Reading Vikram Mansharamani’s post about specialists v. generalists on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, I find it interesting that he cites a robust study that showed that subject-matter experts fail to achieve the same success in predicting results focused on their field as do the general public. Being a generalist has long been a lonely and underappreciated trait in the business world–indeed, in the world at large.
Dr. Phillip Tetlock tracked 284 professional forecasters over 20+ years, asking them to predict the probability of various occurrences inside and outside of their areas of expertise, a total of 80,000 forecasts in all. His conclusion, “Those who know many little things, draw from an eclectic array of traditions, and accept ambiguity and contradictions.” This would argue that an organization looking for a competitive advantage should expose their workers to a wide range of diverse job activities, subjects, and roles in order to arm them with critical reasoning skills that draw from a broad-and-wide rather than narrow-and-deep resource pool. Be a Jack of all trades rather than a master of one, in other words.
I note that on the employee career ladder found in many organizations, the exact opposite of Tetlock’s findings is the predominately more usual case. To advance a career, most employees are rewarded when they focus narrowly and silo themselves by gaining critical skills in one specialty. The more expert they become, the greater their pay and advancement potential grows.
But consider another of Mansaramani’s thoughts: “the highly interconnected and global economy means that seemingly unrelated developments can [and I submit do] affect each other.” We see such interactions growing in both number and complexity at a dizzying pace.
Will oganizations begin to reflect these adaptive changes in their structures? Will the equity markets reward companies for embracing generalist leadership in combination with speciality expertise? And, will it make a difference to the customers and shareholders?
Consider this: quite a number of major successful corporations are now or have in the past been run by individuals that worked their way up through a ladder of chairs…sales, marketing or manufacturing, engineering or accounting, finance..etc. How do organizations that are led by individuals from the factory floor fare compared to those who have a former sales leader…or a CPA or lawyer in the top CEO slot?
My career experience with more than 100 Fortune 500 and smaller companies suggests that the well-rounded generalist fares well compared to these narrower executive alternatives. They know the business as a whole, they’ve met the customers and channel managers, know what drives the quality of their products, and can count the costs and revenues with an open eye to both short-term and long-term scenarios. They recognize them, because they had personal experience in each area.
It’s the exact opposite of the Business School MBA graduate taught to manage any organization according to case studies, 6-Sigma statistical models and quantitative inputs. Both executives are valuable, but the generalist has a grounded foot in the real world as well as in executive management theory. The concern that remains, unfortunately—and Dr. Tetlock’s study is silent on this point—is whether that generalist is sufficiently flexible and adaptable to have learned from past experiences without becoming entangled and bound by them. Generalist leaders must be able to respond to change in the business and competitive climates…not just seek to perpetuate their past experiences and successes.
It’s a conundrum worth some discussion and decisions. Generalist or specialist, neither or both?