Most organizations need employees with knowledge, skills, and capabilities that span multiple disciplines. These people—widely known as generalists—bring to their work a broad range of experience, training, and thinking that make them well-suited to tackle the challenges of rapidly evolving workplaces. Yet despite the demand for generalists, these employees often feel unsupported in their development, unrecognized for their contributions, and disconnected from their workplace community. Organizations can help generalists by giving them chances to apply their strengths, opportunities to expand their skills, and integrated recognition that deepens their connection to purpose, accomplishment, and one another.
To quote the journalist and author David Epstein, our current work environments are “wicked domains.”
By this he means they contain ambiguous situations without clear or complete guidelines.1 There may or may not be repetitive patterns to learn from, and feedback can be delayed, inaccurate, or both. Success is difficult and the rules change rapidly. It’s the difference between playing a game of chess and predicting the winner of a Formula One race. The only certain thing in a wicked domain is uncertainty.
Since the pandemic, uncertainty has saturated supply chains, healthcare, and the transportation industry. Workers everywhere have reset their expectations of flexibility, autonomy, and equity. And the Great Resignation has left organizations scrambling and scratching their heads as once loyal employees say goodbye in record numbers.
Fortunately, a wicked domain is some of the most fertile ground for innovation. It forces us to be creative, try new ways of doing things, take risks, embrace the unknown, and look beyond our histories for inspiration. The wicked domain of the current workplace is pushing organizations to change how they retain, attract, engage, grow, and connect employees.
But adapting to workplace changes requires more than adjusting locations or schedules. Organizations now need employees who are comfortable operating in ambiguity. Workers who have knowledge, skills, and capabilities across several different environments. People who have a breadth of experience, diversity in training, and interdisciplinary thinking. Employees known as generalists.
In the past, generalists played a secondary role, filling skills gaps not covered by specialists (employees who focus on a specific area or single skillset for years). An overwhelming majority (87%) of companies report they have skills gaps now or expect to have gaps within the next five years.2 And this makes generalists extremely valuable.
To be clear, generalists are not dabblers or jacks of all trades. They bring a unique combination of abilities and expertise that makes them ideally suited to tackle the insecurity of the post-pandemic workplace. They see the bigger picture and connect diverse ideas in their work communities to find new solutions. They are curious, imaginative, and willing to experiment. Because of this, generalists are better equipped to handle the wicked horizon and even lead in these times of change. In fact, Harvard Business Review found over 90% of 17,000 CEOs they studied had general, not specialized, management experience.3
Now’s the time for generalists to shine.
“What we used to think of as traditional work—very specific location, very specific ways of working together, very well-defined work metrics—those are changing.”
—JAVIER HERNANDEZ, RESEARCHER, MICROSOFT
GENERALISTS ARE ALREADY ADDING VALUE TO THE ORGANIZATION
In our research, 52% of employees consider themselves to be generalists. Additionally, we found generalists in all functional areas—from sales to supply chain, customer service to manufacturing and HR—and in all levels of the organization.
Generalists deliver on expectations by bringing a variety of specific skills to the workplace that differentiate them from specialists. Furthermore, our research identified seven distinctive attitudinal and behavioral approaches to work that comprise our Generalist Index.
The ever-accelerating pace of change in business means organizations need employees who are comfortable navigating uncertainty and who solve problems creatively. Generalists exemplify both.
Of course, not every generalist excels at every skill or behavior. However, our research shows more than half of them (51%) thrive in ambiguity, roughly two thirds (65%) cope well in highly stressful situations, and nearly three fourths (71%) prefer projects that challenge their skills and thinking.
In terms of creative problem solving, another two thirds (65%) of generalists excel at tasks that require connecting new ideas and working across disciplines, and most (59%) challenge the accepted ways of doing things often.
When generalists are given work and projects that push their thinking, it increases the probability of:
- Great work by 804%
- Engagement by 289%
- Inclusion by 300%
It also dramatically impacts business outcomes. When generalists innovate to overcome obstacles, it increases the odds of:
- Increased revenue over the past year by 114%
- Increased employee desire to be with their company in one year by 539%
- An organization that will thrive by 26x
“A rapidly changing, wicked world demands conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts.”
—DAVID EPSTEIN, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST
DESPITE THE DEMAND FOR GENERALISTS, MOST FEEL UNSUPPORTED AND DISCONNECTED FROM THEIR WORK COMMUNITY
The increase in demand for generalists, combined with challenging work in the wicked workplace, has led to 75% of generalists feeling burned out. Regardless of all the value they bring to the workplace, they aren’t always supported or appreciated by their organizations:
They’re also less likely than specialists to feel positive about the six Talent Magnets (which make an organization’s culture attractive to talent):
This all leads to the question: Why don’t generalists feel more positive and connected to their organizations?
The unfortunate but logical answer is that the value employers place in generalists’ skills is not reflected in career development and promotions. Traditional career paths at most workplaces still favor specialists.
More than half (56%) of generalists believe there is no clear career path for them, with 35% feeling excluded from promotions. Nearly half (48%) say specialists move up the career ladder faster. Some generalists feel it’s easier to see the goals and accomplishments of specialists, because their roles are more defined and specific.
Generalists may need new titles or even permission to define their roles more broadly, and this can be difficult for organizations to accept. To properly clarify the role of generalists requires a more holistic re-evaluation of talent acquisition, career development, and even norms of working.
