What is a Generalist?

It’s Friday and the last day of re-runs. By now I will have a whole new batch of things to talk about, I will have read several new books both technical and recreational, will have consumed many beers and learned to enjoy having nothing to do. If that is possible 😉

Enjoy the week-end and see you on Monday

A generalist is not a new idea, it’s been around in the medical community for thousands of years. As a doctor you can be a specialist like a surgeon or you can be a general practitioner (A Generalist). In many other trades there is no general option, you are either an Electrician or you are not. In the 80’s there was a famous fictional generalist with a TV show called “McGyver”.

All people are Generalists in that we have hobbies that eventually educate us in areas that are not our primary area of expertise. The difference between a declared Generalist and most people is that the Generalist actively seeks an equal level of expertise in many areas.

I am a Generalist, but it was not a conscious decision to become one. I found at a early age that I had many interests and that I was reasonably talented at a good number of them. To be a Generalist, one does have to be content (at least early on ) with not being an expert at any one thing. There are very few McGyvers in the real world.

The ultimate goal for any Generalist is to become an expert at as many things as possible. This lofty goal is a constant moving target as every discipline is improving itself and it is difficult for the Generalist to stay current at everything.

To be a competent generalist you must have discipline and passion. You need the passion to maintain the wide variety of interests and the discipline to divide your time equally. It is possible for an experienced generalist to achieve a level of expertise that allows him/her to be competent in many areas. The Generalist may not use the most current techniques to solve a problem or perform a task, but that task will be completed with a high level of precision and quality because of their passion for excellence.

So what good is a generalist then if there is always someone more qualified or someone with more up-to-date skills?

Many sales professionals find that they have to be Generalists in order to have something in common with the widest variety of customers. It is a well documented fact that customers buy the sales person first and the product second. A sales person may not need the depth of knowledge, but the breadth is important.

I would suggest to you that having a generalist on your team gives you access to a large number of useful skills for a very reasonable price. In start-up company’s you can’t always afford to hire the number of specialists that you need to address all of your requirements. A generalist can be very useful in those early years.

There are real world situations where we do not have the luxury of consulting with a panel of experts before we have to make a time sensitive decision. Many times these decisions span multiple disciplines that impact each other. In these cases a generalist may be your only option.

A Generalist tends to arrive at a decision faster because they don’t have to call a meeting to discuss issues and achieve consensus. Convincing others to trust that decision is another matter entirely.

A Generalist is flexible which means they can adapt to the changing man-power requirements of a growing company. If you Google “Generalist” you will find a number of articles including one from the Harvard Business Review extolling the value of the Generalist.

As a generalist you will no doubt encounter resistance from people due to the fact that they will find it hard to believe that any decision you make was given due consideration. There will also be others that find your approach to problem solving does not use the most up to date or accepted techniques. Some may consider you reckless, vain and generally lacking humility. “In General”, pun intended, people don’t understand what it means to be a Generalist.

All I can suggest is that you work hard at being humble and when possible let others learn from their mistakes. That’s not to say that Generalists do not make mistakes. Generalists make as many mistakes as everyone else and try just as hard as everyone else to avoid mistakes and learn from them.

Remember that respect is earned not once but over and over again. There will always be people who believe that they have the right answer and that you are wrong. Sometimes they will be right! If it turns out that you were right, remember to be humble, there is nothing to be gained by pointing out the obvious.

Most people struggle to prove to their piers that they are good at one thing. You have to convince those same piers that you are good at a large number of things. Be patient, keep your arguments clear and precise, allow time for others to take your arguments/ideas and make them their own.

If you consider yourself a Generalist, please comment on this post. I am interested in your views, opinions and guidance.

Happy New Year everyone…..

This entry was posted in General and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *