within organizations and look at the prospect of developing from within our own ranks from among these specialists.  

As an illustration of the generalist experience, below are a few cases from my consulting practice. These are three individuals, in three different age groups, and my own experience in the workplace.

Case 1

Early careerist, late 20’s – Susie, a psychology and marketing major, looking for a specific specialty or area of focus, has done HR, quality, marketing, and opened a pop-up shop. When we assessed this leader to find a focus, she came through as a “generalist” who has been able to be very flexible and has core “general skills” rather than specialist skills. Additional fact: She comes from a family who owns and operates their own family business.

Case 2

Mid careerist, late 40’s – Manjit, a CPA, describes himself as a generalist. He has worked closely with finance, operations, sales, marketing, product development and human resources. He uses this broad experience to develop the skills that allow him to be a valued advisor to a business overall, and in general. Additional fact: He has moved around to different companies and done consulting as well.

Case 3

Mid Careerist, mid 50’s – Jeff, a Physician, who went through a number of general and specialty areas, paediatrics, ER, General Practice in extended training, before deciding to be an anaesthetist. Additional fact: One of those specialties did not work out.

These generalists take a number of disciplines into account when making their organizational decisions by weaving together information from a number of specialties they have been exposed to. They can, therefore, bring people and projects together.

As career coaches, we recommend that people making decisions about their career “rule things out” rather than deciding to specialize right away. These three individuals have done that ruling out, and come to a place where their “general survey” of the work they’ve done has made them adaptable, or “generalists”. And we don’t often hear parents these days saying “I want my child to be a generalist” in a world full of specialists! Which is why to me, they may stand out in a world that values specialists.

You may remember, if you were at work in the 80s and 90s, that many companies would do a general rotation through the various areas of the business – modeled in part by this sort of internship at places like IBM and Proctor and Gamble. This sort of rotation seems to be making a comeback. A recent article in the Globe & Mail (link here) mentions that this sort of inside talent development effort is becoming popular again.

Watch out, we may soon have more generalists, working hand in hand with our wonderful specialists, than we presently do, which in my estimation will be good for business.

2 Responses to “Generalists are the New Unicorns”

  1. Teresa

    Great article Maria. Wondering if you have read the book Range by David Epstein. Was recently recommended to me although I haven’t picked up a copy yet. I think generalists also possess the skill of resilience fairly well because they get so used to adapting. Will have to catch up in person and discuss further at some point!

    • MarchFifteen

      Thank you for your comment Teresa. I completely agree with you about the resilience factor for Generalists. We will purchase the book!! – Maria

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