expert generalist
Training & Learning

How to Develop a Diverse Skill Set and Become an Expert Generalist

The world is rapidly evolving every day. New technological advancements are made, and with that come new ways of getting things done. Continuously relying on the same skill set may not always be the wisest choice.

One way to stay in the game is taking the expert generalist approach and developing a diverse skill set. Coined by Orit Gadiesh, the Chairman of Bain & Company, the term ‘expert generalist’ describes individuals that have expertise in more than one field.

Expert generalists are known for being experts at solving problems. Generally, they tend to understand other people’s needs, and they leverage their strengths to create solutions. Following the major disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic, developing a diverse skill set is almost a survival skill.

In this article, we take a look at the key considerations to become an expert generalist.

5 real-life examples of expert generalists

  • Steve Jobs conducted one of the top tech orchestras in the world. He was not a tech-wizard like Steve Wozniak, nor was he a designer like Jony Ive. Instead, he leveraged his range of knowledge and co-founded what would become a top-performing tech company.
  • Albert Einstein is widely recognized as being one of the greatest physicists of all time. Highly skilled in physics, he had to teach himself Riemannian geometry to get a better overview. This has revolutionized our understanding of the universe, gravity, space, and time after he devised the theory of relativity.
  • Marissa Mayer acquired a diverse range of knowledge by studying symbolic systems, computer science, psychology, and linguistics. She influenced the development of Google Inc. and oversaw blockbuster product launches, including Gmail and Google Maps. She also served as CEO and president of Yahoo! Inc., and last year she launched Sunshine, a consumer app start-up.
  • Switching centuries and areas of expertise, William Shakespeare gained a diverse skill set—he was an accomplished poet, an experienced actor, and co-owned a theater business. His writings were strongly influenced by his knowledge of Latin, politics, and agriculture. The result is a plethora of widely acclaimed plays that stood the test of time and made it to the 21st century.
  • Leonardo Da Vinci is best known for his art and paintings. He was also considered a mathematics polymath and was an active engineer, scientist, architect, draughtsman, theorist, and sculptor. These disciplines have influenced his paintings and can be seen through his meticulous application of botany and mathematics in his art. 

4 major benefits of a diverse set of skills

Not only is developing a diverse skill set a survival tactic for the rapidly changing market, it has also been proven as a beneficial trait through history. Here are some tangible benefits you can expect from it in the 21st century:

  1. Broadens your knowledge base: Being proficient at more than one skill broadens your understanding of different topics, and gives you additional aspects to look at situations. For example, most cryptocurrency enthusiasts rave about Bitcoin. However, someone with a knowledge of electrical engineering might argue that the current model is not sustainable—it currently consumes 0.55 percent of global electricity, which is more than the whole of Sweden consumes in a year.
  2. Helps you improvise: Having multiple skills at your disposal enables you to better understand, tackle and improvise in different situations. For instance, in the last couple of years, many Chief Human Resource Officers have had to quickly learn, pivot, and implement work from home logistics to avoid disruptions within their organizations.
  3. Better networking opportunities: With a diverse skill set, you are not limited to networking with people within your main industry. This allows you to blend into different groups and potentially get invited to networking events beyond your main sector of activity.
  4. A wider safety net: The recent coronavirus pandemic has shown the shortcomings of certain specialized skills. For example, many workers from the construction industry lost their jobs during the lockdown and weren’t sure how to approach their next move. Having a broader set of skills at least gives you the opportunity to tap into other sectors if things are not working out well in your current industry.

Learning and Development: the expert generalist and their team

Since we’ve gotten to know some expert generalists, and seen the benefits such an approach can bring, let’s see which clearly outlined steps you can start doing today to jump on the bandwagon.

Stacking skills

One popular belief around personal development is that people who achieve mastery in one field are more successful. A study suggests that mastery can be achieved by deliberately practicing the same skill for 10,000 hours

On the other hand, skill stacking works the other way around: taking “10,000 hours” and distributing them to learn multiple skills. The end result: you become highly proficient in a number of fields, capable of handling various tasks competently. This has become more than enough to make it in today’s labor market.

Skill depth

As mentioned above, being proficient in different skills can give you an edge over expertise in a single area. HR professionals have found that a big part of our daily tasks does not require an expert in the field. 

This is not an excuse to poorly learn a range of skills. Instead, you should aim to become sufficiently competent in each area to reach the next level. According to your development priorities, aim to reach the top 25 percent in each of your skills.

