Career Advice – Why Do Employers Hire Specialists for Generalist Jobs?

Feb 11 2011 in Featured, Job Search Strategy, reCareered Blog by Phil Rosenberg

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This is a shock to the system of many candidates with small business management backgrounds, former entrepreneurs and especially senior level candidates. These candidates often try to highlight experience as generalists in resumes and interviews – yet few find this strategy brings strong results.

Let’s think about this. When employers hire generalists, they look for more than a person who can adapt to and manage different situations. Employers also look for those who can solve the business’ priority problems. If an employer was really searching for a broad skilled generalist to fill a position, for a position that required generalist skills, how would the hiring manager determine which of the hundreds (or thousands) of generalists to interview? Since generalists, by their very definition, promote broad skills over specialties, how can an employer who hasn’t yet met the candidate distinguish one generalist from another?

Broad general skills are nearly impossible to differentiate on paper and difficult to differentiate in person.

Today’s career advice lists four reasons employers hire subject matter experts for generalist jobs:

  1. For generalist positions, employers hire the best generalist out of of the SMEs they choose for interviews: Because interviewees are typically chosen objectively, it’s easier to be objective about specific skills and nearly impossible to be objective about general skills (at least by reviewing a resume). Therefore, specialists who demonstrate expertise in solving the business’ current priority problems typically are ones chosen to interview.
  2. Because they can: Seth Godin, one of the marketing geniuses of our time, had a brilliant post, “We Specialize in Everything”. Seth recognizes that when we can easily find the best, we want the best.

    But as Seth comments …“When choice is limited, I want a generalist. When selection is difficult, a jack of all trades is just fine. But whenever possible, please bring me a brilliant specialist.”

    Since choice is not limited today (in most employers perceive their employee choices to be unlimited), they tend to choose specialists with secondary general skills.

  3. Generalist resumes look the same: When your resume looks similar to your competitors, it’s impossible to differentiate yourself.
  4. How can you tell which generalist resume is the best? Typical hiring practices first screen by specific objective standards (AKA specialties) and then hiring managers choose by subjective measures (AKA gut feel). This method assures that specialists are chosen to interview, and the specialist who also has the best general skills and who fits best (determined in the interview), is typically the one hired.

Still describing yourself as a generalist or jack-of-all trades? Here’s some career advice I published earlier this week about how to transform your your generalist resume into a SME resume at “Career Advice – Five Ways To Express A Generalist Background As A Subject Matter Expert”


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Author: Phil Rosenberg

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