The virtues of the specialist are overdone: long live the generalist

 

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Communications firms need to offer diversity of thought and experience if they are to offer clients the best solutions possible

We live in a world that encourages and rewards specialisation. The generalist is often derided.

We begin our school days learning about all sorts of things ranging from chemistry and mathematics to philosophy and literature. We are very much generalists at school. However, by the time we reach our early twenties many of us have become specialists, whether that be at work or at the end of a university course that guides us on a particular path. And by the time most of us have hit our forties we are inexorably bound to our chosen career. The particular thing we do has become our identity.

In the communications industry the need to be, or show, you are a specialist is particularly acute. It is a badge of honour to describe oneself as ‘Head of Crisis’ or ‘Head of Creative’ or ‘Head of New Business Development’. We fear that “Consultant” or “Director” doesn’t always cut it in the eyes of a potential client – too generalist.

The desire to show our specialist credentials is understandable. It clearly offers benefits. If you are Head of Crisis, a potential client might assume you’ve supported clients through plenty of crises: you’ve been there and done it and, perhaps, even written one of the many books on the topic! And yes it’s true. The specialist can indeed navigate certain situations because they have been there before. The Head of XYZ can, for example, plausibly talk the inevitable language of the market, the industry acronyms that are absolutely necessary and often gives clients reassurance. They have experience, and often know many of the practitioners in the market in which they operate, which once again breeds confidence in a process and an individual. There is no doubt that such relationships are very important.

But there are undoubtedly problems associated with solely employing specialists to crack an issue or problem. Perhaps the most pervasive one is the temptation to reach for the cookie cutter, offering up solutions to new clients that worked with old clients. Specialisation inevitably leads to bias or prejudice. Specialism brings a narrowness to your thinking that can sometimes be absolutely appropriate but can also sometimes be damaging too.

Client demands and problems are increasingly diverse. In order to effectively respond to a client’s problem a consultant needs to have a broad base of experience that goes way beyond their particular specialism. Without this, unconscious bias will come into play. They might also be tempted to assemble an unbalanced team to respond to a particular challenge.

As an aside, it’s not just important to have generalists on the team. I’d go even further. It’s important to have people that have no prior knowledge of the client or task ahead too. They can ask the ‘stupid questions’ that the rest of the room might be too afraid to ask!

There’s another reason why specialist heads can sometimes be a negative force. Because of their long experience in a particular area, the ‘Head of XYZ’ is normally a person over 40 years of age. Again, unconscious bias comes into play. Having a 20 something in the room, who is often but not always better attuned to things such as digital proliferation, is critical.

I’m noticing that a lot more young people are shunning the urge to specialise early in their careers. Instead they’re choosing diverse careers that move from one discipline to another. A lawyer becomes a comms person who then moves into academia.

There are people at CNC who began their careers in banking or in marketing, in politics to in academia, whose careers took further turns to become consultants. When they reach their forties, they have a portfolio of experience that might not be as deep as some of the specialists of today, but is in many ways more valuable to clients.

At CNC, there are different levels and types of experience. However, crucially there are no silos. Everyone is encouraged to have understanding of the digital landscape given it permeates all facets of communications. While all members of the CNC team participate in transactions, they work across sectors from financials to energy to retail.

And everyone is encouraged to be creative. Indeed, I find the idea that a communications firm needs a head of creativity to be baffling! Surely that’s what clients ask from us all: creativity of thought!

Specialism affords benefits, but it also confers many constraints on an organisation, and more importantly, the clients it serves don’t receive best advice. So next time the virtues of specialism are extolled, it is worth questioning the approach while considering alternatives.

The generalist has a lot to offer in today’s increasingly diverse world.

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

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