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How Generalists Are Gaining Importance Over Specialists In Tech-leadership Roles

Today’s tech leaders, must therefore have a combination of having a business acumen with people management skills, to spearhead the organisations of the future.

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Traditionally, the path to success has been emphatically about excelling in a single field of discipline, rather than being a generalist. While that may have worked in the past, recent studies show that when it comes to leadership in the digital era, it may be better to be a ‘jack of all trades, than to be the master of one’. 

In a world of assertive specialists, it is the generalist (or in traditional terms, a polymath) who ends up being the showrunner. Steve Jobs is a good example, whose calligraphy learnings helped him design the first Macintosh computer and take Apple to new heights. Or take the well-renowned polymath Leonardo da Vinci, who single-handedly pioneered in various unrelated fields as an artist, an engineer, and an inventor among others. 

Increasingly, the goal for the modern-day tech-led industries is to learn and develop innovative business capabilities - quickly. As technology complexifies, leadership today needs its teams to learn as they go. Knowledge diversification inherently facilitates exploration in organisations. The view is that creative breakthroughs in leadership come from being able to derive, combine or leverage disparate areas of expertise.       

While there is considerable evidence to support both generalists and specialists, let’s revisit the long-debated question of whether technology leaders should go wide with their skills (be generalists) or deep (specialists). 

Generalist vs specialist leadership: pros and cons

The biggest benefit of having a generalist rather than an expert-led team is that specialists take longer to come up with new ideas and opportunities, while generalists can draw ideas from other fields. Studies show that generalists are more successful in fields with a slower pace of change. On the flip side, generalists show a decline in productivity as the pace of change increases, while specialists perform better with a faster pace of change.

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy that enables creativity and innovation. Both generalists and specialists can improve performance for a company. One connects dots which the other may not think of, especially if it’s a relatively stagnant field; while the other is good at efficiently building on the progress of a field, especially valuable when the pace of growth is fast. 

With technology taking the workforce towards being more responsive in real-time to a multitude of industry-specific challenges, the answer to the question of ‘Generalist or Specialist?’ may lie somewhere in the middle.

Meeting halfway - the T-shaped leadership model

Given the dearth of skilled talent in India, leadership with technology expertise alone cannot set the tone for how an organisation operates in and adapts to the new disruptions technologies have created. New competitors emerge every day with new ideas, changing the game faster and often in unforeseeable ways. This is where a combination of the two (generalists and specialists) can pay heed to the ‘T-shaped’ leadership model.

In the context of human resources, a ‘T shaped’ leader or employee is both a niche specialist and a generalist with people skills. Here the horizontal bar of ‘T’ represents the gamut of general knowledge and soft skills the individual has, while the vertical stem of ‘T’ symbolises his/her depth of hard technical skills. A good example of how technology convergence has led to new forms of software jobs is DevOps, where both development and operations teams have to work in a single multidisciplinary team. 

While tech-leaders with deep technical knowledge remains important, the entire organisation and the tech leaders especially, need to have a broad view of the applications and the ability to understand the interaction between them. 

Why tech-leaders need to also be connected generalists

In the coming years, the stem (vertical) part of T for leadership will be crucial to access, interpret and accumulate wisdom in a single discipline, e.g. contextualising data through artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

The top of the ‘T’ will steadily gain prominence as there will be a premium on leaders who can demonstrate more adaptive, creative and problem-solving skills. Which means, organizations seeking to innovate at the frontier should consider the benefits of hiring diverse tech-leaders who can constantly learn, relearn and unlearn. 

Today’s tech leaders, must therefore have a combination of having a business acumen with people management skills, to spearhead the organisations of the future.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Deepak Singh Ahlawat

The author is CEO, Purple Quarter and Founder of Anzy Careers

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