Making the step from specialist to generalist

  • Alice was the best software developer ever.  Elegant, bugless code streamed from her fingers hour after untiring hour.  Alice was smart.  Alice had a computer science degree from an Ivy League school.  But she was irked by how her business was run, so under her unrelenting persistence, she was made the manager of the new app.  The app failed.  Her team fled.  All the other managers shunned her.  Alice was miserable.  Alice had performed the General Manager Face Plant.  Could Alice change?  Should she?
  • Making the step from specialist to generalist means more than adding skills.  It takes looking at humankind in an entirely new way.  Setting someone up to make the General Manager Face Plant is a really, really big risk.

The Three Pass/Fail Tests For Generalists

  1. Does Alice like to help other people solve problems?
  2. Specialists earn their recognition and money from solving technical problems.  But a generalist likes to get otherpeople to solve problems:  they ask the questions that help other people see the issues, even if they themselves know the answers.  They have faith that the generalist whole is greater than the sum of its specialized parts.  This takes humility.
  3. Is Alice interested in the science of management?
  4. Most specialists are inward-facing, wanting to understand more and more details about their specialty.  A generalist has an outward-facing kind of curiosity.  They need to know a little about a lot of things to be able to connect people across the organization.  They want to see how things connect in ever-expanding circles.
  5. Is Alice comfortable with ambiguity?  
  6. For many specialists, success is black and white.  The code works.  The case is won.  The numbers tie out.  Generalists, on the other hand, can make decisions where nothing is ever certain, intuition is value and the job is never 100% done,

Why generalists are rare

Specialists wouldn’t have jobs without generalists, who combine specialized skills and knowledge to build a business.  But business schools push specialization because entry-level jobs are specialized, and they want their grads to get employed.  Our entire education system has worshipped STEM—specialized work—but is now discovering a generation that struggles to communicate.

What to do about your Alices

Poor Alice has five choices:  quit, get fired, get a new attitude, get new skills, go back to her specialty job.  Do your Alices a favor:  have a candid conversation about the three Yes/No questions.  You’d be surprised how often they will, in fact, transform themselves into supportive, curious, professional generalists.