“[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
It is not new or earth-shattering to say that businesses need specialists in order to be successful. 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 is not often recognized, however, is the idea that generalists – especially in leadership positions – are 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, being more of a systems thinker, is more motivated to learn about the big picture.
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 of an area to those of the organization. Creating the line of sight from the work performed to high-level objectives is a critical, but often missing, element of leadership in many companies.
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, connecting them to successfully motivating, aligning, and developing people toward the organization’s purpose.
Harnessing the Company’s Talent
The obsession many companies have had with specialists over the 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 success. A company may be staffed with highly skilled scientists, engineers, and chemists, but if it is not turning its knowledge into viable products or services, it is compromising its future.
Whenever hiring or promoting someone into a leadership position, 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, a candidate for a quality management position who has experience in procurement and/or operations in addition to quality is often more effective 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 stretch objectives that are aligned with the organization’s vision. 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. A critical element of this involves having the right mix of generalists and specialists to assure success.