Many years ago, when I first moved to Washington and started working in communications, an older and wiser colleague gave me some sage advice: “Jay, you can be a generalist or a specialist, there is no set path to success in this business. You just need to decide which way you want to go, then pursue it.”
In my world, a specialist might be a web developer, a speechwriter, a graphic designer, a copywriter or a media relations specialist. A generalist is more likely to be an editor, manager, director, communications strategist or a PR consultant.
It’s been said that we specialize early in our careers, then, as we gain experience and perhaps move into management, we become generalists. That was the case in my career, starting as a reporter and editor, then public affairs director, vice president and ending up as a senior vice president.
Frankly, these last few years have been refreshing after many years in management. Now I work from home as a solo practitioner, and I’ve enjoyed rolling up my sleeves to produce client work that I once delegated to others.
My advice to those seeking a management slot is to keep up your specialist skills and stay current in your field. That expertise may prove invaluable. For example, I believe that my ability to demonstrate to my staff from time to time that I actually knew what I was talking about helped build trust and made me a better leader. It also gave me the insight to more accurately judge performance and determine staffing and resource needs.
Having a reputation for knowing how to get things done is also a wonderful insurance policy against being let go when times are tough. This is exactly what happened to my boss when an association we worked for cut its staff. He lost his management job, and I inherited what was left of the department. The scuttlebutt was that he was of less value in a downsized environment, and I was spared because of my skill set. I admired my boss a lot, so that is not how I would have liked it to have gone down, but at the time I was relieved to still have a job and be able to pay my mortgage.
There is danger, too, in being too specialized. As Vikram Mansharamani writes on the HBR Blog, “Corporations around the world have come to value expertise, and in so doing, have created a collection of individuals studying bark. There are many who have deeply studied its nooks, grooves, coloration and texture. Few have developed the understanding that the bark is merely the outermost layer of a tree. Fewer still understand the tree is embedded in a forest.”
Specialists often get too immersed in their own world, oblivious to what is happening in their organizations and unable to see the forest for the trees. Put another way, the generalist has a frame of reference that provides context and nuance for the content the specialist is expert in. It takes a generalist to connect the dots, bridge departments and create a vision for the future.
Still, I have found that every company has extraordinary specialists who are able rise above their insular domain, step out of their cubicles and make positive contributions for the betterment of the organization. They are the ones who volunteer to be on cross-functional teams, contribute at staff meetings and suggest new ways of solving old problems.
It is often specialists who do groundbreaking work, invent new things or make startling discoveries. When I was in school and played the trumpet, Miles Davis was one of my favorite musicians. You could say he was a specialist because he played the trumpet and continued to play it throughout his career. But later Davis wrote music and led bands. He pioneered the bebop and cool jazz sound and then pushed jazz into new territory with jazz fusion, influencing music and artists for generations to come.
If you are looking around your organization and wondering where you fit in and how you might contribute, think about your area of expertise and compare it to the items in a toolbox. When management needs a tool to fix a problem, who do they turn to? Do they reach for the Duck tape? Or search for an Allen wrench? Duck tape can fix many things, but only an Allen wrench can turn recessed hexagonal bolts.
If you’re the Allen wrench of your organization and hex bolts are crucial to its future, lucky you! But if hex bolts are a rarity and your talents are underutilized, perhaps it’s time to broaden your horizons. Duck tape comes in many colors, maybe there’s a roll, er role, that suits you.