Generalist Vs. Specialist

When mapping out your career goals there are many potential paths to take. Some of us find out quickly where we would like to head while others take our time or end up stumbling into a career.

As you begin to figure out what you want with your career you are often faced with this question: Should I developed a set of skills that caters to one line of work or should I branch out and acquire a wide set of skills?

In laymen’s terms – should you be a specialist or a generalist?

It is important to note that the answer to this question will be different for everyone. We all have different goals and we all are naturally born with characteristics that can help guide us one way or another.

For the sake of conversation, I will be referencing the marketing industry, specifically drilling down to the digital space.

Advantages Of Being A Specialist:

Honing in and becoming a master of your craft can provide an individual with a great career path. When you become a specialist at a task that is of high value, you may get presented with great opportunity. Promotions at a younger age, higher salaries, getting recruited to top companies all because you are one of the best at your craft.

A perfect example of specialists reaping the rewards right now is developers. With the start up community and many large enterprises needing developers on staff to grow their business, this set of specific skills is providing a great opportunity. The fact that limited people have the set of skills required is presenting these specialists with opportunities to grow their career at a faster pace then other skill sets/jobs.

Individuals may have been attracted to this line of work at a young age or it is something that may have blossomed in college or when they first reached the real world. But this is skill that is not easily picked up by the everyday person and takes dedication.

Disadvantages Of Being A Specialist

While being a specialist can lead to growth quickly in your career, if you are not able to broaden your skill set you may actually cap your growth. As you move higher and higher within an organization the need for specialists deteriorates. Sure, you may become the Director of SEM, the Lead Developer or Head SEO Engineer, but if you do not branch out and learn additional skills will you ever become the CIO, CMO, VP of Digital Marketing or any  other fancy title can think of?

One group of people I am seeing affected by this is the technical SEO group. Don’t get me wrong, these are a bright bunch of people. But with SEO now being meshed with outreach, social media and PR – the skill set needed to offer a complete SEO program no longer goes along with just having technical skills. Sure they may be able to solve indexing issues and do a complete URL re-write for their clients, but do they have the creative mind needed to develop a marketing plan to generate social signals and quality links?

Advantages Of Being A Generalist

In the marketing world generalists can speak to many different channels. They have enough knowledge in each area to converse, stratagize and begin the execution process.

The issue with Generalists is they need to have working knowledge across all marketing channels. They can’t just know that SEO is about rankings and links. They need to understand how paid media can help promote content and generate links from quality sites. They need to have a quest for knowledge about the entire space and continuing to feed their brain as updates are made to algorithms and new targeting capabilities are released. Generalists need to understand new channels and they will play alongside and with current marketing efforts.

If you possess this thirst for knowledge and are able to grasp the entire space, there is a good chance you will be able to grow your career. This skill set often leads to positions of leading teams. These are the individuals who get the chance to run departments that span across multiple channels. If they do truly have a solid base understanding of all marketing channels and how they work together, these are the candidates that eventually run companies.

A great example of how being a generalist is a trend within an the industry is the need for ‘growth hackers’. Many SaaS or tech based companies are looking for do-it-all marketers. Owners of companies and recruiters often run into issues with filling this position as candidates need to have knowledge across SEO, display, paid search, social, print, mobile and every other channel out there. There are not too many candidates out there that have those capabilities.

Disadvantages Of Being A Generalist

Anyone can read a blog post about social media and claim their an expert. Unfortunately, many generalists fit into this category. To be a true generalist, you need a relatively deep understanding of your industry. You also need to understand how each cog in the wheel works together. If not, you’ll just end up as someone who can talk the talk and not walk the walk. (account people?)

One area mentioned above in the advantages of being a specialists called out the opportunity to advance within your organization quite quickly. The generalist may be hindered earlier in their career by not having a specialty as new employees are usually given more repetitive, specialized tasks.

So Which Is The Best?

None of them. It all depends on who you are and what you want out of your life and career. As shown above there are pluses and minuses to both.

For me, I started as a specialists managing PPC campaigns, but to get where I want to be I needed to branch out and understand what SEO, content, social, analytics and paid media can do for my clients. And next up is understanding how traditional media can be intertwined with digital. For you, well it may be a completely different route.

Where do you stand? Are you a specialists or a generalist?

4 comments to “Generalist Vs. Specialist”

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  1. For me, being a generalist is where it is at. Being able to run an agency you have to be. Our agency is specialized in just enterprise PPC, but I need to be aloof of everything going on in the digital marketing world. You know, for that matter, I want everyone on my team to know what else is going on in the internet marketing world. They don’t have to be able to execute it all, but they need to know how what they do impacts and integrates. Good post Justin.

    • Hey Stuart – thanks for the comment. I think we are on the same wave length on this. While it is important to have specialists on your team who are top flight when it comes to PPC, they need a leader who understand a wide array of channels. For me, I consider paid social and even DSP’s part of the channel traditional SEM managers need to understand. So right there they are moving into the generalist realm.

  2. Thanks for this post, Justin. I’ve spent the majority of my life acquiring a wide variety of skill sets, and while it can be difficult to translate to others during the hiring process, I really don’t see drilling down to specialization in my future. I enjoy being a generalist, and having a broad range of experience and skills. I also get to learn new ones along the way.

    This came in very handy a few years ago – I was rapidly promoted because I had skills in writing, proofing, style editing, training, management and analysis — had I focused on just one, I would not have gone as far.

    But the fairest point I’ve seen made on this issue: generalists have to know when to bring in the specialists.

    • justinfreid says: -#2

      Mike – you make a great point at the end there. Generalists do need to know when to bring in the specialists. I think one of the keys for me as been to surround myself with a team that can cover for me in the areas I may not have a very deep level of knowledge in.

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