Anti Pattern – Generalists over Specialists

The next few posts are going to be about anti-patterns. These are all about the landmines you should try to avoid – learn from my mistakes :). Almost all problems in companies are people/organizational problems. Hopefully, these set of posts can help you navigate through some of the nuanced ones.

Credit: Scott Adams
The first anti-pattern I’d like to explore is the “generalists over specialists” pattern. I think this is a generalization that misses a lot of nuances, the devil, as usual, is in the details. So if you hire generalists all the way, how do the generalists know that their direct reports are doing well? How do they know what good looks like?

Two things that absolutely matter

What type of function?

Is the function you are hiring for super specialized or leads to some generality? For example, analytically minded generalists can be hired into strategy/sales/Business intelligence or in analyst roles in any function – but can they be hired as software engineers? or Software engineering managers?

What level?

Coupled with the point above, this matters more than you think. The more senior a person, the less generalized they need to be in super specialized/functional organizations. I would posit that in today’s world other than the CEO every other function is super specialized. There are no more generalized functions. If you are the HR leader – but have never led HR organizations before – how do you know what good looks like? How do you assess your direct reports are actually good at their jobs? How do you mentor/coach them? Hiring a senior leader who has no clue about how their organization actually does their jobs is a bad bad move. This absolutely destroys organizations as the leader has zero credibility.

The only generalized folk I’ve seen succeed at senior positions are the ones that gave a genuine intellectual curiosity. They have a great ability to quickly develop an accurate mental model and understand the nuts and bolts of a function. They aren’t afraid to get dirty with the details. People with these skills are very rare!

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