You can spend years doing the thing you do best until you get really, really good at it — better than anyone else.
But when it’s time to choose someone for a top position at your company, that guy who’s bounced around between roles and departments — what a flake! — may have a leg up on you.
A growing body of research suggests there are meaningful benefits to having diverse professional experiences. If you’re hoping to land a high-paying executive position, being a generalist may in fact be more useful than being a specialist.
One such piece of evidence for this phenomenon appears in Scott Sonenshein’s new book, “Stretch.”
Sonenshein, a professor of management at Rice University, cites a study by Claudia Custodio that found CEOs with managerial experience in different areas — within and outside their current industry — were paid about $US1 million more a year than their specialist counterparts.
The pay difference between generalist and specialist CEOs was even bigger, Sonenshein points out, when the CEO job involved a complex task such as a merger or an acquisition.
More recent research, from LinkedIn (not cited in “Stretch”), yielded similar findings. Workers with experience in different areas of a business are more likely to become top executives than those who’ve specialised in one area. In this study, switching industries didn’t have a positive or negative effect on becoming a top exec.
Other research suggests that generalist business-school applicants are also more successful than their specialist peers.
It’s unclear exactly why having varied professional or academic experiences is so helpful. In “Stretch,” Sonenshein describes this effect as the “multi-context rule”: “A diversity of experiences allows people to think more expansively about their resources, leading to more divergent ways of approaching problems.”
Think of it as bringing in someone from another department to help you when your team is stuck on a tough problem. Their fresh perspective may be just the push you need to get to that “aha!” moment.
Except, in this case, you are both the insider and the outsider. Maybe, for example, you have deep knowledge about finance, but also a little knowledge about marketing — and combining your knowledge of the two fields helps you generate an innovative solution.
None of this is to say that you should abandon your commitment to becoming knowledgeable and skilled in a field you’re passionate about. But if you aspire to leadership, know that the job doesn’t might not require that kind of in-depth expertise — instead, you might be tasked with big-picture thinking and solution-finding.
So consider getting some experience in another department at your company or picking up a book about a different industry — in time, it could make you a more attractive candidate for your dream job.
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