Take the risk of specializing in order to stand out

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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.

22 replies
  1. Dave
    Dave says:

    It is definitely true you need to “go deep” in something in order to be taken seriously. I am a total technology generalist in so many ways…but when I do take something on, I pursue it relentlessly to a level of detail that makes me an expert quickly. So, when I say generalist, it doesn’t mean “I am familiar with many networking technologies…”; it means stuff like, “yeah, our router was having problems, so I had to go figure out how to build one.” Or “the web site was giving an error message and the programmer was not around, so I had to learn java enough to debug his code and find the problem.” It makes me a very valuable person for a company, but I am harder to market because you don’t need very many people like me; i.e. my role is not fungible. Headhunters don’t know what to do with me. Then, if I tell them I’m also a writer and admitted to practice law…forget it.

  2. Jeremy
    Jeremy says:

    Agreed with this approach. One caveat, though…mobility is a big help for specialists. Ideally, of course, your specialty is so special that you can work from home (or the ski hill, this time of year), but the reality is that when an organization is paying you big bucks for your special skills, they probably want lots of face time. Which means you have to be prepared to move if the demand for your specialty doesn’t happen to be where you live (or your ski resort).

  3. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    Also, you can have more than one specialty, as long as they target different audiences. The key is to focus your message and avoid confusing potential employers and collaborators.

    When Dave goes to writer’s conferences, he might pitch himself as the #1 true crime guy for Milwaukee, not the guy who really knows networking.

    And because the two audiences rarely overlap, there would be no confusion.

    But when you target the same audience with different messages, confusion sets in. I have enterprise experiences, as well as consumer Internet experience. That’s a tougher sell to VCs than someone who’s always done one or the other.

  4. Luigi Martin
    Luigi Martin says:

    I’ve always been a generalist, good at lots of things, but able to specialise when needed.

    I must say I’ve never liked specialising.

    I like to think of it like being a dinosaur (or some other animal) that specialised so much, that when its environment, food, weather etc became scarce, or changed, they couldn’t change and adapt, and then became extinct.

    Specialising can pay very well and make you very successful, but when the “hoola hoop” craze fades, you need to be able to respecialise, or go back to your generalist roots.

    I guess its just horses for courses.

  5. matchmaker
    matchmaker says:

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  6. interior design school
    interior design school says:

    Initially I specialized in psychology, then, because the job market was like that, I started teaching design on high school. But being in employed by the Government has disadvantages also. The good thing is that I've had a safe job and a nice working environment, however the money aren't great.

  7. Wade Washburn
    Wade Washburn says:

    Great article, I completely agree! I’ve spent most of my career history as a generalist. While this has afforded me experience in multiple fields it came at a price in the form of weak direction and focus. Consequently I didn’t really decide what I wanted to do until I reached my mid-30’s. I’m now at a point in my career where I really want to form a specialty. I work in the IT industry so I don’t think there is a big danger in loss of demand for highly skilled and specialized individuals.

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