What’s wrong with being a “Generalist”?

Ross Brown, fellow #EdCM attendee, has recently started a heated debate on Twitter when he tweeted looking for advice on his CV and asked “Is is wrong to say I am a ‘generalist’ in my CV personal statement?” The consensus seemed to point towards, whoa you don’t want to call yourself a generalist, and being a generalist myself I’m hoping to launch a spirited debate to try and convince myself and others that I am not suddenly completely unemployable.

Generalissimo
not to be confused with Generalissimo

A “Generalist” is the opposite of a “Specialist” (also not to be confused with Generalissimo, which is something different altogether) and is someone with a wide range of knowledge in many areas. This kind of person was traditionally called a Renaissance Man in the early 20th century and were celebrated as well educated men of the world. So why is it that being considered a Jack of all trades, master of none is the kiss of death for your career?

The most obvious reason I can think of is that people believe that being a generalist means you aren’t very good. A specialist focuses in on one aspect of their career and as such is amazing at what they do, where as a generalist is merely average at everything they do. It’s a little narrow minded to think that because someone has a wider skill set they can’t be very good at what they do. I know a lot of (slightly annoying) people who are seemingly brilliant at everything they turn their hand to and I wouldn’t dream of assuming they can’t their do their jobs. Then again if you were having heart surgery would you want a specialist or a generalist doing your op?

Small businesses, who can’t afford to hire someone for every role, rely on generalists to do a good job in a lot of different subject areas, so generalists are employable. In a job market that’s seen many people laid off and those left behind expected to cover the slack, its surely better to have a wide skills set than narrow.

Being a generalist myself I’d like to think that I am more employable because I have such a wide range of experience, however I’m still young and specialism comes with age, so perhaps I just haven’t found a niche to pigeonhole myself in to. Since I’m not a recruitment expert I can’t really say which is right either way.

What are your thoughts? Is it better to be good to be a jack of all trades or a master of one?

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5 thoughts on “What’s wrong with being a “Generalist”?

  1. Caught this through a tweet from @illegaljacks.

    Proud to call myself a generalist !

    Specialists are easy to find, but find someone with the ability / qualifications and proven experience to help your business in many and varied areas (ie a generalist.. like me!), and you have found something rare.

    As an example, I do a lot of marketing consulting, but I don’t like to treat a clients marketing needs “in a box”, as to effectively market them, I need to know the essence of their business. In analysing that with them, we often turn up other areas of the business that need focussed upon, particularly in this economic climate.. I spend a lot of time helping businesses “reinvent” for the “new normal” etc.

    It is great to know that your “generalist” can help you with finance, accounting, operational processes, HR, coaching, facilitation, sales training.. as well as (say) marketing.

    Again, try to find many experts who really are proven generalists… not easy.

    One other example. I do specialist consulting assignments for banks wanting to assess their hospitality clients. Instead of sending in a team of consultants to review the client business (marketing, operations, finance, accounting etc), they just send… me. Handy being expert in all of those fields.

    In closing, I’d say that.. being a Generalist is, in itself, a specialist expert field !

  2. I don’t see that there’s really any such thing as a generalist to be honest. Are you and Ross equally as adept at turning your hands to a spot of plastering? Or teaching Swaheli?

    I expect you’re probably a digital or communications specialist in my eyes. I know what you mean though, it’s difficult if you’re not a kick-ass designer or a ninja Java programmer to know where to pitch yourself.

    I do have a friend who excels at being a generalist, he has it on his LinkedIN CV and is a pretty big hitter these days. He’s not a designer or a programmer or a project manager but he is a marvelous THINKER which is what I believe it comes down to. If you’re a great thinker then you can think your way around the problem of presenting yourself, it shouldn’t be a problem.

    I wouldn’t personally put it on a CV though, simply because every job application really ought to be crafted individually and sometimes it just won’t fit.

  3. I know the last comment wasn’t aimed at me, but jumping in anyway….lunch break :)

    Rather than generalist then, how about discussion on the title of “general manager”..I dare say I could manage a business which taught Swahili… or specialised i plastering walls….but few “specialists” could handle that type of general management role.

    As a consultant though (as that is what I do now), it is the ability to think and help facilitate my clients thinking that is where all the “general” experience helps.

    Oh, and anyone who calls themselves a “ninja”, “guru” or even “social media expert” should be fired out of a cannon into the mouth of an unpronounceable Icelandic volcano :)

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