Generalist or Specialist?

There is an ongoing debate as to whether a business should hire those who are generalist or those who are specialist. Here are a few thoughts on that.


A generalist is a person with a diverse base of knowledge. They are sometimes viewed as not being particularly strong in any one area, although they would obviously be stronger in some areas than others. While I am sure there are some who fit that mold, my belief is that the role they fill often distorts our perception of their skills and abilities.


A specialist is typically someone who is highly skilled in one area or at least much more so in a particular area than others. Like a generalist there is a need for this.

Some Examples

If you needed to have surgery you would go to the kind of doctor who specialized in that kind of surgery, be it plastic surgery, oral surgery, etc. On the other hand, if you just are not feeling well you may well go to a general practitioner who has a broad base of skills in diagnosing what is wrong. Of course, the diagnosis may mean you are referred to a specialist in your condition.

The above indicates the value of both kinds of individuals and the likely need for both. Let’s take a closer look at how this works in the business world.

Roles are Critical

We may tend to look at the CEO of a company and assume this individual is a generalist. However, it is very common for a CEO to come from the sales, finance, marketing, or operations ranks. Sometimes this presents a problem when the person cannot seem to let go of their specialty at the expense of other areas. A CEO from the sales area may become overly focused on driving sales, while a CEO from the financial arena may become equally over focused on expense reduction and profitability. But, the truth is a CEO must be able to adapt to a more generalist role and be generally aware of the overall operations of the company. For example, if this person came up through the sales area, then they will need to become more attuned to finance, operations, marketing, etc. If they remain focused only on the sales area they will not be able to sufficiently comprehend the interactions of various disciplines. This creates a potential weakness. In may well be necessary for a CEO to lean heavily on those outside their specific expertise to stay aware of critical issues and sufficiently comprehend them. They must be understand that their position is very much that of a generalist, and if they are uncomfortable with it then they likely are not the right person.

A specialist should have strong knowledge of a particular area or areas. A CFO or Controller needs the skills to monitor the finance and accounting area. This, however, is a position that often has a bit of a generalist aspect in that they frequently have responsibility for information technology, operations, and human resources as well. Of course others can end up in the same situation. The key is for them to know where their strengths are and not be timid about asking others for their input and help. While information technology may fall under a CFO, we would seldom expect this person to understand programming or similar functions in depth.

Particularly in a small company there will be a person who has this kind of a role. They are the person we commonly refer to as one who “wears several hats.” Likewise, there will be those who are strictly specialists. They may be in sales, accounting, shipping and receiving, production, and so on.

So here is the bottom line. Understand the role to be filled. If it is a generalist then ascertain the person either already has this skill set or clearly indicates the ability and desire to make that transition. On the other hand, to ask those who clearly prefer a specialty to perform in a generalist role is a disservice to both them and the company. Being a specialist does not make them less valuable. We just need to make use the best use of people.

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As always, your comments are welcomed.


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