Generalists versus specialists

But which one is better? There's only one way to find out..... FIGHT!

Last week’s post looking at the ‘glass bottleneck’ in local government generated some interesting responses. One of the more substantial responses came from Paul Griffiths who pointed out that the flaw in my thesis was that it reinforced a mistaken belief that all ambitious staff should be aiming for a management role. As he argued:

If as a nation collectively started to stop seeing promotion as the key marker of success then we might end up with a more motivated workforce and greater productivity. Equally if we regarded people with aspirations to manage with more scepticism then we might ironically end up with better managers. 

I’m not quite so sceptical of people with management aspirations but the fact that we seem to value management over nearly all other types of work skills is a legitimate concern.

One other section of the piece really interested me. In describing five types of bad managers Paul identified the following category of manager:

2. The Generalists – These people see themselves as a jack of all trades. They are able to use their “insights” into multiple different spheres. However all too often these “jack of all trades” are in fact “masters of none”. Aside from a few very smart generalists with the capacity to apply their intellect in many domains and learn quickly, many generalists are people with ambition and blag and a belief in their “right” to be a manager and all too often end up being like megalomaniacs

The discussion about so-called ‘generalists’ interested me for a number of reasons; not least the fact that local government has long been the preserve of the specialist. The ranks of senior management are filled with social workers, (head) teachers, lawyers, accountants, engineers and other similar professions.

For what it’s worth I think Paul’s description of the generalist is a bit harsh. But then I would say that; after all I am a generalist.

The WLLG team is actually a mix of the specialists and generalists but this particular generalist has always wondered whether there is a long-term role for the non-specialist within local government. After all, a lot of the generalist skills such as project management (maybe), analysis, people management, innovation and leadership could also be held by managers who also have specialist skills.

As if following this theory in local government there is a tendency to focus on recruiting specialist managers and then training them in the management skills they need.

Ironically enough this often means that the managers we recruit lack many of the key ‘generalist’ skills that they might need. I know managers who don’t know how to use an excel spreadsheet and find budget management an unfathomable mix of indistinguishable numbers, I know managers who don’t understand the basics of managing a project, let alone managing the staff who are managing the project. Is that any worse than having a manager without the specialist or technical knowledge?

The above wouldn’t be a problem if the roles we were pursuing in local government were still primarily about technical supervision and management. Even our social work managers are involved in massive transformation programmes, introducing new systems, working out how to reduce costs and seeking innovative ways to provide these services. The provision of these services require staff with procurement skills, budget skills, people management skills, IT systems knowledge and many more skills besides; not to mention the social work knowledge and skills that the manager needs to get a grip of.

This doesn’t mean that a specialist would not be able to do the job; indeed, the specialist would still, in many cases, be in the best position to lead these changes. However, what it does mean is that with so many skills needed in these roles, and in these teams, that a mixed approach is definitely needed.

The generalist and specialist divide has always been a slightly arbitrary one. If the generalist had no skills and no abilities then they wouldn’t be working, let alone working in local government. The best council will have a mix of managers with a mix of skills and will utilise them in the right way at the right time. This means being flexible and being a little imaginative.

Specialist staff will still dominate; after all there are far more entry points into local government for the specialist than the generalist but used in the right way a generalist manager can add some skills and experience that are much need at the highest level of the local authority. Local government needs people with many skills and experiences and simply sticking to specialists might be a mistake.

As for me, I’m just going to try my best not to be a ‘megalomaniac’ but instead to try, if I ever make it to a management role, to be a ‘very smart generalists with the capacity to apply their intellect in many domains and learn quickly.’

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2 Comments on “Generalists versus specialists”

  1. […] It is a commonly quoted ‘fact’ that in order to become an expert in something you need to spend 10,000 hours doing it. How on earth would a generalist do such a thing?! Even the longest 1:1 meeting won’t stretch this long (despite the fact that they feel as if they are sometimes). Managing others may be something I do, but it’s hardly something that will get me to the very top; for that I need some degree of detailed knowledge in one or more fields, and what’s more I need to actually care about one or more of them, the old discussion of generalist vs specialist. […]

  2. […] not we’ve reached the glass bottleneck, and whether actually we needed to find some sort of specialism if we were to have any chance of moving on.  Of course, sometimes you find yourself thinking […]

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