[ I’ll Take Sherla ] Who Do You Hire: Generalists or Specialists?

The Twitter stream  has carried a great dialogue regarding the merits of hiring “generalists” versus “specialists” the last few days.

As someone whose “Quick Start” work with start-ups has enabled  companies to get fast, effective out of the gate performance, I have a point of view, and the experience of 25+ years in business, about when to hire – and when to avoid – either type.

The nature of good early stage companies is that typically there is lots of work to do, not enough time and cash to do it, and bundles of excitement. I add good early stage because their is nothing like (some) cash constraints to give budding organizations discipline and prioritization regarding what to do, who to do, and when to do things.

Specialists (think IP attorneys, HR compensation wonks, PR types, Regulatory/Compliance people, etc.) are great when you have a volume and flow of work to keep them busy. Specialists are (mostly) people who like specifics of what they’re doing: it’s why they specialize (and hence the phrase “specialists”). They are critical for certain things and firms can’t or shouldn’t move forward without them.

The downside? Sometimes the required skills twins – Willing and Able – aren’t present  with specialists. They want to do things outside their speciality area but take more work then the added hands they provide, or they’re prickly and picky about the tasks they’ll take.  In short, not always flexible, not always easy.

Generalists on the other hand can be a mile wide and an inch deep in talent. They’re able to cover ground fast and quickly but the job may not be perfect. The phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” fits in that generalists give you tremendous resourcing flexibility. The “but” for generalists is that sometimes you need great depth: generalists generally won’t have that type of domain expertise.

The upside? Experienced generalists can give you accelerated history and understanding: like the well-practiced internist or pediatrician, they’ve seen and touched a lot, and can get you in the right ballpark faster and better any specialist.

One of my favorite clients, Jo Whitehouse, is one of those generalists. While she has a strong medical background as a rheumatologist, her practice at Jumpstart BioDevelopment, is really as a generalist. Jo is able to cover a breadth of roles and get early stage start-ups, or due diligence projects up and running. Not unlike the hub in a wheel, Jo’s broad abilities lets her know who and when to pull someone into a project. The flip side is that once a project gets up and running – and ready for more structure and specialists – it is time for her to move on to the next project. She does not have deep domain expertise (outside of rheumatology) to add high value for the cost of her time.

Yesterday I sat in the lobby of my son’s grade school between meetings. Powercord plugged in, wifi access enabled, I was privy to watch a wizard of a “generalist” in action as Sherla Nunn did her magic. Part traffic cop, part receptionist, part first aid coordinator, and full-time go-to person, Sherla handled a steady and brisk stream of kids, staff, teachers and visitors at Marin Country Day School. Ever polite, firm when needed, resourceful as called for, Sherla covered the roles of five or six people in her one person job.

And my advice? Hire generalists when you have lots of ground to cover quickly and pull specialists in on an as-needed basis as consultants or part-time contractors. But once the organization starts to grow, start flip the mix and start to hire more specialists then generalists are your needs get narrower and your specialized work volume grows.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive and team coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above.