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The age of the generalist: Why specialists might not be the right choice

June 20, 2023
A microscope

Choosing who to hire… child’s play it ain’t. For a long time, organisations have been obsessed with hiring specialists in almost all roles as a way to move the business forward. However, in recent years, the power of generalists is being realised among many business leaders (we’re looking at you, Bill Gates).

So, what is the difference between generalists and specialists? And is hiring generalists really better, or simply the newest HR fad? Let’s find out.

Generalist vs Specialist: What’s the difference?

Before we lay out the case for generalists over specialists in the workplace, we first need to understand these two labels.

What is a generalist?

A generalist is an employee who’s seen and done it all. These professionals have a range of skills, experiences, and knowledge, across industries, roles, and disciplines. They understand businesses as a whole, rather than a specific part of a fordist production line.

For example, a GP — General Physician — is a classic generalist. Your GP knows a little bit of everything, offering insights and remedies for common health problems of various natures, from stomach issues to psychiatric issues. They use their generalised expertise to do this, realising that, in most cases, they don’t need specialised knowledge to solve everyday problems.

What is a specialist?

Specialists, on the other hand, are those who have deep, pinpointed expertise in a particular subject, role, or industry. They are hyper-specialised in one area, and are dedicated to this matter and this matter alone.

Let’s take our previous medical example. A neurosurgeon would be an illustration of a specialist. They are extremely competent in their field, capable of carrying out procedures that GPs simply can’t. However, give them a heart to operate on rather than a brain, and they might struggle — they have their own niche and they stick to it.

The million dollar question: Is it better to hire generalists or specialists?

While specialists definitely have an important role to play — as we mentioned, they can carry out actions that generalists might not be able to — for most businesses, and most roles, generalists offer a greater benefit for less effort. There’s a reason why our first port of call is a GP and not a neurosurgeon!

1. Generalists are better for small businesses

We can’t talk about the need for generalists without giving a shout out to small businesses. With startups mushrooming all around, it’s no wonder that generalists have finally been getting the love that they deserve. The reality is that those who come with an arsenal of knowledge are perfect for this kind of environment. Hiring someone who can move along with the business and new requirements is key.

When fewer people are employed to do a lot of work, generalists can have their fingers in many pies, working their way through any obstacle in their way, as opposed to specialists who can do that one thing. Generalists can also be developed by you to suit the particular needs of the business at any given time, and help them change roles based on what you require. They’re like chameleons, which is just what a startup needs.

2. Generalists are more adaptable

Adaptability is not important just for small businesses. Especially in this digital age, the ability to adjust based on different needs and changing backdrops is essential for every organisation! Generalists by definition have spectacular interpersonal skills, and are gifted learners of any subject. They are reliable and can quickly pick up what you need them to.

The best thing is that generalists usually would need less training to become competent in a new role, because they have many transferable skills. For example, a generalist salesperson has great communication, customer service, and writing skills, which means they can adapt to roles that require these skills instantaneously.

3. Generalists cut through the skills shortage

We don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the market right now is pretty terrible for finding talent (we’re only joking, we know you’ve noticed). With an ever-growing skills gap — only 11% of workers have the necessary skills for a role you’re recruiting for — it’s no wonder that companies are struggling to find quality candidates.

Instead of hiring multiple specialists — and spending an exhausting amount of time on recruitment — employing one generalist can deliver the same results. Generalists are also fantastic delegators, so they can identify where there are gaps that do require a specialist and find a freelancer to help, rather than have you rely on specialists for everything in a market that makes it nearly impossible to find them. And if you need a long-term specialist, hiring a generalist and training them to become a specialist in the field you need will also save you time and money.

4. Generalists are more successful leaders

Managing is not easy, but managing when you don’t have any knowledge beyond your particular niche is even harder. That’s one of the reasons why generalists are particularly great leaders — their multitasking abilities, exposure to a plethora of subjects, and understanding of different parts of the business, allow them to manage more effectively.

They can also offer valuable mentorship and guidance to their juniors, and their interpersonal skills will make sure they can communicate better with their teams, as well as mediate when problems arise.

5. Generalists are easier to hire

We’ve mentioned the skills shortage and how it’s affecting recruitment. Another advantage of hiring a generalist is that they’re simply easier to find and enlist. While with a specialist you may look at experience and education, generalists rely on abilities and traits that can be quickly identified with cognitive and personality assessments. Moving away from looking for a shopping list (‘two years’ experience’, ‘degree in computer science’) and towards finding people who possess the right personality can make things much easier.

The Thrive platform is perfect for this. Not only will it assess your candidates and provide your candidates with the skills you’re looking for, it will also provide you with a report that will help develop your hire further based on their unique strengths and weaknesses. This will allow you to fully build on the potential of your new generalist employee and make them into a maverick for your business.

If you want to learn more about how Thrive can help you recruit and develop generalists, book a demo with us today.

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