Who advances further and faster in their career – the specialist or generalist? Is it better to be deep in a specific subject or skills set, or to collect broad knowledge and a variety of skills? Will companies pigeon-hole you if you are a specialist so that you’re doomed to the same role again and again? Or will companies think you’re too shallow if you are a generalist and you appear not qualified enough when compared to the specialists?
In the choice between a specialist or generalist, the answer is Yes. Employers hire both, and how you present yourself depends on your goals and the opportunity at hand, so you want to be able to show you are a specialist or generalist depending on the situation. During the interview process, you also want to demonstrate elements of both because you have to be both deep (the specialist) but flexible (the generalist).
Be a Specialist in your topic
Sure, it’s helpful to have worked in a variety of industries, and over the course of your career, you will naturally have worked on a variety of business issues. But for the employer you’re talking to in the moment, you want to show a level of depth in that industry and role that will be competitive with a Specialist. This means that you have to exhaustively research your prospective employers. You can’t sell an employer on being a talented Generalist who will learn that industry – no one wants to pay you to learn.
Be a Generalist in your skills
While you want to deeply understand the industry and role, you also want to put forward a breadth of skills, especially if you are aiming for a management job. In addition to the functional specialty (for example, branding, direct response, digital, etc. if you’re working with marketing), you need to be able to relate to people, communicate well, perhaps manage people and/or budgets, forecast or model scenarios, and other skills broader than your specific role.
Be a Specialist in desire
Just as the employer expects you to know their business like a Specialist knows that business, they also expect you to want their business (and the role at hand) as if it’s the only thing you’re after. You never want to put all your eggs in one basket, and surely the employer is looking at other candidates, but you need to make them feel like this is absolutely your first choice. To convey this effectively, you need specific reasons that this role, company and industry is the ideal next step for you.
Be a Generalist in approach
At the same time that you want to show a very singular desire, you also don’t want to seem narrow-minded, inflexible, or void of creativity. So your desire is specific to the role at hand, but your approach is out-of-the-box and drawing from a wide expanse of interests and knowledge. To convey this without sounding like you’re a bag of clichés (and yes, I say that after using the cliché, “out-of-the-box”), you want to be ready with specific examples of how you solved a variety of problems. In one case, you leaned on interpersonal skills. In another, you had an innovative idea. In another, you efficiently managed a complex project and cross-functional team. You are flexible and willing to use a variety of tools to get the job done.
When I have hired for high-visibility, high responsibility jobs, employers demand traits that from both Specialists and Generalists. At senior levels, the jobs are complex enough that you need both a depth of expertise and a range of skills. So you don’t need to choose between branding as a Specialist or a Generalist. You can succeed with an emphasis on either, and in fact need to show elements of both.
This post originally appears in my Forbes column.