How to Ensure Your Leaders are Expert Generalists

2024.07.15 11:40 AM By Joshua Taddeo, Principal Consultant

For the past five decades, specialization was the pervasive, never-fail strategy used to ensure career success. New hires were encouraged to settle in one area of competence (AOC). Through practice and experience, they gained the skills required for their chosen role. Over time, they attained complete mastery over one specialty. Based on their accumulated knowledge, specialists rose within their organizations. They became thought leaders and subject matter experts, as their hard-earned knowledge remained fixed to one orientation. By default, their expertise was narrow in scope.

However, businesses do not and cannot remain static. Changes in consumer habits, emerging trends, and technological advances are always changing. What happens when an entirely new product line needs to be developed? Can a specialist define a new product’s goals or know the people best suited to carry out each step of the process? Deep, specific knowledge is invaluable in improving an existing product line or finding a programming error in an established application. However, the traditional path of specialization is no longer sufficient for effective leadership. While specialists still play a crucial role, organizations are increasingly recognizing the value of expert generalists in leadership positions. These versatile individuals possess a unique blend of broad knowledge and adaptability that enables them to navigate complex challenges and drive innovation.

A generalist will revel in the opportunity to think creatively, set goals, and pull together the appropriate teams for each phase of a project. Where specialists are focused on one role or subject, generalists balance two or more domains of knowledge. As professional learners, generalists have a knowledge base with depth and scope. Although they may not have true mastery over a subject, they will have sufficient knowledge to relate to a specialist. They have a breadth of knowledge that covers various roles and responsibilities, allowing them to work with multiple specialists. 

The Shift from Specialization to Generalization

Companies, big and small, need both specialists and generalists. Having a balanced mix will have a positive effect overall. However, many companies have many specialists in leadership positions and too few generalists. While this approach produced valuable subject matter experts, it also created limitations in the actively fluid world we live in now. 

Today's dynamic marketplace demands leaders who can:
  • Adapt to emerging trends and technologies
  • Develop new product lines
  • Navigate unfamiliar territories
  • Connect disparate ideas and information

This is where expert generalists shine. Unlike specialists who excel in one domain, generalists balance multiple areas of knowledge, allowing them to approach problems from various angles and collaborate effectively across different departments. One solution you can implement if your balance of generalist to specialist in leadership is off, is to transform critical leaders into generalists.

Key Attributes of Expert Generalists

When contemplating a problem, generalists will look for patterns and forms that specialists may miss. They work to connect the dots to form the bigger picture. They build relationships that may reveal what the company or its customers need presently and in the future. In an environment of uncertainty, the agility of thought is a strategic advantage.

Generalists do not stop after merely analyzing a situation: they continue to synthesize all known facts and assumptions. They try to connect disparate scraps of information. Instead of relying solely on what is known and available, generalists think of what is missing or ignored. Expert generalists possess several fundamental abilities that make them invaluable to organizations:
  1. Pattern Recognition: They excel at identifying relationships and patterns amidst a sea of information.
  2. Integrative Thinking: By combining diverse insights, they formulate cohesive solutions to novel problems.
  3. Effective Communication: They can synthesize and articulate complex ideas to various stakeholders, from executives to front-line staff.
  4. Team Leadership: They have a talent for organizing and inspiring teams, fostering cooperation across departments.
  5. Adaptability: Their presence provides stability and confidence in dynamic situations.

The Power of Lateral Thinking

A prime example of lateral thinking in action is Steve Jobs' approach to the iPad design. By challenging the assumption that powerful computers needed to be bulky and include a lot of peripherals like an area for the trackpad such as in laptops. Jobs revolutionized the industry with the sleek and lightweight iPad. Lateral thinkers view a collection of information from multiple angles and try to find commonalities and exceptions. One of the defining characteristics of expert generalists is their capacity for lateral thinking. This approach allows them to:

  • Improve problem-solving skills
  • Generate innovative concepts
  • Recognize new opportunities by realigning relationships
  • Gain a deeper understanding of complex scenarios

Translating Ideas into Action

To develop leaders who excel at transforming abstract concepts into concrete plans, organizations should implement a comprehensive training program that emphasizes practical application. Start by exposing leaders to diverse projects and challenges across different departments, encouraging them to gain a broad perspective of the business. Implement regular brainstorming sessions where leaders practice breaking down complex ideas into simple, actionable steps.

