29 Aug 2023

The 10 Commandments of Hiring & Retaining Great Generalist Talent

We dive into: The 4 Archetypes of a Generalist, a framework for squiggly career progression, I'll then spin these into real-world examples of what a *delightful* generalist career flow could look like

And then... a pinch of spice 🌶️ I'll be busting the myth that generalists can't reach mastery

The 10 Commandments of Hiring & Retaining Great Generalist Talent

In today's rapidly changing world of work, companies need talent that can quickly adapt and deliver results across functions. Whilst specialists can provide deep expertise in narrow domains, generalists offer the versatility to tackle challenges from multiple angles. Their composure thrives in uncertainty. Generalists can synthesize insights across multiple specialties to drive innovation allowing their cross-functional perspective to identify unseen opportunities.

An effective workforce blends specialists and generalists, but the search for strong generalists is tough. Due to the varying anatomy of a generalist, attracting and retaining strong generalist talent requires a differentiated approach from the traditional way.

So, if you’re reading this, you’ve most likely identified that you need generalists on your team, but have no idea how to build and retain an exceptional cohort of broad-minded professionals at your company. Maybe it’s your first time hiring a generalist, or maybe, you’ve found yourself managing a great generalist and are unsure of how to help them thrive?

📜 The 10 Commandments of Hiring & Retaining Great Generalist Talent

1. Structure fluid roles

Avoid rigid job descriptions. Empower generalists to adapt their responsibilities over time. Support evolving interests to retain engaged talent. Understand where they are on their generalist journey, and help to encourage next hops, skips, and jumps!

2. Seek out intellectual curiosity and diversity of thought

Generalists need to pick up new information quickly. Look for candidates who demonstrate curiosity and interest in exploring widely - a passion for learning is essential. It’s also important that you actively recruit generalists with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Varied viewpoints spark innovation and challenge assumptions. Build teams with multifaceted worldviews.

3. Assess strong communication abilities

Great generalists must synthesize complex topics into simple explanations when collaborating cross-functionally. Evaluate written and verbal comms skills.

4. Check for strategic thinking

Generalists must see the big picture and be able to connect different pieces of the puzzle. Pose hypothetical problems during interviews to evaluate strategic thinking.

5. Foster growth via community

Generalists are everywhere so how do you make your job ads seen? How do you even optimize a job ad to suit a generalist? Seek out advice from communities built by generalists, for generalists.

6. Never stop learning

Invest in developing generalists’ skills. Offer conferences, courses, subscriptions and books to foster continuous learning. Here’s how to unlock opportunities without changing everything.

7. Promote cross-functional projects

Give generalists opportunities to apply their multidisciplinary strengths. Include them in key initiatives spanning departments. Importantly, listen to the development support your generalists are asking for.

8. Facilitate internal rotations

Allow generalists to rotate across teams gaining broad experience. Structure rotations to build cross-functional skill sets. Not only will this help them better see the business as a whole, but it will also help keep them engaged; generalists don’t usually like staying in one place for too long - hence the desire to not specialize in just one area.

9. Foster an output-driven culture

KPI’s aren’t just for measuring an individual's performance, use them as a tool to assess your businesses’ strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities. Allow generalists to guide you on these important metrics as they have an eye for seeing how the pieces connect.

10. Cultivate connection to purpose

Generalists thrive when their work has meaning. Clearly communicate how their role ladders up to company vision.

And above all, learn from the generalists in your team. They will most likely work and think differently to the specialists on your teams - lean into it.

Having generalists supercharge your operations will bring a breadth of versatile skills to tackle problems from multiple angles and see your business from a 360-degree flight view angle; they will thrive in constantly evolving environments.

💡 In 2023, hiring generalist talent is becoming more recognised than ever.

It is no longer the traditional specialists vs generalists approach, instead, specialists together with generalists, combining their superpowers to build high-performing, long-lasting teams. We couldn't be more excited to be at the forefront of this movement.

🍪 Bonus footage!

When looking for advice on how to manage generalists I asked the person I knew would have the right answers - Beth Carter, the person who I lean on as a generalist myself and who has to deal with my squiggly thoughts and processes on a daily basis.

Beth has outlined 5 key points on how managing a generalist will differ from a specialist. A lot of the same principles apply when you’re managing a generalist or a specialist, but there are some things worth thinking about:

  1. Progression frameworks might look a little different

    For a specialist there are often hard-skill-based tick boxes in a progression framework, for example being exceptional at video editing.

    For a generalist, these hard-skills are important to build, but are trickier to base progression on as their role, and therefore the skills they focus on building, can change. Instead, look at mixing in some soft-skills or transferable skills to your framework, for example project management, commercial thinking, critical thinking, and data analysis.

  2. Goals and KPIs can need more thought

    Where a specialist might have 5 KPIs that are all very tightly knitted together and coherent, a generalist might have one KPI in Product, two in Growth, one mid-funnel, and one in Operations!

    The key to making sure there is continuity here is good record keeping, clear prioritization, and a common thread that ties together a generalist's work. Without that it can feel like goals are competing against each other, or that the work is too disparate to make sense.

  3. Promoting ownership is really important

    Just because someone is a generalist doesn't mean that they shouldn’t have ownership or accountability for a specific area or project. In fact, failing to give ownership to a generalist is a real waste of their skill set and stops them from being able to develop project management or leadership skills. The thing to watch out for is a smooth transition when a generalist moves on or off a project.

  4. Be ready to change things up!

    A generalist will want to focus on different things throughout their career. You might work towards building one skill set for a few months and then switch to another. Rather than finding this tricky, think of it as a process of experimentation where you are able to figure out challenges in your business AND help a generalist flex into another area at the same time.

  5. Over-communicate the business needs

    In a specialist role, it’s pretty clear what the business needs from you. As a generalist, what the business needs from you can be less clear, so communicating this becomes a core part of any manager’s role. This should happen on a monthly basis, or at minimum quarterly, depending on how quickly things change in your organization.

    The important thing is that your generalist team are always clear on what’s needed from them and where they can add the most value.

About the author:

Meet Aqua:

Aqua, a fellow generalist, who talks about working in startups, living and working as an expat and navigating the non linear career roadmap.

Connect with Aqua on LinkedIn.

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Our content is brought free to you, courtesy of the Generalist World community memberships.