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In Developing Effective Leaders, Generalists Usually Beat Specialists

Growing Leaders May Mean Encouraging Talent to Move Around

The question of how and why leaders succeed, how they continue to grow and improve and what the differences are between leading a small organization and a large one often cross each other in discussions. In the following, I will look at all of these together.

I’ve been reading David Epstein’s excellent “Range: Why Generalists Triumph In A Specialized World.” As the title suggests, it goes against conventional wisdom that those who win in business specialize in one area of expertise. Thinking about how we can elevate emerging leaders within our organizations, I found it increasingly difficult to argue with Epstein’s premise that the top of the organization really does belong to the exceedingly well-rounded leader who has expertise in as many areas of the business as possible. But why?

Encourage Expansive Learning to Develop Talent

For organizations to be successful, we must nurture the talent within the organization. To do so effectively, we need to have open communication to help understand how people want to grow under our roof. Yet, that’s only part of the puzzle.

But how do we help them grow? What will they gain from moving around the organization rather than staying in one department for a long time and developing a specialization/expertise? On the latter point, some leaders will see this growth from the individual leaving the organization entirely, gathering experience in a variety of areas in another company and then coming back with what they’ve learned – then and only then will they be able to truly advance.

Growing Leaders Instead of Losing Them

A couple of months ago, a fellow that I’ve been mentoring had been offered a job at another company and was getting ready to leave his job. When he told his company that he was leaving, they said, “Oh, really? Why?” As it turned out, as he was resigning, they told him that he was about to receive a significant raise and more responsibility!

Needless to say, he accepted the bigger raise, more responsibility and a bigger title as well.

I’m happy for him and for his employer. This event speaks to why more of those in positions of leadership may want to embrace the approach of “managing by wandering around” or better yet, what I call Heads Up Management. By wandering, they will see more and enable members of their teams to do so as well.

“Heads Up” Management Improves Perspective

Heads Up Management refers to working on the business as opposed to just working in the business. When you have your head down and are buried in your own work, there’s very little you can see, including any real perspective. Conversely, when you look up, what can you see? Everything. You can see other people with their unique viewpoints. You can see the bigger picture of where your people fit into the business.

For example, in a lot of traditional entry level roles, people might come into a company and have that role for somewhere between five months to a year. Over the first two years in the business, they might be moved through several different business units. All the while they are evaluating and being evaluated where they’d like to go and do next in the organization.

Heads Up Management gives you the bird’s eye view that you need to see the different functions of people and where adjustments should be made so that they can continue to grow within the organization.

Define ‘Long-Term’ to Help Grow Leaders

One of the Four Questions we often ask at our firm is “How do you define long-term” and in this context, your long-term should be to progress beyond your limited and specific tasks to managing other people doing those limited and specific tasks. As you progress into more senior leadership, you may be managing more people in the same tasks but in different locations. The complexity of responsibility only increases from there with experience, including giving people the opportunity to witness other parts of the organization that can help you to develop their capabilities – all in the name of building future leaders of a stronger organization.

Manage Heads Up To See Beyond Interior and Exterior Company Walls

This natural progression of developing and growing leaders I’m describing is going to expose you to these different pieces of the pie that the company has to offer along the way. But there’s more. When you practice Heads Up Management, you won’t only be looking at the inside of your organization. You’ll find there are advantages to looking to people outside your organization to get their views on different types of issues.

How does Heads Up Management work in smaller organizations, with around 25 people? Where do we look for growth and mobility for ourselves and for those around us? Can we encourage and nurture greater range in such an environment?

Growing Leaders in Smaller Organizations

Actually, yes. In smaller organizations, you may be surprised to learn there can be even more diversity of talent and backgrounds than in larger organizations. In certain large companies, by the time you are the head of a group, your peers usually have a very similar set of skills and experiences to what you had coming up in the organization. In a smaller organization, you have peers from all different types of backgrounds with corresponding skills. So as someone growing, managing and leading in a smaller organization, it’s not unheard of to be exposed to a broader range of capability sets than you are in a large organization. Any “winnowing process” is rarely as aggressive in the small company as it can be in a larger company.

Mentoring Differently at Small Companies

That said, in a smaller organization, there are likely not going to be as many people who can turn to their peers and say, “I’m experiencing this. What do you think about it? How has your experience been similar or different?” Therefore, in a smaller organization, you have to make sure that you have the capability to provide opportunities for exposure to other people and departments for the sake of diverse learning.

Blow Up Silos to Develop Effective Leaders

If a person is going to become a true leader at some point in their career, it’s going to be far more challenging if they only understand one silo versus the whole of the business – and that even includes a small business that has fewer silos. Having a variety of experiences, like the kind described in “Range,” should benefit emerging leaders, the people leading them today, and the business’s long-term profitability and culture for many years to come.

[Editor’s Note: To learn more about this and related topics, you may want to attend the following webinars: Welcome to the Team! Recruiting and Hiring, Including Restrictive Covenants and An Ounce of Prevention: Policies, Procedures and Proactivity.]

©All Rights Reserved. April, 2020.  DailyDAC™, LLC d/b/a/ Financial Poise™

About David Spitulnik

David Spitulnik is a successful executive with over 40 years of experience in both large technology companies and in consulting to and leadership of mid-market, closely held and family owned businesses across a variety of industries. In addition to serving as chair of the Private Directors Association’s Private and Family Business Center Outreach Committee, David…

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