“[Management is] an integrating discipline of human values and conduct, of social order and intellectual inquiry, [a discipline that] feeds off economics, psychology, mathematics, political theory, history, and philosophy. In short, management is a liberal art.” –Peter Drucker
Businesses need specialists in order to be successful – this is nothing new or earth shattering. Having people with specialized knowledge in areas related to the company’s products, services, processes, network infrastructure, etc. enable the ability to serve customers and meet objectives on a continuing basis. What many people do not realize, however, is that having generalists – especially in leadership positions – is just as critical to the organization’s success.
What is a Generalist?
A generalist is someone who has broad knowledge and skills, and understands the organization’s high level system, including the hand-offs and interactions between people and processes. A generalist is not usually interested in working and developing his or her skills within a single area but is more motivated to learning more about the big picture. He or she is much more comfortable learning a little about many subjects than learning a lot about a single subject.
An organization can have the most talented specialists in the industry but be completely ineffective if these people are not able to agree on what’s important and work together to turn their combined talents into commercial success. By understanding the system, the generalist can bring value to the organization by focusing on overall company performance rather than attempting to optimize any single function or area. For this reason, generalists often excel in leadership positions and cross-functional roles like project management and planning.
Why Generalists Are Necessary
By clearly understanding the company’s high level value stream, the generalist is able to continually align the objectives in one area to those of the organization.
No matter how talented a company’s specialists are; without a common direction and continual effort to improve the way people interact and work together, there is no “organization” – there are only individuals working on what each feels is most important.
Peter Drucker wrote that management is a liberal art in that it requires skill from many different disciplines including psychology, sociology, history, and others. W. Edwards Deming included psychology, learning, variation, and systems thinking as components of leadership in his System of Profound Knowledge. What Deming and Drucker were referring to was that management is a role for generalists.
Harnessing the Company’s Talent
The obsession many companies have had with specialists over the last several years has created a shortage of generalists that is hampering growth and success. As a result, many companies are full of great ideas, new technologies, and brilliant technical minds but aren’t able to transform them into consistent commercial successful. A company may be staffed with highly skilled scientists, engineers, and chemists, but if it is not turning this knowledge into viable products or services, it is compromising its future.
Whenever hiring or promoting someone into a leadership position, I have found that a person with a varied background tends to be more effective than someone whose experience and training is completely focused on the function the person is expected to lead. For example, I would tend to favor a candidate for a quality management position who has experience in procurement and/or manufacturing in addition to quality than one who only has quality control or quality assurance experience.
It’s in the Mix
Success in business requires having and leading people to consistently achieve high level objectives. To do this successfully requires respecting the different talents people have and understanding how best to position and organizing everyone to serve the customer effectively. This means having the right mix of generalists and specialists to assure success.