Bridging the Gap: How Generalists and Specialists Can Support Each Other's Career Growth
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👋 Welcome back, generalists of the world!
Generalists and specialists can sometimes seem like two different species. And yet, we often find ourselves managing and mentoring someone from the other group, like a baker trying to teach a parrot how to swim.
As a new manager, it took me longer than I care to admit to realize that my career path and preferences were just one possibility. I had to set aside my preconceived notions of what made a career fulfilling and instead focus on helping my team members figure out what they wanted.
I have to imagine some of my specialist former bosses had a similar experience with me. Realizing that the things I was pursuing - while outside their own set of preferences - were actually things I wanted. I’m so grateful for their open minds and patience as we navigated this dynamic.
Both sides of the equation mean well, and can effectively help each other by keeping a few things in mind.
👉️ For specialists who are helping generalists develop:
Don't Assume You Know Their Goals - Ask
Generalists often have diverse interests and can be hard to pin down. Take the time to ask them about their goals, and you might be surprised by what you learn.
Help Them Articulate Goals
If they don't have clear goals, ask them to write a plan. Even just a few bullet points can bring clarity to their priorities. Do this exercise at least once a year, if not more often.
Don't Diminish Learning That Doesn't Align with Their Current Role
Generalists are curious creatures and enjoy learning about a broad range of topics. Don't dismiss or discourage learning that doesn't immediately support their current role. Listen and understand how opportunities align with their development priorities.
Be Candid About Skill Gaps that will hold them back.
If there are gaps they need to fill for credibility, be honest with them. Don’t force it, but have a conversation about the consequences and what it would look like to address the gap within their current role.
Encourage Internal Internships/Rotations
Internships or rotations within the company can be an excellent way for generalists to expand their knowledge and keep things fresh. The receiving teams will also benefit from their unique perspective.
Share New Knowledge with the Team
Encourage generalists to share what they've learned with the rest of the team, especially if they pursue something not directly related to the team’s subject matter. It may inspire tangential learning across the organization.
👉️ When you are a generalist mentoring a specialist, keep these things in mind (aka learn from my mistakes):
Ask About Their Priorities
The first step is the same. Ask about their priorities and what they want to achieve. Go into the conversation with an open mind and understand what is important to them. If they don’t have goals, request they write a few bullets as an informal development plan.
Help Them Draw the Map
Once they have articulated goals, help them create a plan of the steps they need to take to achieve them. Bring your generalist skillset to this problem and imagine the different paths they could take on their learning journey.
Call in an Expert
You won't always be the right person to provide the guidance they need. Don't be afraid to call in an expert and connect your team member or mentee with someone more experienced in their desired growth area.
Use Your Generalist Connections
Once you know their development focus, share articles, conferences, or other resources that might help them connect the dots. You likely have a wealth of knowledge within your network that could provide interesting coffee and development chat opportunities for your mentees.
Openly Discuss Career Goals
Sometimes, when specialists manage specialists there is a feeling of ‘I can’t progress unless my boss moves on so I won’t say that I want their role’. As a generalist, you have the latitude to open the conversation by saying something like: ‘I don’t plan to retire in this role, and don’t expect you to retire in your role. What would be an amazing job for you to hold 2 or 3 roles from now?’ You can even share your own next-next thing to kick off the discussion.
Open Up Your Mentorship/Development Support
Across your broader organization, other generalists may seek you out for guidance - they see someone doing things in an unconventional way and want to understand the what and how behind it. Consider making yourself available to others across the organization. Holding open office hours once a week is a great practice.
Coaching and mentoring generalists and specialists require different approaches. Still, with the right mindset and strategies, it can be a valuable experience for everyone involved. Remember to be open-minded, be honest, and most importantly, listen.
📚️ Further Resources…
The Kool-aid factory. A series of zines about how organizations co-ordinate
About our guest author, Kathryn:
Kathryn Montbriand spent a decade championing culture change at a Fortune 500 company. She pioneered a first-of-its-kind team of ‘Culturists’ that focused on employee engagement and creating authentic connections in the workplace. She used that same spirit of positive disruption to create Montbriand Services which provides Fractional Chief of Staff support, and Lived and Loved which enables people to access their stories in an innovative way.
👋🏼 Till next time,