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Commentary: The generalist-specialist job distinction is holding many back

It’s time to move beyond the generalist–specialist debate to focus on developing the critical skills needed for organisations to thrive in the digital economy, says Justin Field and Carys Chan.

MELBOURNE: What does it take to be a top leader in a great company? What makes someone successful in the C-suite?

Some say a CEO needs specialised skills and knowledge – because he has to be a specialist in his field, while others claim that a CEO should be a jack of all trades – and therefore ought to be a generalist.


Each view has its own merits. When entry-level employees are hired, they are often selected for their specialist skills.

This makes intuitive sense. You want experts in a technical domain to start out their careers by contributing unique knowledge and skills. 

Attendees at a job fair line up for an interview carrying their resumes in leather bags. (Photo: REUTERS/Jason Reed)

In fact, according to the Hays Asia Salary Guide 2019, 65 per cent of Singapore employers favour technical skills, like project management, over soft skills, like problem-solving, when hiring new employees. 

But, over time, career paths diverge. Some employees will become ever more specialist in their know-how, building careers where they are gurus in a specific area of business. 

For employees who select a non-management pathway, experts agree they need to continue with lifelong skills development. They need to sharpen their specialist skills to be successful in careers spanning decades. 

Other employees will express interest in managing people. As employees advance up the management ladder, they face a choice about what to focus on in their personal skills development.  

LISTEN: The Pulse: How to have a successful and fulfilling career

Emerging leaders need to hone their “deep human superskills”, like empathy, self-awareness and conflict resolution, says Crystal Lim-Lange, CEO and co-founder of career consulting firm Forest Wolf.


For employees to achieve their desired career success, it is more important to be an “agile learner”. 

READ: Agility, the secret skillset companies are looking to hire, a commentary

Business professor Guido Giannaso of Nanyang Technological University says this ability is critical when working in ambiguous environments, coping with change and conflicting agenda, learning rapidly and integrating knowledge acquired in multiple areas, and thinking outside the box.

Office workers at Raffles Place in Singapore. (File photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)

If employees can pick up new skills and knowledge at a rapid clip, then they are more likely to achieve career success in any industry.

Prof Giannaso also highlights cultural intelligence and global operating skills, alongside teamwork, as the most important soft skills in the digital era. 

Agility is a crucial skill because business leaders are faced with disruptive business challenges. Decision-making is also becoming more complex and ambiguous, as emerging technologies speed up the pace of work.

Leaders must now confront dilemmas they have never confronted before. 

Automation is shifting routine work into the hands of robots and computers — even white-collar work is shifting into realms of artificial intelligence now according to Jeetu Patel, Chief Product Officer and Chief Strategy Officer at enterprise platform company Box.

READ: Are you prepared to be replaced by robots? Some at Walmart soon have to be, a commentary

Google’s Project Oxygen used internal company data to identify what makes a great manager. The list of traits of Google’s best managers revealed coaching, empowerment and inclusivity among the key skills for effective leadership. 

Tellingly, technical and specialist skills do not appear on this list. 

FILE PHOTO: Visitors pass by the logo of Google at the high profile startups and high tech leaders gathering, Viva Tech, in Paris on May 16, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Charles Platiau)

For emerging leaders to become great leaders, they need to inspire others, advocate change, and transform organisations to rise to the challenges of disruption.

Oracle CEO Safra Catz has said, “I wish I could say that your success in change depends only on technology. It doesn’t. It also depends on sociology, on the people.” 

Great leaders maximise the contribution of their people, not machines, to the success of their businesses.


Surely a better way to think about the generalist–specialist divide is to think about it as two slices of the same pie, not merely a choice between two opposites. 

The human side of being a great leader, an effective chief executive, is truly generalist, founded on a suite of soft skills. 

But what about the fact that many top leaders have a Masters in Business Administration. Would getting an MBA help a person land a leadership role?

Indeed, CEOs and Presidents of the top 10 companies in the Fortune Global 500 have a minimum of a Masters degree in finance, business administration or engineering (two CEOs have doctoral qualifications).  

Yet, these qualifications, though admirable, were earned between two and four decades ago. 

Hats are thrown in the air following a graduation ceremony for students at University of Brighton in Brighton, southern Britain, August 3, 2018. (File photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville)

Success as a CEO now depends on inspiring people and leading strategy, rather than specialist technical knowledge of engineering, manufacturing or geology. 

Indeed, generalist skills are highly transferable between companies and across industries.

In an age when career mobility is the new normal, organisations are emphasising skills like self-awareness, influencing and empathic communication.  

READ: Career Mobility is the new Career Stability, a commentary

These skills are more durable and critical for success at the top echelons of management, helping emerging leaders adapt to disruption, competition and change.


Organisations, leaders and HR managers should move away from the generalist–specialist debate. Instead, they should focus on building a vibrant leadership pipeline, identifying high potential employees, and cultivating a broad set of relevant leadership skills in their emerging leaders.

Established leaders should step up and foster an organisational culture of ongoing learning. This can be done by identifying internal mentors equipped with these rapid learning skills, facilitating the transfer of knowledge to emerging leaders.

Several teammates have a project discussion together. (Photo: Unsplash/Stefan Stefancik)

READ: What 2019’s graduating jobseekers need to know – four recession-proof strategies, a commentary

Organisations can also set up innovation incubators that allow emerging leaders to experiment with new ideas, fail, and learn in the process.

Failing generates deeper and more powerful insights which will help leaders to hone their leadership skills and help their organisations gain competitive advantage. Sochiro Honda, the founder of Honda, captured it when he said: 

Success is 99 per cent failure.

It’s time to move beyond the generalist–specialist debate and focus on developing the critical skills needed for emerging leaders to achieve career success and for organisations to thrive in the digital economy.

Justin Field is principal organisation and talent development consultant at Oracle and adjunct lecturer at the University of New England's Business School. Carys Chan is Lecturer and assistant professor at RMIT University's College of Business.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)


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