Generalist vs. Specialist

Cooking Up a Storm at Chick-fil-A

It was team meeting day at the local Chick-fil-A. The general manager, Mike, was about to announce a new menu item to their staff.

“Chick-fil-A has always been about providing customers with excellent alternatives to the beef burger,” he said. “Now, we’re going to offer a sandwich that appeals to our vegan customers. We’re using an innovative plant-based protein to create…the Bean-fil-A!”

Mike looked at his customer service managers who were sitting around him. “Jenny and Steve, I know you have been busy with our Cow Appreciation Day campaigns, but now I’d like both of you to focus on making the Bean-fil-A launch successful. First, you’ll be responsible for training the cooks how to make the Bean-fil-A’s.”

Jenny was excited about this new opportunity. “It’ll be a fun change of pace from being in the office!” she said. “I can get into the kitchen and work with the cooks!”

Steve glanced at Mike. “Are you sure you want both of us doing that?” he asked. “We’ve been gaining a lot of momentum with the Cow Appreciation Days, and I already have some great ideas I’m working on for the next one. I’d rather keep focused on that.”

The Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation has been conducting aptitude testing and research since 1922. Their studies show that people have patterns of innate abilities that affect their work style and satisfaction. The assessment based on their work (which I use in coaching) is called the Highlands Ability Battery.

Generalist vs. Specialist

In this fictitious scenario, Jenny and Steve exemplify different work styles. Jenny is a generalist, and Steve is a specialist. In the medical field, some doctors are generalists (e.g., primary care physicians) and some doctors are specialists (e.g., podiatrists). What’s true about the medical field is true about work in general: some people are wired to be generalists and some to be specialists. Both generalists and specialists have their own strengths and challenges.

Jenny the Generalist

Jenny is very capable and versatile. She is happy to do anything that the team requires of her. However, she doesn’t delve deeply into any of the tasks, which means the team doesn’t benefit from mastery-level depth.

Generalists:

  • Thrive by contributing through a wide variety of tasks
  • Are a mile wide and an inch deep
  • Care about team recognition and team alignment

Challenges and Work Considerations for Generalists

Since generalists are team-oriented, they can get frustrated when it’s unclear how their work affects the team. They are also bothered when the team doesn’t have consensus.
Generalists typically prefer variety in their work responsibilities, for example:

  1. Managerial, executive, administrative, business-oriented jobs.
  2. Engineering fields such as construction, civil, mechanical, or industrial.
  3. Heath-related sciences such as physical therapy, physician’s assistant, athletic coach or trainer, paramedic, general practitioner.
  4. Sales and group-influencing jobs, (especially if combined with strong Idea Productivity).
  5. In academic environments, study groups and group projects rather than independent study.

Steve the Specialist

Steve, on the other hand, prefers to focus on a certain task to the point of mastery. This helps the team excel in that particular area—but in that area only, because Steve can’t master everything.

Specialists:

  • Want to master a small number of things
  • Care about individual recognition in their area of expertise
  • Are motivated by their own vision and sense of work
  • Naturally develop depth in a few subjects of interest

Challenges and Work Considerations for Specialists

Specialists may have difficulty understanding how others feel at work. It’s challenging for them to move from task to task, and they often have to learn how to take criticism.

Specialists prefer independent or individual work, achieving results using one’s own knowledge or skills, for example:

  1. Professions like law, medicine, the sciences, accounting, and other careers that require specialized training and skills.
  2. Engineering that stresses individual effort, such as lab research, design, or subfields of chemical engineering.
  3. Performance-oriented careers in music and art.
  4. Academic environments in which one can do independent or individual study or research.
  5. Curricula in which one can get specialized training.
  6. Mechanical or non-professional work where one works independently based on individual knowledge.

Which Work Style Are You?

All of us fall somewhere on the generalist–specialist continuum. Some people fall in the middle of the spectrum and thrive in a blend of these functions. Your place on the continuum affects how you think about tasks, interact with colleagues, and approach work.

So how do you know if you tend towards being a generalist or specialist? And once you know, how do you integrate this knowledge into your work process?

Assessment and Coaching

As a creativity coach, I use an assessment that measures how strong your generalist and specialist tendencies are. Then I coach you on how to incorporate the results into your career.

If you are looking for greater clarity on how your natural strengths can be maximized in your work, let’s get in touch.

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