The Sensational Shift with Susan Bernstein, MBA, PhD
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Why It’s Risky to Call Yourself a “Generalist” — and What to Do Instead

NV0eHnNkQDHA21GC3BAJ_Paris LouvrTeri, a 40-something senior HR rep at a Fortune 100, nearly whispered as she confided in me. I heard the deep exasperation in her voice.  ”Dr. Susan, I’m a generalist. I don’t really have one specific skill set. That makes it hard for me to attract the right roles.  I’m in a pretty senior role for my age and experience. So it’s difficult to find my niche!”

Teri had fallen under the spell of artificial job titles.

I invited Teri to think about her comment from the employer’s point of view:  What are you conveying when you call yourself a “generalist?”

In my experience working with hiring managers and recruiters, they perceive the “generalist” label as wishy-washy. It doesn’t say much. It’s unclear. The “generalist” label skirts the question of, “What can you do for this organization?”

Rather than essentially replying “I can do a bunch of things for you,” you could demonstrate the ways you have been most helpful to an organization.

You see, the factors that make someone a “generalist” or a “specialist” are all relative. At one company, your breadth of experience may seem broad based on where the company is in its business life cycle. Younger companies, especially startups, tend to give people a greater range of activities to accomplish. They’ve got fewer people wearing bigger hats than in an older, more established organization. Those kinds of companies employ more people, so each person can play a narrower role.

So first off, if you find your skills are labeled as “generalist” by your organization, and you want to continue using a broad scope of activities, consider moving to a younger, more nimble company, who will value the full scope of all you can do. That’s what I suggested for Teri. She’s now running HR for a fast-growing five year old company, where they love having her wear many hats.

Second, if your experience is more diffuse than what you’re seeing in the overall job market, you can shift from being labeled as a “generalist” to a “specialist” by getting more specific about your contribution to the overall organization.

In other words, you can position yourself in a way that makes you stand out, by asking yourself: How does my work makes a difference?

To help you hone in on your differentiation, think about this: All organizations face four main problems:

When you take the time to consider the impact of your work, you likely focus on one of these more than the others. Even if you don’t directly address these issues, the ultimate result of your efforts falls into one of these categories.

Let’s take organizationals issues one by one, so you can consider where you have made the greatest impact:

Boosting Profitability

How has your work contributed to the bottom line? When you think of the simple equation that profit equals revenue minus cost, that can give you an important clue. Bring to mind your work experiences. Then get strategic: How has your work contributed — directly or indirectly — to greater revenues? Have you helped make a product or service more valuable, warranting a price increase that shows up in the bottom line? How about how you’ve helped to lower costs?

My client, Paul, had been a programmer. When we brainstormed together, he realized that although his most three most recent project involved him coding over a million lines, the real reason for his work was to help create a new product to beat out the competition.

So instead of framing his experience as coding as a “generalist,” he started saying that he created “revenue enhancing products,” by wisely coding features that would beat the competition. Management moved him along faster, because Paul positioned himself as a profitability booster.   

Increasing Productivity

How has your work made operations more efficient? Have you helped to remove bottlenecks? Do you look for ways to do things faster? Or with fewer resources?

When I was working with Lori, she was a “Special Projects Manager” for a financial services company. This was a polite way of saying “generalist,” or “jill of all trades.” That title wasn’t doing her well in terms of her promotability, and when she was interviewing with other companies, people often scratched their heads.

Lori and I looked at her experiences, and discovered that most of her projects had helped to make the banks in her manager’s portfolio more efficient. In one project, she helped transform a paper-based process into an automated one, taking the process from 7 days on average to 1 day. That’s just one example.

When Lori started seeing herself as a “productivity booster,” she sought out projects that used her expertise. And she ultimately moved on to a new role at another financial services company where they put her in charge of a team of people who addressed productivity issues. No longer did she feel saddled with the murky “generalist” label. She narrowed in on her expertise, and while she handled a wide array of productivity issues, she could address more specific issues.   

Speeding Time-to-Market

Are you the kind of person who’s always dreaming up ideas for products or services, and then speedily getting them ready to sell? Do you feel unsatisfied unless you’re making products or services come to life? If so, you might classify your experience as “speeding time to market.”

My client, Matthew, had a diverse role, where he wore many hats at the small real estate software company where he worked. He did some business development, some marketing, some product development, and some operations. Because he met with customers frequently, he was constantly seeing opportunities to build new products to meet their needs.

Matthew loved interfacing with clients, listening to their problems, transforming those problems into solutions, and assembling teams to create new offerings. Together, we repositioned him as a “Market Accelerator,” and he landed a role at a company that was all too happy to have his diverse experience quickly translating customer needs into products.

If you also know how to commercialize products, or streamline their manufacturing or production, you might recast your experience as “reducing time to market,” which is also a highly valuable skill, as it speeds up an organization’s revenue stream.

Increasing Customer Satisfaction 

Do you love looking out for customers or clients, so you can make them happier— whether on your own, or as part of a team? If that’s the case, see if “increasing customer satisfaction” is your calling card.

Have you received excellent feedback from customers? What campaigns have you run to improve how customers view your organization and its products or services — and what kinds of metrics are demonstrating the positive changes you’ve secured for them? What are you doing to create ways for customers to offer feedback — and then what do you do with their input?

Jen, another woman I helped in her career transition, worked for a major hotel chain. She’d been transferred to 12 different properties in 8 years, and wanted to work in a more stable corporate role for them instead. But she’d been in an extended rotation program, and had played lots of roles, including hotel manager, finance manager, operations manager, and banquets manager. She felt she was unfairly miscast as a “generalist.”

We figured out how to reposition Jen by looking at her contribution. After listening to stories of her key accomplishments, we noticed that she was constantly on the lookout for how to delight customers. She also proactively set in place a scorecard to enhance the experience of corporate clients who booked banquets and events. As a result, in a six month period, banquet bookings jumped 15%.  

Your Prescription for Escaping the “Generalist” Label

If you’re unhappy being known as a “generalist,” ask yourself these questions:

Need a bigger dose of positioning help?

If you’re struggling with how to talk about yourself – for interviews, on your resume, on your LinkedIn profile, I’d love to help you with Remarkable Repositioning coaching. In this one-month experience, you will:

Want to learn more about how I can help you improve the health of your career? Click here to get to know me. Or click here to set up a complimentary career consultation!

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