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Specialists, Generalists & 10,000 hours

Posted by Amy Wilson on January 7, 2009


There is a growing trend to segment career development practices into two focuses: specialists and generalists.

Specialists are individuals with expertise in a particular area. The goal is to develop them to be the very best at what they do. Training is targeted toward specialized skills and, possibly, certifications. Managerial responsibilities are usually not part of the equation, though mentoring is often an important part of the program.

Generalists are individuals with broad capabilities that are on a leadership path. The goal is to develop them into effective, experienced senior executives. Training is targeted toward broad exposure, leveraging such things as cross-functional and international assignments. Increased managerial responsibility is a critical part of the program. Dan McCarthy has excellent advice on developing your high potential generalists, and also warns of pitfalls to avoid.

Neither is better, they’re just different (Dan Schwabel makes a case for both). Most companies need both. They key is to realize that they’re different, to focus development practices accordingly and to measure progress based on the goals.

Meanwhile, we are hearing a lot about the 10,000 hours it takes to become great at something. This fits nicely with the specialist path: a concerted effort between organization and employee will lead to greatness. The organization identifies specialists with enough skill and lots of initiative and provides them with lots of opportunities to perfect their craft. The chances of developing oodles of greatness is high.

But what about generalists? Suddenly “jack of all trades, master of none” sounds pretty dismal. However, these are the people that are going to run our companies! By the very nature of our leadership development programs, which are focused on providing variety, perspective, and new experiences, are we preventing this group from greatness? OR is the act of learning new perspectives and gaining new experiences the craft itself?

What do you think ? Can a generalist make a great CEO?

Are you a specialist or generalist?

8 Responses to “Specialists, Generalists & 10,000 hours”

  1. Meg Bear said

    I was pondering something similar Amy and I came to the following idea that the generalists are still doing deliberate practice on a broader scale. This would probably require more than 10k hours but would also yield greatness. It’s possible this was personal rationalization but that was my conclusion.

  2. […] Specialists, Generalists & 10,000 hours « TalentedApps […]

  3. Marcie Van Houten said

    I’ve always considered myself a generalist or renaissance woman, and saw it as a positive thing that allowed me to move in and out of various roles easily and thus getting a lot of new opportunities. Fun for me and also a win for the company.

  4. Amy Wilson said

    Marcie – I consider myself a generalist as well (totally devoid of any real skill, but a quick learner) and hope you and Meg are right for my own self preservation. 🙂

  5. According to Bob Sutton generalists are also happy people.

  6. RaiulBaztepo said

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

  7. […] up” advice that I began deliberately practicing group expression.  I have many more hours to […]

  8. […] of kids will have spent 10,000 hours playing online games. According to specialists, spending 10,000 hours doing anything makes you a virtuoso. So, what exactly will these kids be getting good at? (please, […]

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