When working with my HR teams or reviewing job listings, I’ve noticed a trend: Each role seems to require such specialized, specific experience that candidates are often not entertained because they are not the exact puzzle piece that fit into a “complex” matrix-ed organization. The concept of a well-rounded employee isn’t even thought about.
Yet when I was watching the television “filler” pieces during a rain delay of a recent NASCAR race, Hendrick Motorsports was profiled for recruiting college football players for their pit crews. For people who don’t understand the sport, the pit crew team not only directly supports the driver. More importantly, they directly support and adjust the car during the race to adapt it to the current racing conditions.
So, wait. That means in a professional sport that ranks in the top 5 of most popular sports, and one that relies on and wins because of mechanical, material, and chemical engineering, top teams like Hendrick Motorsports (winner of 15 championships) don’t seek highly specialized engineers to man their pits. Instead, they look for general qualities like performance under pressure, training regimen, team and leadership experience, and then train to the specifics of the tasks. I took a moment to self-reflect: Who do I look for on my teams?
When I build a team, I look for foundational qualities like curiosity, passion, team skills and a sense of humor – not expert qualities. Why these traits? Simple: curiosity means the ability to take risk, fail learn, and try again; passion comes with giving a crap and having resilience; a sense of humor means you’re smart (and nothing breaks a stressful situation like a good belly laugh!)
These qualities are found in generalists, in people with well-rounded experience. To expand upon that: Curiosity enables people to try new stuff and yes, sometimes fail. But they learn and do so differently. Passion drives people to try, try, and try again to complete the task at hand and not stop at the first roadblock. And a sense of humor not only stops egos from getting in the way, it brings hope to a desperate situation. It also conveys an ability to infer and link non-linear items. That said, try to get HR to provide you with a generalist job description, let alone build a pipeline of generalists for you to interview.
So, do generalists as leaders have merit? I can quickly think of one example – military leaders. In the Army, thetop leaders are generals who sit with the president or in front of Congress. Let’s look at this very prescriptive rank: they are general officers. Not only do our generals shed the colors of their previous branch with their first star (technically they wear no color, or black), they are also required to have a strategic understanding of over 20 military branches. What’s the saying by Napoleon… “An army runs on its belly”? No quartermaster means no food and therefore no army; not as sexy as combat but just as important in winning a war.
But this is opposite of the trend I see professionally. I recently read a book that discussed how business has spent the last 100 years moving away from the general manager (GM) and toward specialization. This all started with Henry Ford’s expansion of mass production in the 1920’s, and was elevated to the C-suite by Peter Drucker’s 1950’s managerial revolution; he nearly singlehandedly set the cast for the millions of MBA-toting business people (of whom I am one) and the entire business consulting industry.
There’s a reason why scale was so sexy then: It reduced costs (which, by the way, enabled every line worker to own a Model T). But here’s a pragmatic question: Is production more complex now than during the industrial revolution? I daresay no, as production really has not changed; we continue to take harvested raw materials and manufacture finished goods through the same process Ford implemented almost 100 years ago.
Are the production lines today more complex with their robots? Again, no, as no robot is more complex than a human. Are the machines we make more complicated? Yes and no: No because the machines we use every day, like the internal combustion engine and electrical motors, were functioning in the mid-1800s. Modern-day automobiles and airplanes were invented between 1885 and 1905. And yes, because the systems around these designs that lead to much improved efficiency are more complicated.
When you think about it, life is not really that different than it was 75 years ago with cars on the roads, planes in the sky, news and music available in the home. It’s just that their scale has changed: The average household now has 2 cars with 88% of people 15 or older reported as drivers, almost doubling in 50 years; more people use air transport; and people are plugged into mini-TVs everywhere with the modern iPhone versus the living room radio).
So why the difference? In my view, this happened because business and production were not getting more complex; they were just getting bigger. And once line of sight from the GM’s office to the production worker became obscured, complexity was confused with loss of direct control. In this perceived complexity, many GMs looked for “silver bullets,” and these specialization industries (MBAs, biz consulting, etc.) were more than ready to sell their wares.
And why is specialization so attractive? In my humble opinion, it provides people with an age-old “guild-type” barrier to entry and a sense of security. Prior to this age of specialization, college degrees were more general, based on a firm belief that leaders should be well-rounded individuals who were well versed in not only science, but also in the classics. You received an education in thinking, not a topical one. (European institutions that embody this approach go back to the University of Bologna, founded in 1088, and Oxford, as far back as 1096.
But is it the same with our CEOs? Absolutely. The news is full of reports of security breaches, and note the number of resignations soon after the breach. Were any experts in security? None were, but all were clearly held responsible for it. And that brings us full circle: Maybe it’s time to bring generalists into the ranks again. You find the generalists in people with a wide, well-rounded experience.
Want more on hiring strategies that boost the bottom line? See 4 Key Steps To An Extraordinary Workforce.Comments