Steering the team as a generalist
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Hey, I’m Milly and welcome to the Generalist World newsletter. Each week we have real-world generalists dive into topics about generalist identity, growth, and accelerating your squiggly career. Today’s edition is written by Katie Montbriand.
With experience often comes the opportunity to manage others. As a generalist leader, you may find yourself heading up a team of specialists or a cross-functional organization. Heck, you might even find yourself in the founder or CEO seat.
The shift from individual contributor to manager is one of the biggest transitions in anyone's career. You go from directing yourself to managing people who aren’t you. You learn about meeting people where they are. You put your ego on the shelf and reflect on what type of leader you are going to be.
For Generalists, there are parts of the transition to manager that are somewhat easier because of the inherent traits you already possess. However, there are also potential roadblocks that require special attention during this period of transition.
👍️ Let's start with the good
Certain components of the Generalist mindset and approach translate incredibly well to people leadership.
Empathy — your ability to see things from other’s perspectives means you will naturally bring a basis of understanding to your interactions with your team members. People respond well to empathetic leaders and feel connected.
Collaboration — you are used to playing different roles on a variety of teams and can bring that ‘let’s solve this as a group’ energy to leadership. You aren’t going in with the me-first attitude that can be offputting to your team.
Not being a specialist — when you are a Generalist leading specialists, you will naturally allow them to continue being the expert. The upside here is that the people closest to the work have a sense of ownership and won’t worry that you are going to take over their domain.
Seeing the big picture — you are able to step back and observe how all the pieces fit together, and might even be a natural visionary. You can share this big-picture view with the team and inspire them to move in the same direction toward the same overarching goal.
Creating opportunities — as a Generalist, you have built a network across the organization and will see (or create) new chances for your team to collaborate, contribute, and develop by stretching their work to new places. Think of this as your professional development super-charger.
These are all important skills for managers to rely on, especially during the shift from individual-centric to team-centric roles. Generalists might find all these parts of the people-leading job easy and wonder why others struggle to stretch into this part of the role.
👀 Watch out for Generalist blind spots
On the other hand, there are also watch-outs for Generalists as managers and these blind spots can make it harder to succeed in this new capacity. Don’t worry, we have solutions for how to work through these challenges!
1. You aren’t the subject matter expert. Your curiosity will get you to a point where you understand the 80/20 version of the work, but you might not have the depth of knowledge that allows you to fully represent your team’s domain in every setting.
Expand your knowledge (and cross-train the team) by holding learning sessions where you deep dive into different components of the work. Encourage everyone to ask questions.Bring an expert along. If the situation allows, shine the spotlight on a member of the team by including them in leadership meetings and giving them a platform to provide detailed knowledge of their domain.
2. You might distract your team. They are focused on delivering something or are ‘in the weeds’ solving a problem. You come along and want to talk big-picture or discuss a new collaboration opportunity on a different project. Or maybe you're having a development conversation and throw out a left-field idea like: have you ever thought of moving to our office in Asia? At times, your folks will want to keep their heads down and keep moving along the path in front of them and your expansive approach can feel like a distraction.
Take the temperature. Check in before launching into a big-picture or tangent discussion and be ready to wait until later.Carve out big-picture time. Set aside time for strategy conversations and ensure people are in the right headspace and prepared for them (ie at an offsite vs. when you swing by their desk).
3. Problem-solving with patience. As a leader, when people come to you with a problem, it can feel natural to jump in with your own way of solving it. Especially as a Generalist who has a ready-made toolkit for figuring out thorny issues. The challenge is that people learn by solving their own problems and as a manager, your job is often to coach them through it vs. impose your own solution.
Act like a coach. Start with open-ended questions (how might you solve this, what resources do you have access to, what is in your way). Let them take the lead in creating the solution.Check-in. If you are going to flip into problem-solving mode, be explicit and ask if the other person wants that style of help.
4. Not everyone approaches change like you do. Generalists often go through change curves quickly and aren’t bothered by uncertainty. This isn’t true for everyone. It can be easy to forget that your team might have a set of concerns or way of working through change that is different from your typical MO. It is important to meet in the middle and bring them along on the journey as an effective change leader.
Inclusive discussions. Lead open conversations, retrospectives, and meetings about the change. Make it safe for people to raise concerns and bring out your listening skills. Don’t make assumptions about where people are starting from.Create a change team. Look for the beacons (people who are eager to embrace the change) along with the resisters. Involve people from both camps when planning for change so their perspectives are included and cared for.
5. Taking credit for your team’s work. This one might be a bit controversial. Generalists often put themselves in the supporting role — framing their contribution not as the hero, but as a part of an amazing team that is getting things done. This humility is great for your team because they get chances to shine. It can be less great for your own career advancement because you are deflecting good results onto other people. The challenge is to find the right balance between seeing your own wins in your role as leader AND allowing your team to get the accolades they deserve.
Start with data. When possible, quantify results and goals and show the proof through measurable outcomes.Call in the mentors. Ask for advice from your mentors within the company about how to balance this dynamic and request feedback on how you are being perceived by company leaders.
Transitioning from individual contributor to leader is a pivotal career step, especially for Generalists. Strengths, like empathy and big-picture vision, make you uniquely suited for leadership.
However, you also face challenges, including not being subject matter experts and potentially distracting your focused teams. It's essential for Generalists to balance broad perspectives with the specific needs of the team. As you embrace leadership, use your unique skills wisely, and avoid the pitfalls along the way.