Don’t be a generalist — Typecast yourself

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During the Internet’s go-go days in the late 1990s, I thought the term generalist meant “she's doing two jobs and pays herself double.” Now it seems the word generalist means “good at nothing and unemployed.” In either case, generalist is the label for a career that will die.

Think cars: You never hear an advertiser say, “Buy my car, it's good for everything!” Volvos are safe. BMWs are fun. Saturns are easy to buy. Just as successfully branded products offer specific benefits, successfully branded careerists offer specific talents. You get to the top by being the best, and you can't be the best at everything.

Ezra Zuckerman, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, agrees — and has the research to prove it. In his study of typecasting in Hollywood entitled “Robust Identities or Nonentities,” Zuckerman found that specialization leads to longer, more productive careers. Contrary to conventional Hollywood wisdom, big bucks come most often to people who become known for a certain type of role. Zuckerman finds that typecasting, as this practice is called, is also a moneymaker in the business world, where the hiring system is set up to reward those who differentiate themselves. “Headhunters are specialized,” he says, “and they look for something they can package and sell.”

Generalist is a good moniker during the first few years of your career. For example, if you're a standout college grad, you may win a place in a general-management rotational training program, such as General Electric Co. and other well-known consumer products companies offer. But the point of such training programs is to figure out what you're good at and then seek an internal role in that department.

So take a gamble. Figure out what you're best at and start making your mark. Then hope for good timing — that someone needs that particular talent when you have become expert at it.

Carly Fiorina, for example, is an outstanding marketer in the technology sector. She got to be chair and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard by being the best — and having a little luck: the company badly needed marketing expertise when it was conducting a search for a CEO. If it had needed an engineering genius, Fiorina would not have been considered. By the same token, if a food-products company needed a marketing-oriented CEO, Fiorina would not have been a candidate because her background is in technology. People who define themselves clearly are clearly wrong for certain positions, but super-achievers take that risk.

Many professionals hesitate to define themselves because it limits where you can go. But top players must have clear definition. Most have enough confidence in their abilities to risk specialization. Very simply, they believe that adequate opportunities will be available as they progress up the ladder.

To specialize, think discipline (marketing, sales, operations, etc) and sector (media, technology, fashion, etc.) Become known for your extremes. If you aren’t extremely good at something, you won’t get to the top.

Still not convinced of the benefits of typecasting? Then consider the current job market. Hundreds of applicants vie for most jobs, and many are more than qualified. This means hiring managers can demand a perfect fit — and specialists rather than generalists typically offer a perfect fit.

Figure out what your strengths are and hone them. Sure, take varied positions in the company, and learn a range of skills, but make sure people know where your talents lie. People at the top need to see you as someone who is extremely good at something, and no one is extremely good at everything, so don’t sell yourself that way to upper management.

22 replies
  1. Kuri
    Kuri says:

    I think for a lot of us, the risk of specializing isn’t the fear of not being the right specialization. It’s the fear of becoming horribly and completely bored doing the same things (or even similar things) for much longer than a few years. I’ve been working in business analysis for a while, but I’m going to need a large change pretty soon, and am (increasingly) comtemplating becoming a chef. I know that I’ll want a big change 5 to 7 years after that as well. Specializing in one thing might work for people who want prestige more than anything, but for people like myself, well, my mind would wither and my attitude would deteriorate. But that doesn’t mean I completely forget everything from previous careers – I would hope that many of the skills are tranferable.

  2. Liz
    Liz says:

    I am a recruiter and I will say “Amen” to this post. I have coached people on this many times. It doesn’t matter if you think you could be a fit for 5 different jobs. Pick the job you want to apply to. Customize your resume to mirror wording/values listed in the job description. And then sell yourself. It’s that easy. Recruiters and managers are looking for a “fit” and someone who is passionate and excited about taking on the opportunity. Don’t sell yourself short by being open to “anything”. Do your research and actually get excited about something. It’s better for everyone in the end.

  3. William Mitchell, CPRW
    William Mitchell, CPRW says:

    I totally agree. When discussing a client’s resume project, I usually try to get them to decide on a specific direction. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a specific position, but experience shows that a resume that states you have a direction and purpose resonates more with the reader.

    William Mitchell, CPRW
    The Resume Clinic

  4. Vintage Fountain Pens
    Vintage Fountain Pens says:

    Specialization does become a bore if you do not spice it up, job rotation and enrichment too can be a form of motivation. I guess forecasting on a positive direction would do the trick there.

  5. Konferenser
    Konferenser says:

    f you want to be a generalist, you can spend much of your training time learning the HTML page development tools used for making small and medium-sized sites. Start your list with FrontPage, Macromedia Dreamweaver, or Adobe GoLive, and you’ll be in good shape creating HTML pages. Because a site is composed of not only HTML pages but also scripts, database elements, and queries, this is only the beginning of your drive toward being a good Web generalist. But it is a necessary first step.

  6. konferens
    konferens says:

    I have been a generalist in my field for over 20 years. By having such a wide understanding of marketing, fundraising, business, budgeting/finance and nonprofit management, I've been able to have a wide variety of top positions where I can have an impact on the organization. The trick is to find people you can call on if there is a specific issue you need help to resolve, and on knowing when to call these individuals.

  7. Vintage Car Restoration
    Vintage Car Restoration says:

    I think its good to specialise and become very experienced with one role or area and then to move onto another after a number of years carrying it out. This may be in disagreement with the other people commenting here, but I do believe that there are too many ‘generalists’ in a whole host of industries that move from role to role and areas to area.

    Call me old fshioned, but I believe that people should intrinsically learn a skill and then work hard at it for a considerable amount of time. The common thing at the moment in the job market is that there are too many generalists and this is not what companies want.

  8. Gas Fires
    Gas Fires says:

    I have multiple passions, so this entry really hit home for me. All my life I've felt somehow inadequate because I dabble in so many things – €“ writing, music, cooking, improv, etc, and I'd always heard that phrase "jack of all trades, master of none" in the back of my head. I'm slowing coming to understand that I'm just wired this way and that it's having all these things that make me really buzz that prevents me from ever being bored.

  9. Stock Clearance
    Stock Clearance says:

    I guess in a down economy, is it better to be specialist or a generalist? most people would likely vote generalist: If you don’t know where your next gig will come from, better not to be typecast!

  10. Clip In Hair Extensions
    Clip In Hair Extensions says:

    I agree, being a generalist would immediately make you lose all what you have. And I really have seen this happen many times at my work place. Too bad for them. Advising them also has not affect on their stand. That’s the saddest part. Cheers

  11. Scott Bikes
    Scott Bikes says:

    I think your best bet for standing out is to demonstrate a neighboring set of skills that may be rare for someone in your category. Then, once you land the job, you can leverage those skills into a position with more range.

  12. Brian Jensen
    Brian Jensen says:

    I can see the advantage of typecasting yourself, but how and when do you admit that the professional persona you’ve promoted is too narrow, shoddy or even defunct?

  13. Mystery Shopper, London
    Mystery Shopper, London says:

    There are far too many people who are generalists, especially in the UK. I have found that so many people now are in the education system studying for degrees which they are not yet even sure they want to pursue as a career – surely this isn’t a great idea when there are already a lack of jobs in the world? Mark

  14. Joe Black
    Joe Black says:

    Work to your strengths and not your weakness. I agree you cant be good at everything. Half the battle is knowing what you are good at in the first places, can take years to know yourself and add to this we all view ourselves differently. Other people may be the best judge of our strengths.

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