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on the dangers of being a generalist March 25, 2009

Posted by That Guy in Economic Downturn, Management, Observations.
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I have, for my entire working life, been something of a generalist. That is, I can do a lot of things well, but am an expert at few (if any) that can actually help me in my current career.

When the economy was better, people branched out and learned the basics of more and more skills so they could say to potential employers things like, “sure, I can work in your PR department, but I can also post things to your website and take pictures when you do events.” It became a contest to see just how much value companies could get for a single employee.

In a way, it still is. But now companies don’t want a team of generalists. They don’t want to have to pay five people to do five jobs as a group when they can pay two people — one to do four relatively easy jobs that nonetheless have a high degree of specificity, and the other to be an expert at something really complicated, like network engineering. One by one, the generalists get eliminated, and they find out very quickly that no one is hiring people with their skill set.

This worries me.

I personally am good at a lot of things that are done at CorporateSpeak, many of which are not in my job description but that I’ve taken the time to learn about anyway. However, I’ve started narrowing my focus and being somewhat less-helpful to other departments — not because I dislike people in them (though that is sometimes the case) but because I need to devote myself more to my primary task (that is, making pretty things on the internet). I need upper management to realize that, though I may have been hired as something of a generalist, they’re in a position now where releasing me would mean they don’t have a web designer anymore.

Though the way our corporate online department is going, that may happen eventually anyway.

But it’s worse for managers. Managers by their very nature are generalists — they have to know how to do everyone’s job and they have to be able (and willing) to step in as needed. If the manager can’t do the job better than the employees, then the manager isn’t worthy of being a manager*. So while the manager of (for example) the preproduction department needs to know how to look at artist renderings and layouts and decide what’s good and what’s not, that manager ultimately reports to a marketing director who reports to a Big Boss, who has final say anyway.

Companies have begun cutting out the middleman (or middlewoman). They fire the preproduction manager, and the artists and designers begin reporting to the marketing director. The preproduction manager, who once upon a time developed some pretty great layouts for advertisements and product packaging, suddenly finds him- or herself in a world where no one needs a preproduction manager. To join a new preproduction department, s/he will need to take a sizeable pay cut… that is, if s/he even has anything new to show off in a portfolio.

There’s no way to win. You become a generalist to stay competitive, but you find yourself lost among the specialists when your generalist job disappears. The only way to even attempt to keep up is to give up your free time and spend it learning something, becoming an expert at something somehow tangentially-related to your job so that when you say “I’m an expert with Quark Xpress” and the interviewer says “show me something you made with it that helped your last job”, you aren’t left trying to explain that you learned it on your own. No matter what anyone tells you, interviewers look down upon skills you developed but haven’t proven in a business environment.

So what do you do? Do you stay a generalist, get your fingers into as many pies as possible, and hope they can’t fire you? Or do you become a specialist and jump from job to job until you’re forced to become a generalist again and restart the entire process?

There is no way to win.

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* The exception is with managers of technical and engineering-type folks. The head of IT may not know how to rewire an entire building, but the engineers who work for him/her are experts at it. Unlike retail or corporate management, technical management involves so many changing technologies that if the managers need to keep track of every single development, they’d never get any managing done. (Which is not necessarily a bad thing.)

Image of Kirstie Alley and William Shatner courtesy the Star Trek Magazine.

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