Common Myths About the Workplace Generalist

Everyone wants a generalist at their trivia game night, but in the workplace? Not always so welcomed. However, generalists do have an important role at work and it is time we debunk some common misconceptions about these Swiss Army Knife professionals.

Myth #1: Generalists are not exceptional at anything.

You’ve heard the saying, “A jack of all trades is a master of none.” That saying is actually cut short. The full saying goes, “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”

Generalists are exceptional at breadth. They are experts at being generalists. This may sound oxymoronic, but it is important to understand the value of it. While generalists may not have specific expertise in what they know, they are keenly adept at how they work. Said differently, generalists don’t hang their hat on content knowledge, but rather on broad skill sets they bring to bear.

For example, executives tell us they need someone who can bring cohesion or “act as glue” amongst their leadership team because departments are disparate and siloed. The generalist (oftentimes a Chief of Staff) learns the challenges, tools, information, and best practices within each business unit or department, then shares them across the organization. The ability to learn enough about each area and share helpful information amongst teams is a very productive trait for any organization.

Generalists are also great at being agile and adaptable in the workplace. An expert typically performs well when conditions are in their favor, but have a more difficult time when circumstances change. Generalists, on the other hand, adapt well to changing conditions and often thrive in these environments. When things change, count on your generalist.

Myth #2: There is no career path for a generalist—and you certainly can’t make it to the top.

This is false. We see many (generalist) Chiefs of Staff make it to the C-suite without any pit stops in a specialized role. Depending on their experience and seniority, a Chief of Staff can be promoted to a COO or Chief Strategy Officer position then to a CEO. They can even become a nonprofit organization CEO directly from the Chief of Staff position.

In fact, new research suggests professionals with cross-functional backgrounds often fare better than those with specialized ones when eyeing a CEO position. That is because a mix of practical skills like organization, problem-solving, decision-making are helpful for any executive. You can certainly develop these skills as an expert, but it is oftentimes easier as a generalist where you are provided with diverse experiences to do.

Myth #3: The job search for a generalist is impossible.

I once had a candidate tell me when describing his job search, “It’s hard out here for a generalist.” While it may be true that the traditional job search process doesn’t favor the generalist, it certainly isn’t impossible. Careers throughout the experience spectrum and across the organization exist for generalists. The Chief of Staff role is a great example. However, your job search may look a bit different. Look at the traditional way candidates find jobs through an online job board. A position is posted for a Marketing Manager (a more specialized position). Candidates with marketing experience submit their resumes pot-marked with “marketing” keywords. The job board algorithm filters candidates based on their specialization in marketing because it’s easier to see a match between a candidate and a position when those keywords are similar. So, how would that work for someone applying for a Chief of Staff role? Almost all Chiefs of Staff do not have previous experience as a Chiefs of Staff – the role is relatively new to the private sector. Therefore, candidates in a COS search have to rely more on selling themselves based on their skills that demonstrate they can perform the role. This is difficult to do through an online application.  

We can’t all be specialists. It’s time we begin celebrating, not scolding, generalists in the workplace. Generalists unite.

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