This gives you the ability to move between teams and handle tasks from different areas—making expert generalists a very valuable asset. Going from zero to 75% competency can be achieved through consistent practice. It will still require you to put in the hours, but reaching a 75-percent competency level should take less time than full mastery. Being proficient in a number of skills adds more value to what you can deliver. 

The learning curve—theory or practice?

As we faced the pandemic, the world threatened to grind to a halt. However, it was the generalists—teachers working from home, shop owners migrating to online sales, medical workers adapting to new protocols daily - who kept it spinning. They all had to dig deep to find forgotten skills, or the ability to quickly learn new ones. And there were no books or courses to help out, just their innate ability to adapt and overcome.

Generalists excel at learning the skills they need when they need them and doing so by themselves. They are also great at turning their understanding into actionable skills by applying what they learned in one place to a totally new situation. However, focusing only on the theoretical aspects of any skill can very often drain your resources. Avoid learning a skill without any sort of hands-on practice and focus on agile learning instead. 

Modern teams and modern employers

A wide field of proficiency—as opposed to a single area of expertise—is the recruiter’s sweet spot nowadays. A team of such individuals brings a lot to the table: a generalist team would be hard-pressed to find a task they can’t handle! Balancing experience and knowledge with adaptability and creativity in problem-solving might be the secret ingredient to success.

This is, naturally, reflected in current hiring trends. Recruiters have taken the lessons from marketing teams—audience targeting tactics, brand build-ups, and lead magnet hype—and applied them to the head-hunting game. This increased the importance of employer branding and candidate experience, but employee retention has also proved to be a much more effective tactic than acquisition—another inside lesson, this one from sales. Developing your teams and employees in-house can turn out to be more effective and less time-consuming than scouring the market for talent. 

Keep moving? 

A recent study of 9 million employee records across 4,000 companies revealed some numbers about The Great Resignation—employees aged 30-45 have increased their quit rate more than 20% in 2021, compared to 2020! 

On top of that, the same study says that the tech industry is leading in the quit rate with a 4.5% increase in the last year, and health is a close second with 3.6%. And the reasons are various—from job hopping to new circumstances in both the market and the workplace, to a newfound optimism about work conditions—and all the way to severe burnout.

Now, it’s a fact that a single career trajectory leads to expertise in a single line of work. If you get the chance to demonstrate your expertise, the consequence is job stability. However, what if you don’t get the chance—or, in a situation like a year ago, what if stability goes out the window? 

Turbulent times call for expedited, fresh, and creative measures to keep things under control. The tech industry is a very rapidly changing environment, maybe even one of the spearheads of resignation trends preceding the pandemic—it pays off to know the reasoning behind quick job changes, especially if they’re above mere financials. When it comes to healthcare, the majority of the resignations come from burnout after taking the brunt of the pandemic. Following a gradual normalization, it pays off to apply the lessons learned, such as taking proactive care of employee well-being, learning how to schedule your staff more efficiently, etc.

Leading your staff to a new worker paradigm

And finally, there’s another big takeaway for course planners: ex-cathedra learning simply doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s been going on for some time now, but both HR specialists and workers themselves now understand that semester-long courses with little to no validation are useless in the dynamic, modern work market—especially if their applicability to everyday work is low.

There’s a way to address this problem and shoot for the skill gap, at the same time: Collaborative Learning. Learners can really thrive in an environment of peers, hearing opinions, and being able to question their instructor. This leads to both better team integration, but also to a much better understanding of the problems at hand, leaving the door open for new perspectives and new solutions.

In practical terms, small and very skill-oriented “courses”, aimed directly at a skill gap or a staff shortage, will provide the needed skills and knowledge acquisition - making them both highly recognizable, transplantable, and applicable. Aside from that, a carefully designed training course will have well-developed content and materials; this is something that boosts peer engagement. Interactive and collaborative processing and problem-solving is the best road towards both problem comprehension and employee retention!

Off you go

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to becoming an expert generalist. Choosing the right skill set will vary depending on the goals you have set for yourself. New concepts, technologies, and trends will always be emerging and Lifelong Learning is vital to ensure you’re always up to date. At the same time, expanding your understanding of different areas can be very rewarding, both personally and professionally. Bonus point; becoming an expert generalist gives you a safety net in view of future economic slumps and enables you to leverage a unique value proposition for yourself.