Should you be an expert-generalist?

should you be expert generalist TalentGrow blog Halelly Azulay

Even before I knew the term, I have felt like I am an expert-generalist. And while I felt drawn to it, I have felt that traditional career advice implied I was mistaken. So when I first became familiar with this term and the concept behind it, I felt like shouting Hallelujah!

In this post, I'll explain what an expert-generalist is, why you should consider becoming one, and a cool way to do it.

What is this “Expert-Generalist” you speak of, Halelly?

The term ‘expert-generalist’ was coined by Orit Gadiesh, chairman of Bain & Co. In her words, this is

“someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, capabilities, countries, and topics., etc.  He or she can then, without necessarily even realizing it, but often by design:
- Draw on that palette of diverse knowledge to recognize patterns and connect the dots across multiple areas.
- Drill deep to focus and perfect the thinking.” [Source]

Another term I’ve seen for this is a “T-shaped individual” – a concept popularized by IDEO CEO Tim Brown. According to Brown:

“The vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill that allows [T-shaped people] to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields: an industrial designer, an architect, a social scientist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer. The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. It is composed of two things. First, empathy. It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective- to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Second, they tend to get very enthusiastic about other people’s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practice them. T-shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills. “ [source]

What’s so good about being an expert-generalist?

Why be an expert-generalist? Here are four of the many benefits, adapted from the work of my brilliant friend and TalentGrow Show podcast guest (episode 18), best-selling author Michael Simmons:

  • Expert-generalists can more quickly adapt to change – they are more resourceful and resilient.
  • They can make better predictions of the future because they are not as susceptible to the biases and assumptions prevailing in any given field or community, whereas specialists tend to see the world more narrowly and have silo-mentalities.
  • It’s easier for expert-generalists to have breakthrough ideas because they are able to broker or bridge among divergent concepts and insights from multiple fields and broader networks.
  • Finally, they are more well-connected across a more diverse array of networks, adding value to all of their connections due to their bridge-building and translation capacity.

How to become an expert-generalist

One of the most fascinating suggestions for developing your own capacity to become an expert-generalist, and thus increase your value to your clients, employers, organizations, teams, and networks, and grow your career advancement as well as satisfaction, is to become a ‘Broker’ in an ‘Open Network’.

Become a ‘Broker’ in an ‘Open Network’

Say what?

Stick with me here. I’ll explain.

Ron Burt is the Hobart W. Williams Professor of Sociology and Strategy at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the leading academic researcher in the world studying how to create competitive advantages in careers, organizations, and markets through building effective social networks. He has conducted several peer reviewed studies where he just studied one variable: whether someone has an open network –they have a lot of connections in different circles – or a closed network, which means almost everyone they know is in one area or a small number of areas.

Here’s the amazing insight he discovered: the one variable that explains 65% of the variance in someone’s career success is having an open network.

And the most successful people tend to be what Ron Burt calls Brokers.

Michael Simmons talked about this (and so much more) on episode 18 of the TalentGrow Show podcast. He described how the brokers tend to belong to multiple networks and are able to speak the insider lingo and translate to help move information or make introductions of people across those network lines.

That’s how Burt explained the success that brokers have.

Michael suggests that to be a broker, you must decide to be open to different experiences.

He acknowledges that this is easier said than done. Here’s Michael:

“There’s this pressure to really over-focus on efficiency, getting as much done in as little time as possible. Being a broker, connecting to new worlds, it’s almost a different mindset because, let’s say […] I went to a biology or biotech conference, which is outside my area. It’s going to take a little while, going to be uncomfortable to meet people that I don’t know, to learn a new language. The benefits aren’t going to be as clear up front, because it’s just a whole new area.
But then over the long term of doing that, you’re going to be much more innovative, and be able to make connections that other people wouldn’t. But I think in the short term, it’s something that is hard for people to do.
It would be easier to read […] the next popular business book that everyone is reading than a book completely outside the area that no one else in your field is reading.”

But just because it’s easier, doesn’t mean it’s better. In other words, there is tremendous pressure (overt and covert) to specialize, to go deep and narrow in focus. But like the letter T, brokers, expert-generalists, or T-shaped people are neither narrow and deep nor a mile-wide and an inch-deep. They have some breadth and lots of depth. They’re BOTH/AND. And they reap the benefits and rewards, as do all those who are in their networks.

Your Turn:

What do you think – are you already more of a T-Shaped Person or Expert-Generalist, or do you tend to be more of a specialist?

If you’re intrigued – what do you plan to do this week to make your network more open and your input more diverse?

Chime in below in the comments, I’d love to get a conversation going!


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