Train leaders in project management methodologies that emphasize iterative development and rapid prototyping. This approach allows them to quickly test and refine ideas, aligning innovative concepts with company goals. Encourage the use of visual tools like mind maps and flowcharts to help leaders analyze ideas from multiple perspectives and simplify large amounts of information.

Develop their skills in data analysis and interpretation, enabling them to make informed decisions based on quantitative and qualitative feedback. Implement a system of regular feedback loops, where leaders can gather input from various stakeholders and adjust their plans accordingly. This iterative process helps leaders refine their ability to turn abstract ideas into concrete, achievable plans.

Unifying Teams and Enabling Change

To cultivate expert generalists who can effectively unify teams and drive change, focus on developing their interpersonal and communication skills. Provide training in active listening and empathy to help leaders understand the roles and challenges of different team members. Implement role-playing exercises that simulate cross-departmental projects, allowing leaders to practice adapting their communication styles to reduce conflicts and foster collaboration.

Teach leaders how to conduct effective stakeholder analyses, enabling them to identify when to bring in additional expertise and how to leverage diverse skill sets within a team. Encourage job rotations or cross-functional projects to give leaders firsthand experience in different departments, enhancing their ability to provide a holistic viewpoint.

When it comes to implementing large-scale changes, train leaders in change management methodologies. Focus on developing their ability to translate needs across different organizational levels by teaching them to create compelling change narratives. Provide training in risk assessment and mitigation strategies to help leaders anticipate and address potential bottlenecks.

Develop their coaching and mentoring skills, enabling them to effectively train staff on new procedures and support team members through transitions. Encourage leaders to create and maintain cross-departmental networks, which will enhance their ability to devise and modify strategies that span multiple areas of the organization.

Cultivating Executive Presence

To help leaders develop a strong executive presence, focus on both internal and external aspects of leadership. Start with self-awareness training, using tools like 360-degree feedback and personality assessments to help leaders understand their strengths and areas for improvement.

Provide public speaking and presentation skills training to enhance leaders' ability to articulate a clear vision and engage audiences through effective communication. Implement regular opportunities for leaders to present to senior executives and board members, helping them build confidence in high-stakes situations.

Offer training in emotional intelligence and stress management techniques to help leaders maintain composure during crises. Teach them strategies for navigating organizational dynamics, including political savvy and relationship-building skills. Encourage leaders to develop their personal brand and online presence, as this increasingly contributes to executive presence in the digital age.

Developing Expert Generalists in Your Organization

To create a robust pipeline of expert generalists, organizations should implement a multifaceted approach to leadership development. Start by identifying high-potential employees who demonstrate curiosity, adaptability, and a breadth of interests. Create individualized development plans that expose these future leaders to various aspects of the business through job rotations, cross-functional projects, and mentorship programs.

Implement a continuous learning culture by providing access to a wide range of educational resources, including online courses, industry conferences, and internal knowledge-sharing sessions. Encourage leaders to pursue diverse interests outside of work, as this can contribute to their ability to make unexpected connections and drive innovation.

Develop a leadership curriculum that balances hard and soft skills, including technical knowledge, strategic thinking, emotional intelligence, and change management. Use case studies and simulations to help leaders practice applying their diverse knowledge to complex business challenges. Create opportunities for leaders to work on multidisciplinary teams and global projects, expanding their perspective and enhancing organizational agility. Implement a mentoring program where experienced expert generalists can guide and support emerging leaders.

By investing in these comprehensive development strategies, organizations can cultivate a cadre of expert generalist leaders who are well-equipped to navigate the complexities of today's business environment, drive innovation, and lead their teams to success. A professionally created leadership program is a tool to diversify the abilities and experiences of executives and managers. Transitioning high-potential specialists into generalists is one step closer to a brighter future. Schedule a call with us today and get started.