20 Sept 2023

Where Do Generalists Fit in at Later-Stage Tech Companies?

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

You know what I’ve heard at least 100 times in the last year? “Generalists only fit in early-stage startups”. But as I spend my working days conversing with generalists who work in huge companies, academic institutions and even governments, to that I say:

codswallop (also just a really fun word to say!)

Yes, later-stage companies come with their own set of challenges (read: rigid org structures). But we generalists exist everywhere. We’re needed in organisations of all sizes. If a company values cohesion, innovation, and efficient teams that don’t exist in silos — then they need generalists.

❓️ So, where do we fit?

Despite the expanding generalist community and increased awareness of the generalist archetype in the broader market, we still face several challenges in finding our generalist-shaped spaces at work. Anecdotally, a belief persists that generalists are only suited for early-stage startup environments or being the resident "jack of all trades” at a company.

Generalists are not a stage-specific tool, but rather a crucial type of team member for all industries and company stages. Traditionally, generalists have faced challenges in finding their place within later-stage companies, which have favoured specialists with specific, easily transferable skills.

However, the way we work is evolving rapidly, and later-stage companies are recognizing the increasing need for generalists who bring adaptability, versatility, and diverse skill sets to the table.

One of the primary market forces driving the demand for generalists is the advancement of AI technology across various functions, which has commoditized certain skills and functions such as engineering, marketing, and operations. Consequently, this intensifies the importance of strategy, collaboration, problem-solving, and continuous learning. As companies race to adapt, they seek versatile talent who embody the power of the generalist mindset, capable of breaking down silos and fostering systems thinking.

🛣️ Navigating the Career Path as a Generalist in Tech

We all have a ‘suitcase’ of skills, experiences, and stories that we bring from job to job. It’s important to hold onto the traits that so many generalists share. Aside from our functional skills, generalists have an “extra” little set of tools, and we tend to be great at:

  • Bringing a fresh perspective to problems. We leverage cross-functional experiences to recognize patterns.

  • Thinking outside the box. We’re not afraid to try new things and experiment.

  • Connecting the dots. We see the big picture and how different parts of a project fit together.

  • Communicating effectively. We can explain complex ideas simply.

  • Building relationships. We connect easily with people from different backgrounds and perspectives.

👀 Generalists don’t just “do a little bit of everything”

We have a depth of certain skills, a breadth of certain skills, and the ability to integrate them. Because the term 'generalist' may not be widely embraced by recruiting teams or reflected in hiring criteria (especially later-stage), it's crucial to establish a market-friendly personal brand using terms that resonate with potential employers.

For example: “I’m an experienced Product Manager with prior success in Software Engineering and Sales” vs. “I’m a generalist that can do product management, engineering, and sales”

✅ Specific roles that would be a great fit for generalists:

We know generalists are great Chiefs of Staff and community builders. There are also a lot of other roles at later-stage companies where the generalist skillset shines:

Strategy and Operations

The Strategy and Operations department is a great match for generalists because it offers a dynamic space where we can look at patterns, find anomalies, and get things done. With a blend of analytical thinking, teamwork, and the ability to tackle complex business challenges, generalists excel in this environment by connecting strategic goals with operational execution.

Business Development: Involves identifying new opportunities, forging partnerships, and developing strategic initiatives that align with business objectives, leveraging their holistic perspective and cross-functional knowledge.

Project Management: Entails coordinating diverse teams, managing timelines and budgets, and overseeing the successful execution of complex tech projects with their ability to understand various technical domains and stakeholder requirements.

Operations: Analyzing operational processes, identifying inefficiencies, and implementing improvements by leveraging their understanding of different functional areas within the tech organization.

People and Culture

The People & Culture department is an excellent fit for generalists who want to bring empathy, communication, problem-solving, and strategic thinking to work. Generalists thrive in this department by fostering an inclusive and engaging work culture, understanding the needs of employees, and implementing effective HR strategies to drive organizational growth.

Human Resources Business Partner - This HR leader actually plugs into different departments to work with them on building hiring roadmaps and guide senior executives on recruiting, retention, and morale.

Talent Acquisition: Identify and attract top tech talent, harnessing a comprehensive understanding of different tech roles, skills, and industry trends, enabling them to make well-informed hiring decisions.

Learning and Development: Facilitate the growth and professional development of employees by designing and implementing comprehensive learning programs that cater to the diverse skill sets and aspirations of tech professionals. Teach others to do what you do.

Cross-Functional Leadership

Cross-functional leadership is an ideal department for generalists who want to collaborate across different teams, bridge gaps between departments, and drive alignment towards common goals. Generalists excel in this role by leveraging their adaptability, communication skills, and holistic understanding of various functions to facilitate effective cross-functional collaboration and achieve organizational success.

Chief of Staff: Generalists excel in this pivotal role, supporting executives in strategic decision-making, driving cross-functional initiatives, and facilitating effective communication and coordination among various teams within the organization.

Program Manager: Generalists bring their versatile skill set to oversee and align complex programs, managing multiple projects simultaneously, and ensuring successful delivery by collaborating with teams across different tech disciplines.

Innovation and Product Development

The Product department is a natural fit for generalists who have experience with strategic thinking, customer empathy, and cross-functional collaboration. Generalists excel in this role by leveraging their diverse skill set to understand market trends, translate customer needs into innovative solutions, and drive the successful development and launch of products that meet the evolving demands of the market.

Product Manager: Generalists possess the ability to understand customer needs, align business goals with product strategy, and collaborate effectively with cross-functional teams, making them effective product managers who can bridge the gap between technology, design, and market demands.

Product Marketing: Product Marketing is a true blend of roles, including Product, Go-to-Market Strategy, and Marketing. It’s an opportunity to leverage our comprehensive understanding of the tech industry, market trends, and customer insights to develop compelling strategies that drive product adoption and growth.

In the fast-paced and ever-evolving tech industry, we have a significant role to play in later-stage companies. Our ability to adapt, learn quickly, and excel across multiple domains makes generalists invaluable assets in driving innovation, fostering collaboration, and achieving long-term success.

Whether it's strategic roles, cross-functional leadership, or driving customer experience, generalists bring a unique perspective and contribute to shaping the future of tech organizations. Embracing our multidimensional skill set can unlock immense potential and opportunities for us in new spaces.

 👇️ Join the conversation 

About the author:

Meet Lorel Sim: Lorel is a serial startup generalist (GTM, Product, BizOps) and has spent the past several years growing consumer brands and digital health businesses. She loves working on projects that bring immediate value to the everyday consumer, and is always on the lookout for the best new products and tools in wellness. West Coast born and raised, she now lives in Miami. Connect with Lorel on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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