We Make Choices: Specialist or Generalist?

Ann, an architect at a big firm, got her first opportunities to be the lead designer on two daycare centers. A young, working mother, herself, she developed immediate rapport with her clients. The two completed projects gave her technical knowledge of the building type that few other architects had. She knew how the requirements for bathroom capacity grew with the number of children at a center, that the space had to be designed so that no staff member could be out of sight from his colleagues with a child, and much else. The partners saw her as a strong advantage in winning additional daycare projects, and, more critically, winning bigger projects that included a daycare center. But, on the next opportunity to help sell such a project, she tried to opt out. Her reason? She didn’t want to become a specialist.

I hear this a lot. I also work with people ten years older than Ann was at the time of the events described in the preceding paragraph who have labored diligently to remain generalist. Many of these people find themselves in a difficult position. They are at the point in their careers when they are expected to do some real selling. The question is, what?

Young professionals who feel they are ready to start selling face a challenge: Their firms’ partners perceive little short-term benefit from putting them in front of a client during a sale, and the clients perceive none at all. The partners know more about handling a sales meeting, and more about almost any subject the client is likely to raise, than is the young professional. After all, the partners have been at it for years. Lacking this knowledge, the young professional has little to add, and might even say something wrong which would reduce the firm’s chances of winning.

But if you are a specialist in, let’s say, the design of day care centers or of the effect of the new tax law on insurance trusts, you do know more about that one thing than older partners. Then there is a reason to bring you to client meetings. You have something to talk about that few others can. Being a specialist makes you special. Anne, at her tender age, was being offered more opportunities in a month to sell a professional service than many would have in a year. That experience had huge value.

As you can see, I am an advocate of specialization. I am because I have seen and experienced its value. I also don’t see it as being as limiting as many do. That is because I don’t share some of the mistaken beliefs that many others have. Before ending this note, I will try to debunk three of the most pernicious ones:

Mistaken Belief #1: If I specialize, that is all I will be able to do. While this is sometimes true, often it is not. Frequently there is not enough work in the young professional’s area of specialization for them to work solely in that area. That was certainly the case with Anne. This question requires careful consideration on a case-by-case basis.

Mistaken Belief #2: If I specialize now, I won’t be able to specialize in anything else. Also untrue. There are many people who have more than one specialty. And quite a few who have more than one specialty at a time. It’s hard to develop two specialties at a time—the development usually happens sequentially—but once you have expert credentials in an area, the maintenance of your reputation is not so time consuming. You can then go out and develop credentials in a second area. If your markets for the two specialties differ, your clients for one specialty won’t even know of your other area of expertise.

Mistaken Belief #3: The leading partners in my firm aren’t narrow specialists, so there’s no benefit in my becoming one. But most of the senior partners and rainmakers in your firm where specialist, or at least what was considered a specialist at that time. That they don’t seem to be specialist now is due to another trend at professional firms, the tendency for specialists with good client skills to become generalist again as they get older.

But that’s an issue for another day.

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