Generalist or Specialist?

woman manager professional specialist
8 min read

Voor Nederlands, klik hier.

I recently met a man on the subway. He was preparing a presentation. I saw that because he looked at his papers and then quietly looked out of the window and talked. I asked how the preparation was going. He told me he was about to give a guest lecture at the university where he received his Ph.D. That had to go well.

He was now the interim director of a government agency and had the opportunity to be in this position indefinitely. The question was if he should take this opportunity to stay director and become a generalist or return to being a specialist in the field he knew a lot about and had a passion for.

I also got this opportunity when I worked at an engineering firm. I was a geohydrologist and had the opportunity to become head of a laboratory.

This blog is about whether you should remain a specialist or accept a management role and become a generalist when the opportunity arises.

Should I become a generalist or stay a specialist?

It is, of course, an honor to have others recognize your leadership skills and ask you for a management role. Chances are you will make a jump in salary and maybe receive other benefits like getting stock options in the company.

To make a better choice between the position of a manager (generalist) and the role of a specialist, I have the following questions for you:

Do you like meetings?

When I just became head of the laboratory, there were suddenly many meeting requests from, for example, management, the software development team, and other departments. I get a lot of energy from being with people and talking to them. Do you have that too? Or would you rather do your research, run computer models, and write reports? Some meetings are about the field you know a lot about. Other meetings are about topics you know little about, which can also take long. Here are some tips for an effective meeting, and here’s an article on how to get professionals excited about a topic during a meeting.

Can you give feedback?

As a manager, you will lead people who perform a certain task. What will you say if they don’t do that (good enough)? How can you get these people to do what they need to do? Then you will have to give them feedback. Many people hate giving feedback, and more hate getting feedback. Recently, I asked someone if I could give her feedback. “No!” was her answer. In this article, I give you some tips on how to give feedback.

What are your talents?

It is, of course, nice and an honor to be asked to lead a group, but the question is whether you have the talent and passion for it. That is different from a skill. You can learn that. Look for your motivations and your character strengths. In this article, I’ll tell you how you can discover them (tip: do the assessment!). The next step is to consider whether your talents fit into a role of a specialist or better into a manager’s role. Develop those talents by, for example, following courses (tip: ask for this during the negotiation for your new position).

How’s this new job going to influence your work/life balance?

As head of a department, I had a lot of freedom to organize my time. That was nice because I had young children, and my wife also had a job that demanded a lot of her. I would have to support my team on the weekend to meet deadlines. I also had to finish reports when I was at home for the children. That can lead to stress and friction at home. Examine whether you also have that freedom and how you ensure that there is sufficient balance for life at home when you become a manager. In this article and this blog, I have 12 tips for you to ensure a good work-life balance.

Can you handle conflict?

As I wrote before, you will get to deal with many people as a manager. Some people are like you and communicate like you, but others don’t. They are more direct, reserved, over-enthusiastic, or dominant. It is then useful to discover their communication style and how you can communicate better with each other. It can also help make conflicts productive.

Do you dread conflicts? Then it would be best if you considered not becoming a manager because I guarantee you will have to deal with conflicts.

Will it help you to be successful?

I am successful if I can use my talents, be enthusiastic, and facilitate so that others can elevate themselves and are happier and experience more love in life.

When are you successful? It’s about whether you can live your WHY in your new position. Your WHY is your contribution and the effect on the world. Your unique WHY is always positive, generative, and action-oriented. When I live my WHY I am happier, more confident, more energetic, and experience more love in life.

Discover your WHY and check whether your career opportunity aligns with your WHY. Contact us to get to know us, or read here what a WHY session looks like.

What will you do if you’re all wrong?

The position fits within your WHY, and you have talent and motivation. You can also handle conflicts well, and giving feedback is not a problem.

And yet the job is disappointing because there are tasks that you don’t like at all (signing off timesheets, making profit plans, firing people, hiring others, doing audits, dealing with the really difficult customers, …). All tasks that give you no energy at all but exhaust you. Tasks that make you long for your job as a specialist.

I encourage you to consider what to do if your choice of manager was wrong. Here are some tips that helped me confirm my choice in the beginning and may help you if you made a wrong choice:

Find a mentor and spar with that person. That can be the manager of another department, but preferably someone outside of the organization.

-Make sure someone guides you in the first period and have regular talks with your (new) boss.

Work with a coach. They can help you with your development.

Find an intervision group: share experiences and challenges with a group of new managers like you.

Ask for feedback.

Keep the bigger goal in mind: Even if the job fits your WHY, there will be times when you have to work hard and do tasks that aren’t fun and that don’t give you energy. Then find out to what extent these boring jobs contribute to ultimately having a positive impact on the world. Just in case these energy-guzzling tasks are structural, check out my last tip:

Be honest with yourself and others. Are the new stress and job misfortune worth the salary and position? Admit if you don’t like the job. Your health and your environment will benefit from it.

What is your first step in deciding between becoming a generalist or staying a specialist? Let me know in the comment field below. The other readers of this article and I are looking forward to reading from you!

Thank you for reading up to here & sharing this article with your colleagues, friends, or family. And please SHARE this article with your network on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn by pressing the buttons below so that they can also benefit from this article about deciding between a generalist or a specialist. You are welcome to copy parts of this blog if you state the source.

Have you seen an error in this article? Let me know! I am grateful!

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments