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The role of the expert generalist in the workplace

Chloe Sesta Jacobs

Global Director, Inclusion & Engagement at Deputy

Most of us are familiar with the concept of experts, who are specialists that possess in-depth knowledge in one area of expertise, and generalists, who have a broader knowledge base. But have you heard of the “expert generalist?”

The “expert generalist” has been gaining popularity recently as more employers now recognize the value of those whose capabilities fit the age-old adage, “a jack of all trades is a master of none, but is better than a master of one.”

In this blog, we’ll explore the key differences between expert generalists and specialists, why expert generalists are essential for success in the new world of work, and the role of HR in encouraging your employees to become expert generalists.

Defining the expert generalist

Orbit Gadiesh, chairman of Bain & Co., developed the concept of an “expert generalist”. According to him, an expert generalist is someone who has the capacity and desire to master and gather knowledge in a wide range of disciplines, industries, skills, themes, and talents. Such people are better equipped to detect patterns, connect dots, and improvise in various circumstances thanks to their varied knowledge base.

Generalist vs. specialist vs. expert generalist

Generalists, specialists, and expert generalists have different levels of expertise and their skill sets will determine the type of tasks that best suit their unique talents. To better highlight some of the distinctions between a generalist, specialist, and expert generalist, let’s look at the roles of these employees in a human resource (HR) department:

Generalist Specialist Expert-generalist
Depth & breadth of knowledge A generalist usually has broad knowledge in multiple areas, and enough experience in each area to provide trustworthy guidance and counsel to both employees and supervisors. A specialist has detailed and in-depth knowledge in a single subject rather than a variety of areas. An expert generalist is an employee with in-depth knowledge across multiple areas in the workplace.
Roles & responsibilities HR generalists rarely perform the same tasks daily. Instead, depending on the situation or necessity they may have to shift their concentration from one topic or issue to another. HR specialists are more likely to have routine responsibilities, well-defined goals, and deadlines because of their narrow but deep knowledge base. Expert generalists generally flourish in different situations. They are prepared for a variety of circumstances and often have freedom across departments.
Skills HR generalists have a broad skill set within their sector or across disciplines. Based on the concept of a T-shaped individual, the generalist frequently moves out of their comfort zone. They’re good at recognizing patterns, connecting the dots, and improvising in new situations. HR specialists have a strong mastery of a specific topic area. Someone who specializes in one subject may devote all of their time and effort to learning and remain up-to-date on that subject. Expert generalists have an array of transferable skills that may be applied to a wide range of professional areas such as: negotiating, leading, adapting, selling, solving problems, communicating, and organizing projects.

Why expert generalists are valuable in today’s workplace

Navigating uncertainty became a constant hurdle during the pandemic. This sudden transition taught organizations about the importance of adapting and overcoming change – and that’s where expert generalists come in.

Expert generalists are able to “stack” or “combine” different skills in unique and innovative ways. Generally, a combination of skills is becoming more valuable than depth in each individual skill. An example of this might be using a variety of skills (time management, project management, public speaking) to pull off your organization’s first-ever virtual conference.

On top of that, expert generalists have been more accurate in forecasting outcomes even before the ‘new normal’ stole all the spotlights - which, in turn, makes them highly competent at navigating uncertainty and adjusting to a changing environment. Thanks to their capacity to see the economy as a complex and dynamic system of interrelated, interdependent parts in constant motion, expert generalists are better at simply predicting the outcome of situations, even when outside their area of expertise.

As a result, if a problem emerges that necessitates changing the company’s direction, the expert generalist is well-equipped to think laterally and imaginatively to choose the best course of action. This is a direct consequence of removing the conventional notion of success as mastery of a single skill.

Put simply, successful and high-performing employees don't have to become the best at one skill; instead, they should work to develop a collection of skills that will endure the test of time. A person who has pursued their passions and grown their competence across multiple areas is better equipped not only with diverse knowledge but also with the exceptional ability to apply that knowledge to various new situations and domains. This means that people with a broader skillset also make better leaders during uncertain times.

How can you encourage expert generalism development among employees?

In recent years, HR’s job has grown beyond simply implementing regulations and procedures to encompass the entire employee experience. This includes providing career growth and development opportunities.

Below are two ways that HR can help employees develop transferable skills that put them on a path toward becoming expert generalists.

Schedule 1-on-1 meetings with employees

1-on-1 meetings should be more than just weekly status updates. They play an important role in employee engagement by providing employees with the communication, coaching, and support necessary to meet and exceed the company’s objectives. These meetings are an ideal opportunity for managers and leaders to connect with employees about their career ambitions and help them develop a broader skillset by encouraging projects and development opportunities that require “skill-stacking” and transferable skill development.

Train managers to be skill coaches

Managers aren’t born with the ability to coach. Effective managers possess a set of abilities that must be practiced regularly, from active listening to asking questions. However, many businesses expect managers to learn these abilities on their own, which sets them up for failure.

Remember: managers are much more than coordinators and delegators – working only on these skills makes it difficult for managers and leaders to cultivate an “expert generalist” culture in the workplace. After all, managers have the highest impact on a direct report’s day-to-day experience.

That’s why organizations need to make the effort to equip managers with the essential skills they need to lead their teams to success. By leveraging different learning tools, organizations can make it easier for managers to learn (and later encourage) skills like resilience, time management, giving feedback, and more.

Aim for expert generalism

The focused development of a single skill usually leads to a linear career path. This used to promise stability, but due to recent worldwide events and a resulting labor shortage, it’s essential to recruit and retain workers who understand this and are willing to upskill.

An individual with a broad skill set will be a valuable asset to the company in the times that lie ahead. It is precisely the creativity and resourcefulness of such workers that has helped lead the global economy through the brunt of pandemic.

When companies encourage their workforce to harness the unique combination of their skills, they are better positioned to attract talent with complementary skills, thereby future-proofing their organization.

Your workforce more than likely had to shift their focus and efforts in the past two years, and adapt in order for your business to survive. Now is the time to proactively support this development by upskilling and re-skilling the most enthusiastic individuals.

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