Furthermore, many generalists don’t feel appreciated for their work and often have poor recognition experiences at their organizations. Recognition is not part of their everyday employee experience or given in meaningful ways.
It’s worth noting that when employees don’t feel connected to their workplace communities, the likelihood of several important outcomes decreases:
- Great work falls 91%
- Sense of belonging drops 88%
- Desire to stay with the company for another year falls 82%
Organizations that fail to support, appreciate, and connect generalists risk losing talent with skills and perspectives that are more valuable than ever.
Companies can help their generalist employees thrive by providing opportunities for growth, chances to use their strengths, and integrated recognition.
1. Provide opportunities for generalists to grow
Generalists want to develop their skills and advance in their careers as far and as fast as other employees.
Set goals for generalists and highlight their achievements. Give them modern leaders who will mentor and connect them to opportunities such as special projects that allow them to use their range of skills.
2. Connect generalists to their strengths
Generalists, like all employees, thrive when they have a chance to do what they do best. When leaders understand the unique talents and experience their generalist employees bring to work, they can help them capitalize on those skills, find more success, and build stronger connections.
Start by asking generalist employees what their strengths are and give them projects that allow them to use those skills. Connect them with other departments or peers who can leverage their strengths. When generalists have projects that challenge them, connect new ideas, and work across disciplines, their probability of producing great work increases 322%. They’re also 98% more likely to feel connected to teams, 102% more likely to feel connected to leaders, and 110% more likely to feel connected to their organization.
However, for generalists to maximize their strengths, organizations must embrace a holistic and adaptable approach to overall business success. Leaders must be willing to empower generalists to take uncertain paths to deliver results and, at times, be willing to let a generalist thrive in another team or department for the sake of their personal fulfillment and the company’s greater interest.
“Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses—especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
—LEONARDO DA VINCI, INVENTOR AND ARTIST
3. Prioritize employee recognition
Recognition has a powerful impact on generalists, even more than for specialists. But recognition must be personalized and frequent to be effective.
Ensure recognition is built into the everyday employee experience. Praise people when they connect ideas, resources, and each other across your organization. Provide a variety of tools and training for employees to give recognition often and make it personal.
Recognition should come from leaders, peers, and even colleagues in other departments. It should apply to a variety of accomplishments. And when it’s integrated—meaning it’s personalized, frequent, and part of the everyday culture—the data show a magnified impact on the great work, engagement, inclusion, and burnout of generalists:
Integrated recognition also increases the odds of a positive employee experience and a thriving workplace culture by 391% and 646%, respectively.
RISE OF THE GENERALIST—KEY TAKEAWAYS
The post-pandemic workplace is an evolving, uncertain environment that needs employees with interdisciplinary training and experience.
Generalists have the broad range of skills and perspectives to innovate and lead in the constantly changing workplace.
Despite their valued skills, most generalists feel unsupported and disconnected at work.
Generalists require growth opportunities and integrated recognition to help them thrive.
Rise of the Generalist Sources
- “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World,” David Epstein, 2019.
- “The Skillful Corporation,” McKinsey Quarterly, Five Fifty, 2018.
- “The Fastest Path to the CEO Job, According to a 10-Year Study,” Elena Lytkina Botelho, Kim Rosenkoetter Powell, and Nicole Wong, Harvard Business Review, January 31, 2018.
- “Harvard Lecturer: ‘No Specific Skill Will Get You Ahead in the Future’—But this ‘Way of Thinking’ Will,” Vikram Mansharamani, CNBC, June 15, 2020.
- “Forget Specialists Vs. Generalists—Hire Learners,” Alida Miranda-Wolff, Medium, November 12, 2017.
- “You Don’t Want a Child Prodigy,” David Epstein, New York Times, May 24, 2019.
- O.C. Tanner Client Story
CASE STUDY—HIRING FOR CHANGE
Technology companies often hire IT specialists with specific skills to fit defined roles. But Google hires problem solvers who have a “general cognitive ability” over other candidates with deeper role-related knowledge and skills. Lisa Stern Hayes, a recruiter at Google, explains:
“Think about how quickly Google evolves,” she said. “If you just hire someone to do one specific job, but then our company needs change, we need to be rest assured that the person is going to find something else to do at Google. That comes back to hiring smart generalists.”4
Hiring generalists enables Google to be agile and adaptable in their constantly evolving industry.
CASE STUDY—DIVERSIFYING EARLY PAYS BIG DIVIDENDS
Hyde Park Angels, a leading early-stage investment company, takes a 70/30 approach to working and learning in its intern and fellowship programs. That means 70% of participants’ time is spent on projects, while 30% is spent in informational meetings, educational workshops, reading books, and assisting in a wide variety of other areas.
With these opportunities for learning and development beyond a specific skill set, the company has experienced greater performance, engagement, and innovation.5
CASE STUDY—WHERE THE RECOGNITION MEETS THE ROAD
CEAT, one of India’s leading tire manufacturers with global sales, uses recognition and rewards to create better employee experiences and achieve its vision and purpose.
The company’s recognition program, “CHAMP,” includes eCards, spot awards, and quarterly awards for performance. And it encourages innovation and teamwork across functions, ultimately helping all employees—especially generalists—do their best work. “In all of the company’s performance, financial metrics, and efficiency parameters, you can see the reflection of CHAMP,” says Dilip Modak, Senior Vice President of Manufacturing.7