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Generalist or Specialist?

I am sure most of you will have heard about “climbing the corporate ladder” – where moving “up” in an organisation is the only way to further your career. Other kinds of moves in organisations – such as “sideways moves” or “backward steps” – are usually met with a raised eyebrow as though it implies a kind of failure, or lack of motivation to achieve.

The management hierarchy of most organisations is tapered towards a single point – that of the CEO or the Managing Director. Beneath that there are a series of functional heads, and then a larger number of middle management positions who have the rest of the organisation reporting to them. So it follows that we quickly run out of opportunities to progress to more senior management roles, as there are simply less of them, and we are faced with two choices – up or out.

This is what drives 50% of the job market – people who have reached “as far as they could” in their organisations before deciding to resign and try their luck somewhere else. We have seen a number of people staying in their roles for the wrong reasons, or leaving for the wrong reasons. This is driven by lack of clarity around career path – quite honestly a number of people accept more senior roles because they think it is expected of them, or worse – they don’t like what they do and they think it will get easier if they take a more senior role doing what they don’t like doing. In other words, they are using promotion as a way of escaping a role they don’t like.

At some point in our careers, usually in our late thirties, we reach a fork in the road. The only recognised way ahead is to choose the Generalist/Manager fork where we spend our time managing others – but half of us don’t want to do this. While many people aspire to doing less and organising the work of others to achieve the result, a great many of us are driven by specialisation – we have a strong desire to become a subject matter expert, a “guru” in our field, and a specialist consultant to others in a particular field.

We want to know as much as we can and be regarded as someone who can troubleshoot, give advice, execute, practice and specialise in a particular field of interest. So the other fork – the Specialist fork – beckons.

There are a number of equally well paid and recognised specialist roles in the business world, available to those who prefer this road. From consulting engineers, surgeons, marketing advisors, strategy consultants, financial advisers, executive coaches, other health practitioners, HR consultants, Lean manufacturing facilitators, IT solutions architects, sustainability or corporate social responsibility specialists, even senior sales consultants – where we can achieve our wealth goals without having to manage large numbers of people and attend endless meetings.

Think about this next time you have your performance review – which fork do you want to take?  If the path to this kind of role is not so clear for you, try sitting down with a career coach to clarify your goals. One indicator of the right “fork” for you is this – are you a hands-on, highly motivated achiever, who likes being busy doing thing, and values technical knowledge – or are you someone who is more steady, reliable, pragmatic, able to influence others, calm in a crisis, a good mentor to others and someone who enjoys working with people in a team and gets a real kick out of seeing people develop and grow? Your answer is probably helping you down one path – pay attention to this, as it is trying to tell you something.

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