What’s the difference between a generalist and a specialist? A generalist knows less and less about more and more until eventually he or she knows nothing about everything. A specialist knows more and more about less and less until eventually he or she knows everything about nothing. Being either a generalist or a specialist is useless, and anyone trying to be both at the same time inevitably self-destructs.

It’s an age-old debate. Do you want the best all-around businessperson, athlete, etc., or the one with exactly the strengths needed for one particular task?


Olympic Dilemma

SAN JOSE, CA - JULY 01: The US Gymnastics wom...

Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife

Márta Károlyi faced that question in putting together the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team for this year’s Olympics. She chose to have mostly generalists with one outstanding specialist. She relied on Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Wieber, Ali Raisman and Kyla Ross to do well across the board, and on McKayla Maroney to do one thing, the vault, exceptionally well. The approach worked with Maroney playing a pivotal role in getting the U.S. ahead of the pack with her opening vault in the team competition on the way to the team all-around gold.

Business Dilemma

Generally speaking, the ideal approach for businesses is probably a blend of generalists and specialists. Unfortunately, “business in general” is an irrelevant theoretical construct. What matters is your business. Since each business is different, each business owner needs a different answer.



You probably can’t afford the luxury of many specialists in a start up. As the work changes rapidly you need flexible resources. You need people that can switch from meeting with customers, to balancing the books, to sweeping the floor without blinking. Of course, you may have one or two specialists with the core capability that is your competitive advantage. But they will be few and far between.

For example, your human resource function will likely be managed by your general managers or finance department.



As a mid-stage company, there will be a tendency to add in more specialists. It’s probably a good idea in strategically critical areas like building out your competitive advantages and revenue generation. But resist the temptation to add deep functional experts until your revenue base is more stable and consistent.

For example, you’ll probably bring in human resource generalists at this point – but not specialists like compensation and benefits experts, training and development experts and such.



As your organization matures, you can add functional specialists and give them career paths as well. Now you’ve got the capacity to go broad and deep at the same time – as did the U.S. Women’s Olympic Gymnastics team.

For example, now is the time to bring in those human resource, finance and marketing specialists, and the like across other functions.

Teams beat individuals every time. We learn over and over again how much better it is to bridge someone’s gaps by pairing them with someone with complementary strengths than by trying to “fix” their opportunities. Károlyi built a team that was stronger than the individuals for this year’s Olympics. It was a joy to watch. Make sure your team is stronger than the individuals so being a part of it is a joy for all.

This is a good example of step 9 of The New Leader’s PlaybookSecure ADEPT People in the Right Roles and Deal with Inevitable Resistance

Make your organization ever more ADEPT by Acquiring, Developing, Encouraging, Planning, and Transitioning talent:

  • Acquire: Recruit, attract, and onboard the right people
  • Develop: Assess and build skills and knowledge
  • Encourage: Direct, support, recognize, and reward
  • Plan: Monitor, assess, plan career moves over time
  • Transition: Migrate to different roles as appropriate

Click here to read about each step in the playbook

Click here for YouTube videos highlighting each step