Why generalists and not specialists have last laugh!

You need a specialized degree to enter; but if you emerge as a truly successful player, you would end up being a generalist! It may sound strange to start with; but that is the stark and practical reality of our life!!

I have come across 14 highly qualified and experienced executives in German, US and Swiss multinational corporations, who were doing extremely well in their areas of specialization, namely product design and development, research, engineering or manufacturing. They came in limelight and top management had accredited them as high potential and future leaders of those organizations. In their career progression, they became business unit heads. But as luck, or whatever you want to call it, would have it, nearly all them failed on one account or another – poor people management, weak marketing strategies, ineffective customer relationships and scant managerial courage. Many of them got demoted or stagnant, rather than getting promoted. Their greatest strength became their greatest weakness!

If you look at any organization, cream of project managers, engineering heads or R&D chiefs seldom graduate to the top management layer. On the other hands, business managers, sales and marketing heads do.

It is nearly certain that unless a specialist turns into generalist, he or she cannot make a successful boss or executive. Take example of Satya Nadella, current CEO of Microsoft Inc. He entered Microsoft as a computer science specialist; but he honed his other competences, which turned out to be overwhelming in decision making process to promote him as CEO! Case of Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc. is no different.

So, why should you be then a specialist at the first place?

Specialization is essential but only at entry point!

Specialization should not be treated as an end! It is just one of main means required to reach an end!!

Specialization means one core competency and corresponding knowledge base. Engineering field develops analytical abilities; hardware or software development leads to creativity or innovativeness; marketing gives birth to relation building skill; MBA promotes strategic thinking and so on. Let there be no misconception that MBA by itself make you a generalist! When you are armed with this core competency and knowledge base, it facilitates your entry into an organization. It helps you establish and get entrenched as long as you are at working level. But, beyond that, your focus does need to shift.

Those, who resist shift of focus, end up being specialists or experts. Eventually, experts unwittingly make their expertise as own enemy! This is when, their growth suffers. It is also noteworthy that stronger the expertise, lower is emotional intelligence (EQ)!

There are some, who embraces the change and evolve with exigencies of emerging situation. When you graduate from a working to supervisory level, look at how expectations of your seniors and sub-ordinates alike undergo a complete paradigm shift:

  • One, who used to get guidance, has to now guide and coach.
  • One, who could afford to grumble, should now be humble and address grievances!
  • One, who could offer dissent, has to now accept and manage dissent and disappointments!
  • One, who used to get support, has to now land support to sub-ordinates and make them successful.
  • One, who could create conflicts, has to manage conflicts.
  • It was enough to be savvy by self; but now you have to be inter-personnel savvy and have to risk your own skin.
  • Your absence from work did not matter much; but now being healthy and available to your team and organization all the time matter most.

In short, from supervisor level upwards, you need to be like God – all pervasive and prolific! If you continue your focus on specialization at elevated levels, it would be a fatal failure!! So, experts need to be cautious to take their expertise, through more education or experience, to a level where they run risk of becoming too passionate or obsessive and averse to change.

For quantum growth, you have no option but to be generalist!

An expert is unifocal, whereas a generalist is multifocal! An expert deals with subject; whereas a generalist deals with objects!!

Look at any aspect of life – it revolves around what I call as 4 Cs:

  1. Customers
  2. Company/co-workers
  3. Competitors
  4. Common people

A successful life or career means “developing faculties and becoming competent in at least 3 or ideally all 4 Cs”.

So, your choices are clear –

  • If you want to stay with a single subject, be an expert. You would rise vertically but on a narrow base, making you vulnerable.
  • You can make a mix of subjects and objects. That would turn you mediocre.
  • You can develop object or people oriented competencies and be a generalist.

It is 3rd choice, which gives you widest possibilities to grow and get all round success. But, there is also a 4th one – master a subject and all related objects, you would be Master of your Universe!


6 responses to “Why generalists and not specialists have last laugh!”

  1. Arun Sadhashivan Avatar
    Arun Sadhashivan

    Dear Sir,

    May I add that you have to have a “track record” in all these activities.
    Simply claiming competence in many facets of business may not be enough to convince bosses (or new employers) of your capabilities to rise to the top of a company.

    Warm regards,

    1. Murli Avatar

      Thanks a lot! Very true!!

      I appreciate your adding value here. I have supposed that a competence, unlike a degree, can only come through good quality work and experience i.e. good track records.

  2. Ravi Athalye Avatar
    Ravi Athalye

    Hello Murli,
    Perhaps in a highly technical envoirnment one needs at least one in depth expertise and then all the other 4 Cs you have observed.


    1. Murli Avatar

      I am very thankful for your precious views!

      You are very right, when it comes to highly technical environments. There is only one risk that technical experts face in that environment – they tend to become very possessive and often obsessive of their field of activities and then they start to overlook 4 Cs!

      As concluded in the last para of the post, if you can be unifocal and multifocal at the same time, you would be the real Master of your Universe!!

  3. Rudra Avatar

    Thought-provoking post actually! So can it happen the other way ’round – you start as a generalist and then emerge as a specialist? Well, I am not sure but don’t you think many people want and go this way, Generalist -> Specialist?

    I do realize that your post later suggests “Master a subject and all related objects”, so does that mean we should be, like, 40% specialist (master in one thing) and 60% generalist (knowledge of every other thing)?

    But I think I do understand the essence of the post… it’s like getting into a Cricket team as a bowler/batsman and then transforming into an all-rounder, correct? 🙂

    1. Murli Avatar

      Thanks a lot for your valuable thoughts!

      Yes; it is very well possible that a generalist can emerge as a specialist; but then, he or she may not have the last laugh!!

      As regards becoming master of one subject and all related objects at the same time, it does not work on a ratio. It is like 2 silos in parallel, each one being nearly full and making use of each one as needed to get the best.

      You got it very right in the last para. Key is to be a good all-rounder!

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