Grooming yourself for leadership: Generalist or specialist — which path to take?

In most business disciplines people can choose from one of two streams: specialist or generalist. The field of HR is no different.

The question many HR professionals may want to ask themselves is which stream is most likely to take them to senior leadership positions.

The path to leadership depends on a variety of factors. Some are beyond the control of the individual, such as organizational needs and goals, internal structures, and rewards systems. But others are personal, such as individual goals, knowledge, skills and abilities.

As far as senior management terms are concerned, the most important issue is that leaders in human resources are good business people. To effectively develop and implement policies and procedures that add value to the organization, HR must be able to build business cases and understand the various markets where the organization competes.

Ed Lawler III, a professor at the Marshall School of Business (University of Southern California), says that for HR, the path to leadership “depends on a person’s business savvy. A generalist needs to be…a business person with a good background in strategy, finance and marketing.”

Further to this point, Lawler recently told a group of PhD candidates at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management that there is a trend for the most senior HR managers to not have any HR background. HR leaders must be good business managers first, and then be good HR managers.

Generalists typically have a broad background that is obtained through a combination of education, and on-the-job experiences. It would be very expensive and time consuming for generalist to acquire various skills through apprenticeships in functional areas of expertise. Also, functional specialists have their own educational and certification processes. Specialists develop systems and policies, generalists administer and manage them.

If a line manager has an issue with the internal compensation system he would first contact his generalist. The generalist is the first line of contact. If the generalist can’t answer the question she would seek out the expertise of the compensation specialist.

There are several distinguishing factors that may contribute to the selection of generalists as leaders over specialists. According to Gary Latham, a professor of organizational behaviour at Rotman, generalists have a strategic mindset; they tend to develop and implement strategies that get people to internalize the business strategy to achieve business goals. HR specialists on the other hand have “functional expertise to develop systems and practices that achieve the above.”

The analogy used by management guru Peter Drucker is that of an orchestra conductor. The conductor may not have expertise in playing instruments, but he can focus the team of musicians (specialists) on the task of co-ordinating their efforts towards the overall goal of the group. Drucker says that a business “needs a view of the whole and a focus on the whole to be shared among its professional specialists.” This focusing role, may best be served by generalists.

Similarly, Morley Gunderson, from the Centre for Industrial Relations at the University of Toronto sees it this way: “It is now generally recognized that human resource practices must be integrated into a coherent ‘bundle’ of practices, such as job design, employee involvement and compensation.” To be effective these practices must fit into the strategic objectives of the organization. In other words, integration and fit are as important as the practices themselves. “As such, being an HR generalist helps in seeing this broader integrated picture and to develop a strategic human resource policy,” he says.

This model of leadership implies that the HR leader should have a generalist background. The generalist background will provide the necessary experiences to develop the knowledge, skills and abilities to understand the “big picture.”

The HR leader will have a team of specialists that report to her, who will develop systems and practices that integrate with each other, and meet the goals of the organization. These specialists will be more knowledgeable than managers on matters in their functional areas, and may in fact make more money then their managers.

Where then, does this leave the specialist in terms of professional development? One of the important factors for the development and selection of leaders is the rewards systems available in organizations.

The Gallup Organization recently asked 1,000 people: “Would you (still) choose to change roles if you could increase your pay by doing your current job better?” Fifty-eight per cent of respondents said that they would choose to remain in their current job rather than be promoted. Under “traditional” organizational structures, promotion is often the only reward or recognition available.

The alternative is a combination of pay-for-performance and broadbanding, which will allow specialists to remain in their current roles while still rewarding increases in expertise and skills development that add value and contribute to the success of the organization. Broadbanding allows specialists to remain and develop in a job, with fewer restrictions on wages.

Another way to keep specialists motivated — and retain their talents — is leadership in functional work teams (permanent) and task forces (temporary).

Notwithstanding the above discussion, some specialists of course make exemplary leaders. In this knowledge-based economy, we need to examine work structures to determine if they add value to the organization.

What’s needed are structures that develop big picture leaders while at the same time retaining high-quality specialists. The hierarchical view of the organization, where leaders are the specialists, who make the most money, is outdated. Instead, consider a system where a group of functional specialists have more (focused) knowledge than the manager and make more money. This will make intuitive sense to some, and challenge the concept of leadership and rewards to others.

Bob Delaney is the owner of CM Solutions, a consultancy offering CareerMap Outplacement Services. He is also a professor with the School of Management at Seneca College in Toronto. He may be contacted at (905) 473-4098, [email protected] or visit

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