Viva, General(ist)!

Article contributed by Matt Prohaska, Principal, Prohaska Consulting

Do you consider yourself to be a Generalist or a Specialist? Ever think about that as it relates to your career? Ever get a job or not get a job because you were one or the other?

Consider Jose Oquendo, a 12-year Major League Baseball veteran who spent most of his career playing for the St. Louis Cardinals. Dubbed “The Secret Weapon” by his Hall-of-Fame manager Whitey Herzog, Jose was the ultimate utility player, once even playing all nine positions in the field over the course of one nine-inning game. He could do just about anything for a team, and his specialty was filling gaps on offense or defense.

But he only hit .256 over his career, with only 14 home runs and even though he led the league in fielding percentage one year, he never won a Gold Glove or made an All-Star team, or played the same position consistently every day for years, like the Cardinals’ full-time shortstop over those years did, Hall-of-Famer Ozzie Smith.

Take a look at my LinkedIn profile and you might think it looks like the Cardinals’ line-up card that day when Jose played all nine positions. On several occasions, I intentionally took positions that gave me more responsibility and challenged me professionally with companies that had interesting and industry-moving ideas/products over factors at the top of most peoples’ lists, like stability/security, money, brand, easier path to success. It’s made me the Generalist I am today, but it’s also bitten me in the butt several times over the years.

When a company folds or pivots and someone like me is suddenly looking for a new job, how many recruiters or CEOs look at a resume like mine, not see the exact same job listed in the last three+ roles, and think, “Even though this person has not done this job for three years, he did do it four times over his career so let me see what he’s looking for and if my job to fill is something he could do again?” Very few, even though a recruiter’s only job is to place candidates, but it is so much safer and less time-constraining to go for the person who is more known for doing just that job…the Specialist. Never mind that someone who has never worked at an ad agency may not know exactly what a media buyer’s life is like unless s/he has been in those shoes. Or that someone that ran an Operations team that works with Sales teams might have better perspective on what can actually run vs. what gets sold to help clients and colleague manage expectations better.

Most managers would rather have the guy who has hit .280 for his career and played third base for eight straight years.

While I liken myself often to Jose, I humbly strive to be more like someone else that was probably the Greatest Generalist Athlete of All-Time, and most humble, at least in the modern era…Bo Jackson. If you care about sports or just rags-to-riches stories that are Homer-esque, you need to see the 30 for 30 series on Bo that came out last year. Bo excelled at two major sports, baseball and football, consistently going against conventional wisdom by doing what he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it. Granted, he is not put on the highest levels by many like a Michael Jordan (without the baseball) or Tiger Woods, who are considered the best ever in their sports, because he chose not to play just one sport his entire career and then got injured way too soon. But the “Bo Knows” campaign was more than just Nike hype – the man could do just about anything at a high level.

Turning back to our industry, ironically, what sometimes can be negative as a Generalist for full-time senior-level positions is often a positive for Consulting/Freelancing positions. I have often had introduction meetings with prospective new consulting clients where I simply ask, “Where do you need help?” and find that after hearing eight answers, I can say, “Well, I can do these six for you and know someone who can do the other two.”

So just like any good sales call, let’s agree to some next steps together:

  1. If you are a hiring manager or recruiter, take an extra 30 minutes and talk with a candidate that may not be the exact fit on paper but has the well-rounded experience, including the position looking to fill, that could work better overall for the organization. Try putting one generalist on your management team.

  2. If you are a full-time employee in any department at any level, consider taking a webinar and/or spending one hour learning what someone else does in another department, to appreciate what happens somewhere else in the organization when you do what you do.

  3. No matter who you are, take part of one day each week doing something outside your comfort zone that challenges what you know and expands your skill sets and perspective.

Matt Prohaska is the Principal at Prohaska Consulting, a company that helps leading digital media and advertising technology firms with their digital sales, marketing, business development, and operational strategies.