Specialist To Generalist

It can be daunting when moving into a position of leadership from one of support, or moving into a wider position of leadership from a more task orientated place.

Usually (although there are of course exceptions), initial progression into the leadership structure sees an individual retain their specialism and advance to a managerial or supervisory role over a team with the same specialism. HR people become head of an HR team, marketing professionals supervise marketing based projects, and so on. Progression beyond this often means a leader has to engage with others who have an entirely different field of expertise.

Leaders have to transfer from being a specialist, to a generalist.

That doesn’t mean they should forget all they learnt on the journey to where they are now, but that they should actively try to learn about any new fields that they’re involved in. It’s important leaders understand how a team with a particular specialism might operate, the difficulties they might come up against, and what is unique to their field. The way an HR team operate might involve problems someone from a finance background never even contemplated.

Mary Barra
Mary Barra

Managing people or teams from different backgrounds doesn’t mean you have to become an expert in everything these teams do – that would be impossible, and it’s why there are team heads. But a knowledge of their functions is vital so that problems can be foreseen and methods that allow for integration be adopted.

Is CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra, an expert on the newest types of engines? No. Tire performance? No. Marketing? No. She’s from an electrical engineering and administration background, but she will have an understanding of all these other things. Perhaps a limited understanding, but an understanding that allows her to make decisions that won’t create problems for these departments, or overlook something that will force an unplanned compromise.

Much of this comes with experience, but it is up to you to make sure you understand the roles specialties other than yours play, how they operate, and the broad spectrum of issues that are pertinent to general management.

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