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Why you need to stop ‘specialising’ and get more ‘general’ to grow your career

specialist to generalist

Every big promotion changes the scope, focus and complexity of your role overnight. It requires you to draw on new resources, adapt your mindset and take your leadership skills to the next level.

Following more than 40 interviews with leadership mentors, senior HR professionals, and new unit heads, career transition expert Michael Watkins identified ‘Seven Seismic Shifts’ that need to take place for executives to succeed in higher-level positions of business leadership.

Here we’ll be taking a deep dive into the first of those shifts: the switch from Specialist to Generalist. It’s an evolution that calls on you to develop a greater understanding of key functions within your organisation — and learn how to evaluate and develop leaders in those functions.

 

How to thrive through the transition

For anyone moving from a specialist to a generalist skillset, the leap is no small feat. According to Watkins: ‘The skills that got you where you are may not be the requisite skills to get you where you need to go. This doesn't discount the accomplishments of your past, but they will not be everything you need for the next leg of your journey.’

This is undoubtably a steep learning curve, but it’s also a time of real professional growth and, to quote Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo and co-founder of Lumi Labs: ‘When there’s that moment of “Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,” and you push through those moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough.’

 

CHALLENGE #1
You’re no longer the expert

Until your promotion, your success was built on forensic knowledge of one specific area of the business. Now you are responsible for multiple functions and have direct reports who will typically know more about their area of expertise than you probably ever will.

Rise to the challenge…

Having standardised evaluation schemes for each function can help new leaders ‘get the lay of the land faster’, says Watkins, along with reporting relationships that allow access to additional expertise within the organisation.

But remember, you don’t need to know everything about what the specialisms represented by your team. You just need to know enough to ensure you’re achieving the necessary integration. Focus on building a strong team with the best people to represent those functions. Hone their skills, establish trust, and get the best from them.

‘Offer a “doors always open” policy,’ says business mentor Rebecca Patterson. “It’s important that strong relationships are built with crucial team members and that managers are willing to both learn AND take responsibility.’

This means supporting your team in their own professional development. Put robust systems in place to train, support and evaluate talent including mentoring programmes, performance reviews and 360-degree feedback as well as regular catchups. And, if needs be, bring in new recruits.

‘The best leaders build the strongest teams by empowering their people,’ notes the Forbes’ Expert Panel. ‘If you want a high-performance team, agree to the goals, ensure your team has what they need to be successful and then get out of the way.’ 

 

CHALLENGE #2
Leaving your comfort zone

A trap that many new enterprise leaders fall into is overmanaging the function they know well and undermanaging the rest — or showing bias towards their particular area of specialism.

Rise to the challenge…

The specialist knowledge that’s made your success possible is no longer going to serve you — but it takes courage to let go of what you’ve always relied on in the past and replace it with something new. Resist the urge to stay in your comfort zone and embrace the opportunity to learn.

Ideally, throughout our careers, we spend time building relationships with colleagues who work outside our own particular area of expertise, establishing knowledge shares, delivering cross-functional and international projects together, and gaining a broader understanding of how the business works best. Supported by coaching and mentoring, these relationships pay dividends when a big promotion comes our way. They give us a support network to lean into and grow from.

‘Other people can give us the best insight into ourselves and our own limitations,’ says Maria Castañón Moats, Assurance Partner at PwC. ‘We must have the courage to ask for help and to request feedback to expand our vision of what's possible.’

 

CHALLENGE #3
Speaking up

Another test of moving from specialist to generalist is having the confidence to speak up even though the subject in question may be outside your area of expertise.

Rise to the challenge…

As noted by the marketing strategist and author Dorie Clark: ‘One of the most powerful forms of influence, according to psychologist Robert Cialdini’s famous analysis, is authority — often derived from perceived expertise.’

But you can still be a person of influence without the expertise. Giving others a platform to speak, showcasing the talent in your team and being curious and interested in what you don’t know rather than feeling inhibited by it adds a positive and dynamic energy to your interactions.

Meetings are another way to show authority and confidence. If you’re nervous, the coach and speaker May Busch suggests that it can be helpful to jump right in at the beginning with a few pre-prepared comments before the conversation has got fully underway. The middle of the meeting is a good time to build on someone else’s point or ask a question to take the conversation to the next level, challenge roadblocks or open out the subject. The end, says Busch, ‘is a great place to show your authority by synthesising and summarising what’s been said and drawing the meeting to a close’. 

And remember asking someone to explain a point more fully will always help you move faster up the learning curve and, chances are, if you don’t understand something, you’re unlikely to be the only one. Others will probably benefit from the extra clarification too.

 

CHALLENGE #4
Imposter syndrome

‘To be successful in a broad space where success isn’t based on pure knowledge and expertise, you need to have the courage of your own values and convictions,’ observes executive coach, team facilitator and author Sarah Lane. When self-doubt creeps in, it’s easy to feel that you don’t deserve or belong in your newly elevated position or that you’ll be exposed as a fraud. This can be exacerbated by the fact that the higher echelons of business are still dominated by men.

‘If you don’t see someone who looks like and sounds like you in the place you’re moving into, it makes it particularly daunting,’ says Lane.

Rise to the challenge…

Positive self-talk has repeatedly been proven to enhance performance and help eliminate that critical voice that says, ‘You’re not good enough’ or tries to undermine your experience or expertise.

Own your accomplishments, visualise your success and if you’re plagued by self-doubt you might like to try the trick of Jessica Kirkpatrick, a data scientist based in California. She wears a rubber band around her wrist and snaps it every time she has an impostor thought. ‘Change your thoughts, and the brain will follow,’ she says.

And it’s also worth reminding yourself of the fact that, if you’re suffering from imposter syndrome, you’re in the company of greatness. The former First Lady, Michelle Obama, found her own solution to the problem that plagued in during sleepless nights: ‘What’s helped me most is remembering that our worst critics are almost always ourselves. Women and girls are already up against so much: the fact is that you wouldn’t be in that room if you didn’t belong there.’