The Curse of a Generalist?

I recently read a blog post on BrazenCareerist by Emilie Wapnik titled Specialization is Overrated: Why You’ll Benefit from Being Kinda Good at Many Things.  In the post Emilie postulates that having a broad set of skills and experiences will benefit you more than being an expert in a narrow field.  My first reaction was “right on!”  Being a jack of all trades myself this played right into my own beliefs.  But as I got to thinking about my current search for a new job, I began to ask myself does it really?

photo by justinplambert via PhotoRee


To be fair, the brunt of her post was focused on starting a new business or working for yourself, in which I totally agree.  Entrepreneurs really do need to be able to wear a lot of different hats to be successful.  But what if you aren’t looking to start a business or be self-employed?

Personally, the fact that I am “kinda good at a lot of things” has been a major contributor to my past success.  It has allowed me to adapt to everything from data architecture to corporate strategy and planning, and permitted me to continually learn new skills and leverage old skills in new situations.  But this has always been in the context of an existing position.

As you may know from previous posts, I voluntarily left the safety of my last position to pull up stakes with my wife and move to Denver.  In doing so I really thought that my generalist successes, would make me widely marketable for a new position.  Instead, what I have found is that it has become a little more of a curse.  I have continually heard from potential employers that I have an impressive set of experiences and would be an excellent cultural fit, but there are just so many other candidates on the market with the exact expertise for the role.

I am sure that the current state of the economy has a lot to do with their approach.  If you are an employer, are you going to take a risk on a rock star generalist who has all the “transferable” skills or go with someone whose resume reads exactly like the job description and has 5+ years of experience doing the exact same thing?  I think in a good economy a company is more willing to take chance on the generalist with the transferable skills and long list of accomplishments.

So, I have recently found myself at a crossroads.  Do I repackage myself as an expert, or double down on the adaptability and experience I have gained as a successful generalist?  Personally, I think the adaptable generalist is who I am and I need to be true to this strength, but at the same time I need to be better at marketing this value.

Any other generalists struggling with this?  If so, how have you overcome this obstacle?  Specialists, what do you think?

About the author: Heath

8 comments to “The Curse of a Generalist?”

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  1. Jeremy - September 27, 2011 at 2:29 PM Reply

    I see myself on both sides of the coin. I have a set of particularly specialized skills, but it happens that there just aren’t very many open jobs where I can use them. However, it’s my generalist strengths that really facilitated picking up those skills as quickly as I did, and I believe it would be those strengths that would drive future success (in-specialty or not). Marketing one major strength for a specialist job is relatively easy compared to selling someone on your abilities and making them think that you’re just generally so awesome that you can help them no matter what they need. I haven’t exactly worked past this hurdle, as I’m still looking for work as well.

    • Heath - September 29, 2011 at 5:40 PM Reply

      Jeremy, I would agree. I think the key is being able to read the job description and take any transferable skills that you have from past experiences and package those into a “pitch” as to why you fit their needs.

  2. jrandom42 - September 29, 2011 at 4:18 PM Reply

    For me, as an IT consultant, it wasn’t until I started speciaizing that I started to earn BIG bucks. I can do a lot of things, and I do okay managing the business side of consulting, but I’m getting paid triple figures per hour for my skill, knowledge, experience and expertise in my specialty.

    • Heath - September 29, 2011 at 5:41 PM Reply

      JRandom, based on my experience from my IT days I would agree, it definitely paid more to specialize in that space, unless you were a CIO, then being a bit more of a generalist becomes more beneficial.

  3. Mike - October 4, 2011 at 1:38 PM Reply

    I have worked in IT working my way from programmer analyst to project manager. An odd path to be certain but the one I took nonetheless when the opportunity presented itself. I was laid off from the company I had worked at for 10 years after an acquisition and found myself in the job market from hell. In total I was unemployed for 1 year (almost to the day). The first hurdle I had to overcome was that I had worked too long at a single company. Nevermind that I grew and learned and was considered very good at what I did by my peers and the stakeholders for whom I completed projects. I had been promoted. I had worked a variety of projects from high visibility enterprise projects to street level upgrades of existing systems to custom development projects. I considered myself a generalist and found being unemployed and a generalist with too many years at one place about the worst situation I could have put myself in.

    I took stock of what I was learning as I sought positions as a project manager. I felt that my time as a generalist was over. I picked Project Managing CRM projects as my specialty and built my sales pitch around that and that led me to a job where I am quite satisfied. I still quietly consider myself a generalist but in this market, I find it isn’t as welcome. Just my .02

  4. Tom Bolt - October 26, 2011 at 5:26 PM Reply

    Completely agree…have struggled finding new employment given my consulting generalist background. I too have worn many hats, stepped into many different roles yet have not gone deep in any. So, what do I “specialize” in? I think I have all the background for change management consulting but do not have the very specific model experience, or I can take on a product marketing role but have not ever held that title and led a product through full life cycle, or I’m a program manager but don’t have practical earned value experience. I’d like to take all that great generalist experience into a senior leadership role but don’t have the title progression to support it. I do indeed feel trapped in this situation and only have myself to blame for my circumstances. Now…to figure out how to resolve it in a timely manner is my challenge.

  5. Heath - October 26, 2011 at 6:19 PM Reply

    Based on comments on this post and conversations I have been having recently on this topic it seems like a lot weight is being put on specialization in this market. The more I seem to network and explore opportunities the more it seems like employers are in the “cat-bird” seat because they know there are a glut of professionals on the market right now and can be picky enough to go with someone with deep expertise. But I have also been hearing more that this is back-firing for some employers who are finding that the experts in some roles are not flexible enough to add the amount of value that is required.

    For example, I was asked this last week to interview for a role because of my broader background. They had hired individuals to document and design processes, but found that these same individuals didn’t posses the general business acumen and facilitation skills to make decisions and add value on their own during the process. These individuals were specialized and good at the documentation and process design, but lacked some of the broader skill sets that one picks up from conducting a more generalized career path. At the end of the day what helped me was to show that I could not only do the work they required but I could also add value to the role through the other skills I had acquired as more of a generalist.

    For sure there are companies that want to specific specialized skills and in some cases that may be all they want, but I do believe if you can 1) prove you can do the work and 2) show them how you can add even more value to the role this cam help keep you in the mix.

  6. David Houg - January 23, 2013 at 8:15 AM Reply

    Most jobs ask for ability to clearly communicate orally and verbally. This really means understanding the desires of different departments, sales, service, IT and so on.

    Perhaps as a generalist, talking up the ability to cross-communicate between differenty personality types and departments and being useful on many teams would help the hiring manager. Most jobs require info from others to get the work done.

    “Being able to see where THIS department can help out the needs of others will increase the reputation of this department.”

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