It's a common debate that is gaining more traction as we move towards the future of work: should you be a generalist or a specialist? There are pros and cons to both answers, but the best solution might be right in the middle.

Generalists can typically do many different things, such as a handyman who can fix a number of problems around the house like plumbing and woodworking or a marketer who can cover everything from social media to broad advertising campaigns. The benefit of this approach is that a generalist has a variety of skills, which can be incredibly useful in the freelancing economy; with a broader skill set, it can be easier to market yourself. If something needs to be done, a generalist can typically do it fairly well and can be called upon in a number of situations. However, there's also the notion of "jack of all trades, master of none," meaning that a generalist can provide basic competency on a number of tasks but not actually perform a single task with great expertise. By spreading your skills over a wider area, it takes away the possibility to be really good at a single thing.

On the flip side are specialists who focus on one thing and do it incredibly well. These are people like electricians or coders who only work in a single program. The benefit of a specialist is that it becomes your brand--people know they can come to you to solve a problem related to your specialty. The downside is that if the project includes anything beyond your speciality, you'll likely need to pass it on to someone else. Being a specialist can open some doors, but it can also be viewed as limiting because the focus is on one single area.

Who will rule the future of work--generalists or specialists? The best approach is actually a combination of both, or a T-shaped employee skill set. The top line of the T is a general skill set that gives an employee a broad range of understanding and capabilities, such as general marketing skills. This is where generalist tendencies come in. However, underneath that top line is the vertical line of the T that allows the employee to go deep into a specific expertise, such as social media or marketing analytics, and be a specialist in that area. With this combination of skills, you can market yourself as someone who understands and can perform a variety of marketing tasks but who also can expertly perform tasks in a more defined area. You get the best of both worlds of being a generalist and a specialist, which makes it easier to market yourself. This is becoming increasingly important as each employee can view themselves as being an entrepreneur of their own career and look for ways to stand out and build a personal brand.

In the future of work, the most important skill is to be able to learn how to learn. The amount of knowledge available and the skills needed to be successful in the workplace are constantly changing, and the best employees know how to find the information they need and continually be honing their skills to be at the top of their game. The T-shaped approach works great for this because it provides employees a strong basis of general skills and sets the groundwork for expanding into other areas. With a deeper focus in one area, you can continue to grow and develop that skill as programs and needs change.

The future of work will bring a number of changes for employees, but with a strategic T-shaped skill set, you will be prepared to be successful no matter what the future brings.

Published on: Mar 31, 2017
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