Everyone is a specialist. Where are the generalists?

Overview:

When I began my business career, I started out in marketing. At that time, I was tasked with doing basic marketing activities, and I gradually began to take on more advanced marketing assignments and responsibilities. About a decade into my career, I took on a leadership role and was responsible for a team of marketers. At that time, I was still able to be both a marketing practitioner, while leading the team.

The thing that I liked the most about my career as a marketer in the first half of my profession, was that I would have classified myself as a generalist. What I mean by this, is that I was able to participate in all of the aspects of the marketing field. I loved the variety and challenges that each of the areas of this part of business presented to me, especially the creative and strategic aspects.

Fast forward to the mid 2000’s and I started to notice a trend occurring in my profession. What I began to see happen was the evolution of those who wore a marketing “hat” start to veer into becoming specialists in this profession. This occurred around the time when social media marketing began to become more complex, and required a dedicated and hyper focused attention on the aspects of digital marketing. When this shift in marketing began to emerge, I knew this was leaning towards the demise of marketing generalists. At least for most medium to large businesses.

Being a marketing generalist was probably the most fun and creatively expressive time in my career, as I was able to flex and leverage all of my acquired marketing skills on a daily basis. When it became clear that the skills required to excel and be defined as an expert in social media was inevitable, this was around the time I began to wonder what would happen to other marketers who would classify themselves as generalists?

Did the marketing generalists began to fade out into obscurity and slowly begin to “exit stage left” in the marketing profession? Perhaps, but as a comparison, I think what happened was that marketing generalists with 15 plus years of experience began to either shift to work for smaller companies where they could continue to leverage all of their skills, or could be compared to general practitioner doctors. What I mean by this is that you go in to consult with the marketing generalist or general practitioner, and they refer to you as a specialist.

Is the specialist model a good one? Perhaps, and the jury may still be out on this, but I believe with both marketing and the medical worlds becoming increasingly more complex, there is likely a strong demand for the need to have people become specialists. The question is, do people presently even have the option to learn the aspects of becoming a generalist in any industry? What if you are the type of person who enjoys the challenge of having to know enough about each of the different areas of your profession, and are not interested or challenged enough by having to specialize in an area? Is there still a possibility for people entering the workforce to stay on what I will refer to as a “generalists track”?

In my opinion, when someone is either compelled, or perhaps not given a choice about whether they want to become a specialist, I have concerns about this model going forward. The reason for this is because as someone who has been both a generalist and specialist, I can appreciate the fact I have seen both sides of this model. However, I would also say that being a generalist can be a more difficult path for most people, as it requires you to be skilled in a number of different areas, and at a proficiency level which you wouldn’t be questioned about your abilities.

Achieving a “generalist” status in any profession is going to be quite challenging, but it is possible. Although I will offer that you will have to seek out more opportunities to gain the variety of experiences to acquire your generalist skills.

If you are looking for some suggestions on how to take the path of becoming a generalist, here are some ways you can consider doing this.

  • You will need to keep an open mind about where you will be starting this journey. It might be that you will need to consider living in a different part of the country where there are more opportunities for you to leverage.
  • I recommend you make it clear that you are not seeking to specialize in a particular role, but that you would like to gain as much broad experience as is possible in the role you will be doing.
  • It’s likely you will need to ask for additional opportunities to expand your options of the experience you will be gaining, and you may experience some resistance in being able to do activities you only have junior level skills to do.
  • Consider shadowing someone if they are not willing to give you hands on opportunities to try something new. Eventually they might give you a chance to “try” what you want to experience.
  • Smaller companies will typically offer you more of a variety of experiences, especially in marketing, so be sure to factor this into your experience planning. The larger companies will tend to hire mainly specialists at the entry to mid-level positions.
  • Although this might be more challenging to attempt, I would suggest you consider test driving a few different industries to gain your experience in. Doing this will allow you to see which industries might be more willing to provide you with opportunities to gain your generalist skills.
  • Channel your inner researcher skills and embark upon speaking to as many people as you can to help you to determine alternative methods to gain your generalist experience in other creative ways.
  • Don’t rule out volunteering at an organization where they would be thrilled to have you provide them with help, and perhaps allow you to stretch your existing skills, or learn new ones that you can benefit from gaining.

My intention for sharing information about this topic with you was to open your mind to the possibility of exploring what is now more of an alternative career track (e.g., generalist), when in the past, this was more of the norm. I believe there is still a need for people who have generalist skills, and that not everyone has to be a specialist going forward, and I applaud either direction you think is the right one for you.

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