Linda Chernoff is decked out in a black, floor-length gown and heels that kill her at the end of an evening. She has the conversational skills of a socialite and team building talents of a top executive. Her resume could start with her prized “people skills” as an entree to almost any career, but instead, she focuses herself more narrowly: Event planner.
Good move. The best way to ensure you’ll always be in demand is to become a specialist.
In Hollywood terms, this means you should typecast yourself. You know, action hero, funny guy, tough girl. Ezra Zuckerman, professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management spent three years studying actors’ careers and concluded that even though actors see typecasting as deadly, it is, in fact, a ticket to a solid career. Actors who get typecast early on get more work, more consistently.
The typecasting rule applies to other careers; specializing is a way to differentiate yourself in a crowd. Many people describe themselves as generalists so as not to eliminate job prospects. However, specializing makes you more likely to be hired and hunted. Zuckerman explains, “Headhunters are specialized and they look for something they can package and sell. Since a candidate search is specialized, the headhunter is not set up to process people who don’t fit into a specialty.”
As with almost all career advice, solid execution requires knowing where your gifts lie. And, like most people, Linda Chernoff was not initially sure. She started out as a law firm administrator, then worked in publicity at Temple University.
Her favorite part of that job was planning events like golf outings and tailgate parties. Now she is development associate for special events at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Specialization is the goal, but be wary of too much or too early. If your specialty is marketing on Mars, you’ll be the only person in your field, but you probably won’t get paying gigs. Even a reasonable specialty can go awry if you limit yourself before you know enough.
Liz Ramos, a partner at the consulting firm Bain & Co., wrote, “At Bain, we think it is more and more important as a business person to develop one or more areas of deep expertise over time.”
The path they’ve laid out for their consultants is useful: In the beginning, the focus is on “learning communication techniques and skills for the job.” After two years at the company, Bain emphasizes learning to “manage one’s job and develop as business leaders.”
Only after three to five years does Bain encourage people to “think about if they want to continue in consulting or go to business school or another opportunity such as an entrepreneurial venture.”
Once you get to that last step, you necessarily take yourself out of the running for some jobs. But if you don’t position yourself as extremely good at something, you will never have a chance at a top position.
Opera singer Stephanie Chigas knows this intuitively. She is a Boston-based mezzo-soprano at the beginning of her career. While other opera singers accept chorus roles for supplemental income, she does not. “Some people will say, ‘I’ll do anything that comes my way,’ but I don’t want to do that. I have different goals for myself. It may sound a little snooty, but I want to be a solo singer.”
Snottiness is paying off for Chigas. She’s performed with the Boston Lyric Opera and she’s sung at Carnegie Hall. In fact, snootiness is part of specializing, because committing to a path requires an implicit revelation that you think you’ll succeed.
Conversely, generalizing often looks weak, lacking direction or commitment. Zuckerman says, “Generalizing could be useful as a hedging strategy if you are in a volatile industry.” But if you see yourself going to the top, you need to sell yourself as a specialist, not someone hedging for a darker day.
Of course, it is scary to specialize because there is the chance you’ll choose something in which you can’t succeed. But you can always try again. MIT’s Zuckerman offers hope in the form of Bette Davis. Her career began in the 1930s as a blond bombshell. But there was no spark. So her studio recast her as a vampy, man-slayer type, and she was a hit.