How to Ensure Your Leaders are Expert Generalists

2020.08.20 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.

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. A specialist can use current statistics, recent customer feedback, and previous versions of the program to complete the task. They also work well with information that is known and quantifiable.

However, the specialist will find it challenging to adapt to tasks outside their AOC. On the other hand, 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 will 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. 

Companies, big and small, need both specialists and generalists. Having a balanced mix will have a positive effect overall. However, most companies will have many specialists in leadership positions and too few generalists. One leadership management solution is to transform critical leaders into generalists. Business leaders who possess the potential to become expert generalists demonstrate six fundamental abilities: 

  • They can find relationships and patterns in a maelstrom of facts and ideas.

  • They can integrate their unique insights and broad expertise to formulate cohesive, valuable solutions to new problems.

  • They can synthesize ideas and express the salient points to C-level executives, technical leaders, or front-line operational staff.

  • They are effective at organizing and inspiring teams.

  • They enable cooperation and accountability between different departments and teams.

  • They are a stabilizing influence in dynamic situations. Their presence is a source of confidence and trust. 

They Value Relationships Over Facts 

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. They view this collection of information from multiple angles and try to find commonalities and exceptions. 

This action is an excellent example of lateral thinking.

Lateral thinking is a shared characteristic among generalists. The benefits of thinking outside linear or perceived boundaries include: 

  • Improved problem-solving skills

  • Learning better methods to generate concepts and ideas

  • Recognizing how aligning relationships in different ways lead to new opportunities and potential innovations

  • Gaining a richer understanding of context and relationships in complex scenarios 

Offer Valuable Solutions to a New Problem 

Generalists combine lateral thinking and transferable skills to define innovative solutions to new and unknown problems. Universal skills are relevant and useful in multiple business areas. Some of these skills include business analysis, project management, team building, visual design, and communication. Transferable skills can be applied within personal and social circles. A great example of a lateral thinker who solved problems in unorthodox ways was Steve Jobs. His business skills were not his strongest attributes, but they did influence his ideas. His vision of the potential relationships between powerful technology, human-centered visual design, and fashion informed the development of the Macbook Air. Can anyone forget the advertisement of a Macbook Air slipping effortlessly in and out of a brown envelope? No one else thought to make computers sleek, stylish, sufficiently friendly to casual users, and sell them at an enviably high margin.

Before Steve Jobs’ genius innovation, people assumed that laptops had to be bulky affairs: weight implied importance and power. There was no impetus to change that implied relationship. People simply accepted it as the gospel truth. However, there was an unrecognized problem. The heavy equipment was awkward, especially for frequent travelers and daily commuters. Unwilling to carry the weight with them, workers remained stuck at their desks. The Macbook Air, however, proved that lightness did not equate to featherweight computer performance. His solution changed the way people thought about and used laptops. Workers could easily travel to and from work without a heavy burden. People could transfer their offices to the cafe, hostel, and airports. They could now carry their laptops from one meeting room to another. Apple created one product with three key advantages: weight, style, and utility. While competitors struggled to match these three factors, Apple moved on to finding solutions to the next set of problems - streamlining logistics, improving production, and refining their computers and devices.

Good Translators of Ideas 

Albert Einstein said, “A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. However, intuition is nothing but the outcome of intellectual experience.” For Einstein, his big idea came to him while working at a patent office at the age of 26. He had been mentally turning over his thoughts and discussing them with others for almost ten years. His mind was full of numerous experiences from school and work. However, for that one instance, his ideas and experiences connected, and a genius idea was born.

Specialists begin their careers by pursuing a solitary path. In a few years, they acquire an exceptional level of expertise. Meanwhile, generalists tend to sample different roles. They learn what they need to learn before moving on to a new topic. They repeat a pattern of absorbing knowledge and practicing skills before shifting elsewhere. In this way, they broaden the scope of their experiences and develop their skills to an “acceptable” level. By experiencing different roles and practicing various skills in short periods, generalists develop a mindset for rapid learning. They become accustomed to adapting to unusual circumstances. For a specialist, starting a different role can be a daunting experience. On the flip side, embarking on a new endeavor is a walk in the park for a generalist. This penchant for adaptation makes generalists more receptive to new ideas and approaches.

To translate ideas into concrete goals and actionable, effective strategies, generalists need to become superb analysts and communicators. They must know the correct techniques to turn muddled, incomplete, or complicated concepts into clear narratives. This task requires a skill for breaking down complicated, tangled ideas into simple terms. They must be able to interpret technical abstractions into business-specific objectives. Good communicators are good listeners first. They listen to what is unsaid as much as what is said. Having prepared ahead of time, they speak with clarity and economy. They show respect, empathy, and flexibility. Effective leaders should know how to tailor their communication language to their audience.

