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The Team at Laudale

Alec Laurie
Alec Laurie
Managing Director

Are generalists the new specialists?

With the trend to focus on highly specialised skills, are we exasperating the talent gap?

Consider this: right now, there are people in your local area who are looking for work, with a broad set of business skills and experience. Or, with less hands-on experience (i.e. graduates) but with conceptual and transferable knowledge. These people can fill your vacant job post and can do a great job.

We’ve all seen role profiles with endless lists of ‘essentials’. Things like “Prince 2 or Agile Practitioner”, “BSc”, “must have delivered this particular widget in this particular environment for these particular stakeholders”. Really?

Delivering Change

I’ll use an example of a couple of Programme Managers I know. The first started out in a commercial role, ran a contact centre, and became a COO for a mid-sized professional firm. Then went on to lead a GDPR Programme for an ecommerce business.

Had you been recruiting a GDPR Programme Manager for a digital retailer, would you have selected someone with that background? I appreciate it’s not easy to answer without seeing a CV, so I’ll give you the answer: no. The vast majority of us wouldn’t.

Yet, this candidate delivered an exemplary change programme.

The second Programme Manager was initially a Financial Controller and moved into Strategy then Business Development. Following that, the candidate successfully delivered a HR programme and an IT system implementation. Not a Prince 2 badge in sight.

OK, 2 anecdotes in a field of 2000 programme managers is hardly empirical.  But there are plenty of programmes led by candidates who ‘tick every box’ that fail.

Why were these candidates successful? Broad knowledge of how a business works is important. An appreciation of the different components, the objectives and priorities of department leaders, market forces, regulatory considerations, and generally how to get along with people and organise a team.

What about Tech talent?

Having said that, soft skills are arguably the most important factors of a Programme Manager role. So, what about highly technical skills?

Granted, a vet might not waltz into a software engineering role overnight. But the same principle of generalisation applies, just taken down a level. That is, forward-thinking, truly agile companies have long seen the value of generalist technology skills.

The former SVP of People at Google, Laszlo Bock, comments: “For technical roles, such as those in engineering or product management, we assess expertise in computer science quite extensively”. Adding,  “but even there our bias is to hire people with a general (though expert-level) understanding of computer science rather than specialised knowledge in one field.”

So, yes, it would help if your Head of IT Service Operations had run an IT Service function.  But do they really need to have done that in a business that’s ‘recently implemented ServiceNow’?  Or, to really live life on the edge, what if they’d run service function in a different field?

Further reading

David Epstein has written a highly anticipated book on the topic of generalist skills that will be available in the UK tomorrow.  It’s called ‘Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World’ and David sites many examples of successful generalists, especially from the world of sport.

If his previous book, ‘The Sports Gene’, is anything to go by, it will doubtless be insightful and rigorously researched.

In Summary

Whilst I don’t expect people to hire complete novices for complex and critical roles, it’s worth thinking twice about what you really need.

What problem are you trying to solve above anything else? And is that 19th bullet point in the job spec truly necessary?


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