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The Brazen Careerist

Generally speaking, avoid being a generalist

During the yahoo days of the Internet, when I heard generalist, I heard "she says she's doing two jobs and pays herself double." Now when I hear generalist, I hear "good at nothing and unemployed." In either case, generalist is the label for a career that will die.

Think cars: You never hear an advertiser say, "Buy my car, it's good for everything!" Volvos are safe. BMWs are fun. Saturns are easy to buy. Just as successful brands offer specific benefits, successful careerists offer specific talents. You get to the top by being the best, and you can't be the best at everything.

Ezra Zuckerman, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, agrees -- and has the research to prove it. In his study of typecasting in Hollywood, "Robust Identities or Nonentities," Zuckerman found that specialization leads to longer, more productive careers.

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Contrary to conventional Hollywood wisdom, big bucks come most often to people who become known for a certain type of role. Zuckerman finds that typecasting, as this practice is called, is also a moneymaker in the business world where the hiring system is set up to reward those who differentiate themselves.

"Headhunters are specialized," he says, "and they look for something they can package and sell."

Generalist is a term that is positive for the first few years of a career. For example, if you're a standout college grad you can win acceptance into a prestigious general management program like the one at GE where you learn a little of everything. But the whole point of the program is to use the time to figure out what you're good at and focus on that.

So take a gamble. Figure out what you're best at and start making your mark. Then hope for good timing -- that someone needs that talent when you are the best that there is.

Carly Fiorina, for example, is an outstanding marketer in the technology sector. She got to the top of HP by being the best, but also by having a little luck: When Hewlett-Packard was hiring a CEO, the company needed marketing more than anything else. If Hewlett-Packard needed an engineering genius to lead the company, Fiorina would not have been a candidate. If a food products company needed a marketing-oriented CEO, Fiorina would not have been a candidate. People who define themselves clearly actually became clearly the wrong candidate for some positions, and that is a risk that super-achievers take.

Many people hesitate to define themselves as they climb from rung to rung because defining oneself in effect limits who you can be. But you don't want to be no one. Top players in the corporate field must have clear definition, which is an inherent risk. You must risk that there will be no top position at your company for someone with your extreme talents.

People become known for their extremes. If you are not extremely good at something you will not get to the top. Carly Fiorina got the HP job because she is extremely good at marketing. Steve Jobs revived Apple by being extremely good at design. When you think about your specialization, think discipline (marketing, sales, operations, etc.) and sector (media, technology, fashion, etc.)

For those of you who are not convinced of the benefits of typecasting, consider the current job market: There are hundreds of applicants for most jobs, so there are surely many qualified people applying. In this case, hiring managers can demand a perfect fit -- and specialists rather than generalists are the candidates who offer a perfect fit.

Figure out what your strengths are and hone them. Sure, take varied positions in the company and learn a range of skills, but make sure people know where your talents lie. People at the top need to see you as someone who is extremely good at something, and no one is extremely good at everything, so don't sell yourself that way to upper management.

-- Posted: April 12, 2004

 
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See Also
To be successful, act like a movie star
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