Generalists vs. Specialists

March 14, 2011 | blog | Tags: , | Written by: admin

The other day, a client of mine brought up this topic concerning the value of a specialist compared to that of a generalist.

As a business lawyer, he challenged the notion that in our society, specialists are much more appreciated – and paid! – than generalists.

“Take, for example, a General Practitioner,” he said. “Clearly, a specialist has to put in more years of study compared to a GP. But the GP is the first person you’ll see when you’ve got a medical problem that’s not life threatening – or you’d be in the ER. This first layer of diagnosing and shifting GPs do is vitally important, yet undervalued.”

My client reasoned that if a GP misdiagnoses you and sends you to the wrong specialist, or to none at all when he or she should’ve, the results can be catastrophic.

He gave another example closer to home for him; business law. As a “first response” business lawyer, he gets all the questions and cases thrown at him. He is a generalist who knows a little about a lot. He enjoys communicating and collaborating with lots of different parties and functioning as a “bridge” between all of them.

“Guess what,” he said. “If I misjudge a case or an issue and misdirect the folks that came to me with it, the financial and/or legal consequences could be dire.”

My client went on to say that he thinks most employers undervalue their generalist employees. “Often,” he said, “just like with the GPs, these generalists play an important role in shifting and connecting. Same in HR. Examples abound. So why are these positions almost always less compensated and valued than those of ‘true specialists?’”

It’s easy to argue this case from both ends with obvious points…The amount of study that goes into specialization and the higher level of responsibility explain the bigger salaries. “But wait…this is where the generalist is often misunderstood,” my client said. “Because, as we just saw, the consequences of misjudgment by a generalist can be severe. So why this discrepancy?”

I firmly believe we’ll be seeing more and more organizations that do value the “jack-of-all-trades” aka generalist aka cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural employee that brings an understanding to the table of more than the little square in front of him.

This trend has already started with globalization and technology.

What do you think? Are you a generalist yourself? If so; do you feel you get the credit for your role that you deserve?


  1. Ilona,

    I’ve always enjoyed this quote by Robert Heinlein (1907-1908) Novelist, short story author, essayist, screenwriter.

    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

    Greg Jackson

    Comment by Greg Jackson — March 15, 2011 @ 9:19 pm

  2. Whoops! Robert Heinlein died in 1988 …

    Comment by Greg Jackson — March 15, 2011 @ 9:20 pm

  3. I am indeed a generalist and while I used to feel this was a disadvantage (didn’t know much about anything…), recently I started to use this to my advantage for indeed the reasons mentioned above: I realized I always look at the big picture and am able to communicate well with the various parties involved – bridging that gap, connecting, able to help others make that shift.

    Comment by Isabelle — March 16, 2011 @ 2:18 am

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