Generalists turn ideas into plans and objectives by: 

  • Organizing chaotic thoughts into coherent streams and statements

  • Aligning the ideas with company goals

  • Analyzing every facet of an idea for strengths, weaknesses, threats, and opportunities

  • Simplifying large quantities into fewer, manageable chunks of information

  • Talking about the idea and eliciting feedback, advice, and guidance

  • Taking immediate action instead of succumbing to indecisive paralysis 

‍They Unify and Inspire Teams 

Berkshire Hathaway investor, Charlie Munger, said, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Specialist teams view problems through the lens of their selective functional knowledge. This approach is ideal when the issue is confined to a specific area of expertise. When the problem is multifaceted, affecting a business at large, you should always call the expert generalists. With their holistic viewpoint, they will bring value, vision, and clarity. Generalists will see the problem: they can visualize connections to other parts of the business operation. They are the architects working alongside teams of specialists armed with hammers. Capable generalists understand the roles and responsibilities of all team members. They are invested in the success of each team member. Knowing the issues faced by each character, a generalist can adapt their communication style to reduce confusion and potential conflicts. The generalist will know when to add functional experts from other departments to keep a project on track. Together, specialists and generalists get the job completed to specification, on time and as per the budget.

They Are Great Enablers 

Think of business operations as a set of gears continually turning. A specialist will know how to make the gears turn faster or slower. They will know how to fix or replace broken parts. These are tasks they can effortlessly do in their sleep. A generalist will not know how to operate the gears. However, they are invaluable when the entire system needs to be replaced. Such a change needs someone who can work in multiple modes and viewpoints. We are going to discuss below excellent examples of how generalists affect change. 

  • A generalist must gather and translate the needs of executive stakeholders, technical leads, and operational staff. The translations must apply to each areas’ practices and procedures.

  • Generalists must be adept at predicting project bottlenecks. They must take the necessary steps to prevent or minimize friction before the workflow is affected.
  • Generalists use soft skills to train staff on new procedures or best practices.

  • They must devise a set of strategies applicable across all divisions and departments.

  • They must also be open to modifying these strategies as conditions change. 

Generalists build relationships within a company. They nurture connections with other generalists, executives, leaders, and specialists. They know that solutions do not become a reality without people, energy, resources, and time.

They Exude an Executive Presence 

Generalists may follow different leadership approaches, some of which are listed below: 

  • Innovative - They visualize a future direction and work towards making their vision a reality.

  • Authoritative - These leaders decide goals and direction without input from anyone else.

  • Goal and Pace Setters - Being superior communicators, these leaders set high-performance metrics for themselves and everyone.

  • Servant - Servant leaders sublimate their preferences putting the interests of the business first.

  • Transformational - These leaders are comfortable with change. They actively encourage change and expect the best results.

  • Inspirational - Visionary leaders succeed due to their ability to articulate their mission statement and rouse strong emotions of loyalty and belief among their employees. 

However, one thing that leaders of all styles must possess is an executive presence. This refers to the ability to project and inspire confidence among peers, subordinates, and superiors. Leaders with presence have a vision and can express it with precision. They are excellent communicators and assured speakers who engage and ask pertinent, thoughtful questions to their audience. They use organizational dynamics and networking to guide difficult situations to a more productive course. Leaders of distinction are calm and composed in times of crisis and stress.

In our complex, interconnected, technology-laden business world, change is inevitable and necessary. Challenges come from all directions, all the time. Companies that pivot to address problems head-on and execute solutions without fear will forge ahead in the marketplace. These companies will have one criterion in common: they prioritize identifying high potential, successful leaders, and developing them into expert-generalists.

Your Creative Solution

At Universal Creative Solutions, we believe leadership development has a definite impact on company performance. A leadership program nurtures management talent enterprise-wide and can lead to four outcomes: 

  • Companies that emphasize human capital will outperform their competition. Leadership development improves customer satisfaction, creates new opportunities for revenue growth, and reduces costs.

  • Employee turnover decreases as employee engagement increases. A leadership program can attract qualified new hires and motivate current employees.

  • As leaders learn new skills and responsibilities, a company’s available pool of talent increases. Companies become more agile and responsive to the volatile market.

  • Leadership training gives employees the capacity and confidence to execute cultural and strategic changes. 

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.