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Daniel Gulati

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Don't Be Scared to Specialize

Posted: 03/21/2012 2:23 pm

Are you the seven-foot superhero, the conniving villain, the strong-willed woman or the family-man cop? You'd better be one of them, or risk being cut from the cast. After studying Hollywood actors for three years, MIT Professor Ezra Zuckerman found that actors who typecast themselves (PDF) early in their careers tend to earn more money, have longer lifespans and enjoy more fame compared to generalist actors. Interestingly, young actors who specialize are able to land their first role quicker, and receive more job offers over the course of their careers. This is striking research for career generalists thinking about specializing in their next role, either within their current organizations, or in a completely new company.

There's no doubt that the lure to stay general is strong. For starters, the intellectual challenge of constantly jumping from industry to industry can be exhilarating. One management consultant argued: "Why would I ever work in one industry for the next 20 years when I can work in a new industry every other month?" Our research in Passion & Purpose confirms this- we found that 'intellectual stimulation' is now the most important factor when Millennials are choosing where to work, replacing both 'money' and 'prestige'.

Beyond the daily adrenaline rush, there is also an emerging belief that accumulating breadth of experience is essential to being a CEO of tomorrow. 85% of our surveyed students agreed that business leaders needed to thoroughly understand private, public and non-profit sectors. One respondent simply said: "Leadership will require people to learn more about the world around them." Don't risk going narrow, remain in the generalist cocoon, and it seems as though you'll eventually become a leader.

Finally, specialist roles are often unadvertised and typically filled through networks, making them difficult to unearth in the first place. For mid-career professionals looking to specialize, embarking on a comprehensive networked job search can be daunting. Said one consultant: "I really want to get a job as an E-commerce Manager, but it's hard to start when you don't know anyone in e-commerce." For young graduates looking to land their first job, the combination of a relationship-based search and a lack of work experience makes hunting down a specialist role particularly difficult.

But the broad, sweeping generalist faces career risks, too. First, by staying a generalist, you're also narrowing your choices. Imagine a marketing consultant- experienced in industries from farming to financial services- being asked to run a $200m budget for a big bank. Rare, also, would be the strategy consultant tapped for a CFO role at a Fortune 100. That's because with time, the generalists are specialists too. They specialize in being generalists.

Secondly, filling a niche early in your career can help you stand out, at a time when competition can be brutal. In the acting world, adopting a generic identity gives the "minimum level of recognition necessary to continue to obtain work". Generalists, on the other hand, are much more difficult to cast for immediately open roles.

Finally, you can't stay a generalist forever, or you'll risk playing out the lead role in an unhappy career. I've argued before that people need to actively seek out their passions, find ways to amplify them and double down on winners. Diversifying your dreams is important, but that doesn't mean you should hedge for a darker day forever.

With all the buzz around hiring for attitude, we systematically underestimate the importance of category experience and relevant skills. Recent research implores us to use statistically-validated testing to predict job skills most critical to success, arguing that skills are a much more significant and consistent indicator of success potential. In short- you've gotta be special at something. With that in mind, here are three questions to ask in the quest to typecast yourself:

1. When do I specialize? For those who are truly unsure of their career passions, it makes sense to stay general. However, this isn't an excuse to stop hunting. As Clay Christensen argues, it's important to set aside time to discover your passions, and work to amplify them through your career. Buy yourself time early, but don't get stuck in the audience while someone else is winning the Oscar.

2. What do I specialize in? In today's dynamic economy, it can be difficult to choose an industry and function that will be relevant in the long-term. With your passions at front of mind, make an educated guess on an area that is big, growing and where you can accumulate transferable skills. A quick hint: define industry and functional parameters creatively, and you'll avoid getting stuck in a career rut. Robin Williams' comic skills took him to the heights of Hollywood. He also starred in animated films, on stage and on Broadway.

3. How far do I specialize? Deciding how deep you'll go is crucial. Some degree of intellectual breadth is important, as is a level of future career optionality. In practice, though, this is more a function of opportunities that come your way, rather than a pre-determined strategy. If you find yourself being dragged too deep, it may be time to find something else on the side.

Although it can be tough to close career doors, new ones will burst open, so you can't be scared to specialize.

A version of this post was originally published on HBR.org.

 
 
 

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