Is there a career for a generalist?

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For a long time I’ve labelled myself a ‘generalist’. However, in the modern world of employment the term generalist certainly doesn’t mean “he’s doing two jobs and gets paid double.” In reality, now it seems the word generalist means “good at nothing and unemployed.”

The product of a liberal arts education, I focused on Political and History (I knew that I’d found my undergraduate zen where my politics classes covered subjects from a time after my history classes). When graduating I was acutely aware that I was going to be neither a historian or a politician. So what to do?

Many professionals hesitate to define themselves because it limits where you can go. For me, I like design, I like web development, I like leadership, business and finance, economics, marketing, sales, social media, technology and on and on.

In the current job market, hundreds of applicants look for most jobs, and many are more than qualified. This means hiring managers can demand a perfect fit – and specialists rather than generalists typically offer a perfect fit.

I’m beginning to think that its vital for a career that we chose to be typecast. In marketing we focus on attaching specific benefits to brands (the fastest, the cheapest, the most stylish). In the same way, the top players in business must have clear definition. Most have enough confidence in their abilities to risk specialization. Very simply, they believe that adequate opportunities will be available as they progress up the ladder.

Figure out what your strengths are and hone them.

 

As it stands, I think the best time to be a generalist is when you’re newly qualified. Opportunities sometimes just present themselves. Most people aren’t hired into their career goal (few have the goal from day one as a start). The point of any good graduate programme is also to find out what you’re good at. I was lucky to get a general introduction to the IT development world.

Varied positions in a company, afford you the opportunity to experience and learn a range of skills, but its vital to make sure people know where your talents lie. This can be difficult to communicate. People at the top need to see you as someone who is extremely good at something, and no one is extremely good at everything, so don’t sell yourself that way to upper management. Careerists get to the top by being the best, and you can’t be the best at everything. In terms of specialism, think discipline (finance, marketing, sales, etc) and sector (media, health, fashion, etc.). For me, I love technology.

Picking a path is always gamble. We figure out what we’re best at and like to do, develop skills and then hope for good timing — the hope is that someone needs that particular talent when you have become expert at it.

So what is my brand? I’m a manager (the previous line shouldn’t give the impression that I think I’m an expert at it, just working on the skills). I’m a project manager or change management professional with a focus on IT. People can make their jobs sound really impressive eh?

Ultimately, I could see myself in any field – currently its technology in the nonprofit sector – but both management and technology can apply in any sector. As a Chartered Manager, I see the value of developing a broad based practical skill set combined with a natural inclination toward leadership. As a Member of the Chartered Institute for IT (BCS), I’ve also placed value on the technical abilities and analysis skills. My experience to date has also had a heavy focused on communications – but mention that too much and people jump to make you a salesman.

Going forward, I plan to continue to develop all three. Not so much a generalist rather a flexible manager. I see the goal being to get to lead on all the areas that interest me – sales, marketing, IT and people (customers support) – ideally as an Operations manager (possibly even director!). Ultimately, I’d love if it was my own venture – I’m just waiting for the big idea. A start-up might be where a generalist could come in handy – I might hire me.

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