Monday, August 2, 2010

Finding the Right Mix of Talent

Success in Business Requires a Mix of Generalists AND Specialists

Most people understand that businesses need specialists in order to be successful.  Having people with specialized knowledge in areas related to the company's products, services, processes, network infrastructure, etc. enable the ability to serve customer needs on a continuing basis.  What many people don't realize, however, is that it is just as critical to success to have generalists in the organization.

What is a Generalist?

A generalist is someone who has broad knowledge and skills, and understands the organization's high level system, including the hand-offs and interactions between people and processes.  A generalist is not interested in working and developing his or her skills within a single area and is much more motivated to focus on the big picture.  He or she is much more comfortable learning a little about many subjects than learning a lot about a single subject.

An organization can have the most talented specialists in the industry but be completely ineffective if these people are not able to agree on what's important and work together to turn their combined talents into commercial success.  By understanding the system, the generalist can bring significant value to the organization by focusing on overall company performance rather than spending time attempting to optimize any single function.  For this reason, generalists often excel in leadership positions and cross-functional roles like project management and lean/six sigma facilitation.

Why Generalists Are Necessary

By understanding the company's high level value stream, the generalist is able to continually remind everyone of the importance of working in the same direction to achieve common objectives.

No matter how talented the specialists are, without a common direction and continual effort to improve the way people interact and work together, there is no "organization" - there are only individuals working on what each feels is most important.

Peter Drucker wrote that management is a liberal art in that it requires skill from many different disciplines including psychology, sociology, history, and others.  W. Edwards Deming included psychology, learning, theory of variation, and systems thinking as components of leadership in his Theory of Profound Knowledge.  Deming and Drucker were referring to the idea that management is a role for generalists.

Harnessing the Company's Talent

The obsession many companies have had with specialists over the last several years has created a shortage of generalists that is hampering growth and success.  As a result, many companies are full of great ideas and new technologies but aren't able to transform them into commercially successful products and services.  A company may be staffed with highly skilled scientists, engineers, and chemists, but if it is not turning this knowledge into viable products or services, it is wasting money (and talent) and compromising its future.

Whenever hiring or promoting someone into a leadership position, I have found that a person with a varied background tends to be more effective than someone whose experience and training is related only to the function the person is expected to lead.  For example, I would tend to favor a candidate for a quality management position who has experience in procurement and/or manufacturing in addition to quality than one who only has quality experience.

It's in the Mix

Success in business requires leading people to consistently achieve high level objectives.  To do this successfully requires respecting the different talents people have and understanding how best to position and organize everyone to serve the customer effectively.  This means having the right mix of generalists and specialists to assure success.

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