Monday, January 25, 2016

Generalist > Specialist

Been reading (and thinking) about the pros and cons of hiring generalists vs. specialists. Some of what I've read seems aimed at large organizations, much of it arguing for the advantages of generalists over specialists.

They don't have to convince me. When it comes to small staff associations like mine, generalists win hands down.

Here's just three reasons why.

1. Specialists are harder to find, retain and replace. Professionals with specialized skills are less common than those without those skills--by definition. That gives them a better negotiating position, not just for salary, but for work assignments and levels of authority. These expectations are often difficult for small organizations to meet, setting up a dynamic where neither the specialist nor the employer are completely satisfied with the arrangement. When the two part ways, the employer often goes back to square one, because there is no one else in the organization with the requisite skills.

2. Generalists offer more flexibility as the association grows and evolves. Typically, a staff person with a generalist orientation starts at a more entry-level position than a specialist. That, and very nature of being a generalist, leads to a great deal of cross-training and well-roundedness in the employee's development and stretch assignments. When opportunities to promote or reassign staff present themselves, the employer enjoys the ability to pull from a much stronger bench of developing staff. For any association that is experiencing growth and evolving strategic priorities, this flexibility is a decided advantage.

3. Generalists need to interface more frequently with the association's members. Even with a staff full of generalists, areas of specialized knowledge are still needed in the organization. Associations frequently access that knowledge through the volunteer networks they setup for their members. A generalist staff person will need to access that network more often than a specialist, increasing the total amount of contact that the association has with its members. In addition to the specific tasks the generalists seek help with, this added contact spells many additional member engagement benefits for the association.

Those are just off the top of my head. What do you think? How else do generalists add more value than specialists?

Or am I off base? Tell me.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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