Specialists may rule but don’t rule out the generalists
August 27, 2019 at 8:48 AM
Hiring organizations struggle with generalist and eclectic backgrounds. I am referring to those candidates who have worked across various industries, roles, functions, sizes and contexts of companies. While coherent career narratives are discernible for many, for others, their decisions appear uneven, even haphazard at times.
For organizations, questions abound. Do their skills relate, are they transferrable to our industry and if so, how long would such a transition take? Is it worth the effort to try? For those who seem to have dabbled across various sectors, do these people have difficulty deciding what they want to do? Do they lack stick-to-it-ness or grit? If we hire them, will they stay?
In general, only the larger, more sophisticated companies are skilled with the language of competencies by which to evaluate such candidates. The majority of companies don’t even try, preferring instead to stick to candidates from theirs or related industries. This is not to say these smaller firms struggle any less with identifying which candidate will thrive in a given role but at least they can understand the candidates’ pasts and the paths they have taken to today.
A recent book titled RANGE: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein, makes the case for ‘breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that incentivizes, even demands, hyper-specialization’. It argues for the value of broad perspectives and differing experiences which can be combined to spectacular effect. It provides example after example of ‘outsiders’, with backgrounds in unrelated sectors who have joined organizations and contributed to transformative success. In essence the higher the complexity of the role, ‘where the fruitful questions themselves are less obvious’, the more useful breadth and diversity becomes. Again, Epstein provides numerous examples.
Before summarily dismissing that generalist candidate, it may be worthwhile to probe a little for examples of how that breadth and range have proven to be assets in the past. It may be worth exploring how that individual has successfully adapted to new industries in the past, what they learned in the process and how those lessons might be applied at your company. This is not to negate the whole host of other attributes that must still be present to leverage that breadth of experience in the workplace but in a sea of industry clones perhaps some different DNA would be useful. And in a tight labour market, it makes little sense to miss out on talent simply because it lacks industry experience.
For generalist candidates, rather than bemoan the seeming biases against your rich set of experiences, be prepared to discuss and describe how they have made you an outstanding choice for the companies and roles you covet.
About the Author
Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.
Contact Robert by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (1) 416-365-9494 Ext. 777