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In Praise of Generalists: A Guide for Recruiting

“We’re going to train a generalist group of leaders…I think that’s the future of leadership.” - John Chambers, CEO, Cisco Systems, 2010

One of the most significant yet least commented on business trends of the past decade has been the decline of generalists and the rise of specificity in postings for managerial positions.  I believe this trend is dangerous, leading to suboptimal hiring decisions.

There are three drivers of this trend:

  • The rise of keywords, both for attracting applicants on job boards and automated screening of applications,
  • The huge recession-driven talent pool, which encourages trying to find the ideal candidate, and
  • The belief that previous experience is a strong indicator of future success

The first driver is, in my opinion, silly. I refuse to accept any rationale for any decision that includes “the technology made me do it.” Who is in charge, us or some code?

The other two, however, warrant consideration. With an unprecedented amount of talent out there, we can afford to be choosy. Why wouldn’t you want itall if you could get it? Shoot for the bullseye!

Good argument, but predicated on the assumption that hiring managers correctly understand what they want. Which leads us to the third driver. How important is past experience really?

Back in business school, I was interviewed by a young brand managerwho had been reassigned to a new business a month earlier. “How long will it take until you really understand this business?” I asked, proud to ask a question that revealed penetrating brilliance. He looked at me like I was the inexperienced newbie that I was. “It took about two weeks,” he replied.

Over the past thirty years, I have found that while some assignments and some categories take a bit longer to learn than others, that guy got it right. We’re talking weeks, maybe months in some categories, but certainly not significant time. Unless you’re recruiting for someone’s rolodex, previous industry experience appears to be vastly over rated.

So what should recruiters look for?

Certainly, some jobs have technical requirements. You wouldn’t want to hire a lawyer to do an engineer’s job, or vice versa. But if the job’s primary accountability is the strategic leadership and the management and development of others, I believe it will be best filled by the best generalist you can find.

Consider these five qualities:

  • Flexible leadership styles
  • Driven bycuriosity and results
  • Stronganalytical and creative thinking
  • Enjoyscoaching and building relationships
  • Skilled communicator

In other words, can the applicant learn, solve, influence, lead, develop, and get-it-done? Is he or she capable of creating engagement among stakeholders? Wouldn’t a candidate who excels in these qualities trump someone with deeper industry experience?

But that begs the previous question: Why wouldn’t you want it all, someone with all that plus deep vertical experience? Let me be provocative: you’d be leaving money on the table. Explosive growth comes from disruptive thinking, and that comes from fresh perspective. A manager who knows everyone in the industry and who has thrived in the status quo is going to be wired towards defending the status quo or pushing incrementalism. An outsider, coming with fresh eyes, is far more likely to spot breakthrough opportunities that everyone else has missed. By insisting on having it all, you’ll be getting less.

A recent example: I was recently hired to advise on strategyfor an electronics company serving the do-it-yourself market. I have little electronics experience. However, I worked in sporting goods for some years, where our consumers were passionate hobbyists. I triangulated from my past and saw my client’s customers as passionate hobbyists rather than electrical nerds. This led to insights which, in the CEO’s words, “changed how we look at our business 180 degrees.” We identified huge growth opportunities that likely would not have been recognized by someone approaching electronics from an electronics background.

Net, next time you start recruiting for a new position, I encourage you to take a step back and ask what experience and qualities will be needed for the new person to succeed. Then cut the ones that can be learned quickly. Then listen deeply into the soul and intellect of each candidate. Watch how they interact with your team. Ask whether they have the generalist mentality that will enable them to succeed with tomorrow’s challenges, not just the ones in front of you today.

I’ll bet you’ll get a superior player. [Download a slightly more comprehensive version of this paper]

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One Response to “In Praise of Generalists: A Guide for Recruiting”

  1. [...] get started, shall we? Here’s the link that inspired me to do this: A Guide for Recruiting: (link updated 7/6/10) I recommend you take these points, and turn them around.  Be sure you are [...]

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