Have you ever been asked what your expertise is? Currently, the personal branding cognoscenti believe you must show your expertise to be heard amid the competitive noise. It seems generalists can appear anonymous.
Let’s play devil’s advocate.
Specialists can have their downside too as Mark Babbitt of YouTern.com has observed in relation to career experts
Is being perceived as an expert (and for some, self-promotion) more important than actually helping someone find a job?
Generalists as specialists
Generalists get a hard time of it. For example, a career path that takes someone to different organisations, roles, and types of work can be seen by a future employer as uncertain, unclear, reactive and lacking in ambition. Yet, it might purely be down to whatever work someone can get because of market conditions.
Alternatively, it may be a conscious choice by the individual, transferring their skills and capabilities to a different setting or seeking a new challenge and learning new capabilities. Generalists are still very common in the UK Civil Service where many staff with long service move every 2 or 3 years for variety or interest, personal development or to freshen things up in that area. Also, it allows other people opportunities.
In other words, their generalism is their specialism. The obvious criticism is being the proverbial jack of all trades and master of none. In many cases, the reality is a jack of all trades and master of many. They build a breadth and depth of expertise to grow further, re-visit or re-interpret for the benefit of others in a virtuous spiral.
A parallel of sorts is the rise of the portfolio career in the private sector. The advantages are diversity and flexibility for both organisations and portfolio workers.
The choice is yours
At the same time, individualism has led to the mantra of ‘choice’ in society and less inhibition about deciding what work people want or are willing to do. Increasingly, we experience a changing set of mini-careers, or “riding the career carousel” (Ian Gooden of Chiumento), where you get on and off at various times of your life.
While this is wonderfully exciting and stimulating for some people, it is deeply uncomfortable and uncertain for others. In the end, developing and sustaining one’s employability is hard and a lifetime’s activity.
The job for life mentality of the past is in intensive care and the career carousel can be a badge of honour. Today, people of all generations are thinking very differently about what they want in the future as well as what they can get in the present.
Many of the current generation are making a paradigm shift in relation to time. It affects how they see careers and the world of work. It is based much more on being in the present, living for now. Previous generations emphasised planning for the future (pensions) and valuing the past (tradition, stability).
In stark terms, our current experience is one of a suffocating economic environment pressing down on our freedom of choice. It leads to compromise and pragmatism increasingly driving our options and behaviours for being employable. Finding a job you like and that complements your strengths may be a longer-term goal for some.
Whatever you’ve got, flaunt it!
Standing out ought not to be about trying to be something you’re not. This is not an either/or debate – if you’re an expert, flaunt it. Remember, you can still stand out as a generalist simply by being yourself and promoting it. As Anthony Townsend of the Institute for the Future says, we need “transdisciplinary thinking” to tackle the future and focusing on specialists is not the only way of fostering talent.
What do you think? Are you a generalist struggling in a world of experts or thriving on your breadth and enough depth?