Why Being a Specialist in Your Field Isn't Cutting It in Today's Rapidly Evolving Workplace
In a changing world, is it better to be a specialist or a generalist?
When seeking a new job or a promotion, conventional wisdom suggests you position yourself as a specialist in your field. However, there is little conventional about today's job market, as career paths become less linear and increasingly flexible. As recent research has shown, highlighting your skills in a narrow niche is still important, but it's often not enough. In today's rapidly evolving workplace, most employers are probing for other skills too.
As traditional, narrowly defined jobs become obsolete and workers respond to unpredictable and increasingly complex environments, success requires a range of skills. Managers require candidates for nearly every role to be problem-solvers, critical thinkers, and responsive to whatever the new, hybrid workplace throws at them. These sought-after candidates are known as generalizing specialists, and they have a surer route to professional advancement. Generalizing specialists are continually upskilling. They are curious and have situational awareness of what is changing in their fields and how to change with them.
Data scientists, for example, cannot just crunch numbers. They must use creativity to design visualizations and communication skills to translate their findings in meaningful ways to diverse audiences. The investment industry may want junior employees to have strong technical skills, but they prefer senior employees to supplement their tech prowess with strong leadership capabilities and soft skills.
To be fair, specialists are not obsolete. You don't want an orthodontist operating on your eyes. But in a world of constant upheaval, few jobs offer the luxury of a singular mindset.
The transition to generalizing specialists
As with most things, the key to career success is self-awareness. Above all, you must recognize that your field and your organization have likely been transformed by technology and the pandemic. Even today's playing field may be different tomorrow.
There was a time when an IT manager might have spent the day in front of a computer, coding. That was good enough. Until it wasn't. Now there are sprints and morning standups. The role that once demanded expertise in a single coding language or platform, now requires myriad skills to communicate across departments, navigate obstacles with finance and marketing, demonstrate time management and contribute new ideas as a project evolves.
The pandemic has accelerated the transition: Now hybrid work and the constant pace of change requires advanced skills.
Healthy dose of humility
For those seeking to stay ahead, a healthy dose of humility is also required. You should be able to assess your own skills, honestly identify where you are lacking, ask for candid feedback from managers and colleagues, and be prepared to adjust course.
Think of it as being in a permanent state of upskilling. You are expanding your knowledge to everything within your orbit, such as the possible effect of climate change on your business. You are scanning the horizon to identify what may be changing, analyze the skills in demand and determine ways to obtain, practice and display your abilities. Those who excel will have the widest field of vision and plans for accessing learning opportunities.
For many experienced professionals, change has a way of challenging one's identity. If you have spent 20 years doing one thing, which now must be done differently or is no longer necessary, you are likely ill-prepared for the path ahead.
Yet someone who has developed the skills of a generalizing specialist has the advantage of broader perspective. If they have 25 different capabilities, and one doesn't work, there are 24 others to turn to.
Related: The Era of the Specialist Is Over
80-20 rule for skill-building
Making the adjustment is not as hard as it might seem. It starts with unleashing your curiosity. Apply the 80-20 rule to what you are reading and watching. Eighty percent of your energy can still be used to reinforce your specialty. But use the remaining 20 percent to learn something different through taking courses, listening to podcasts, reading, mentorships, networking and/or stretch job assignments.
If you are in marketing, for example, you need to understand finance and budgeting to explain the return on investment. You'll also need to study leadership to identify the concerns of other stakeholders outside your department, as well as bring your project to fruition. You might invest in a course on Excel spreadsheets or financial management, ask a senior executive from the business line to be your mentor, and attend virtual events on persuasion and influence.
Building relationships and networking also helps you connect with the wider world. Meeting professionals in other specialties, or even other industries, helps you absorb new ideas and enhance your people skills. In our workplaces today, we need to move to a growth mindset, from a fixed one. That means understanding each other and building relationships.
Just like the economy at large, our jobs have shifted to an endless state of disruption. Consider the fate of switchboard operators and telegraphists who lost their jobs when technology replaced them. If you don't adapt and keep a vigilant eye on the horizon, your specialty becomes obsolete and your career goes with it.
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