Whether you have a specific interest in one area of your profession or enjoy a more general role in managing the operations of a business, you can create a career for yourself as an in-house executive or a hired-gun consultant. Understanding the differences between functional specialists and management generalists can help you prepare a career path that will let you strut your skills and climb the ladder.
A functional specialist is an expert in a specific discipline, such as human resources, finance, marketing, information technology or continuous improvement. A specialist can either manage a department or take a key role in one area of the department. For example, a marketing specialist might oversee the research, distribution, sales, advertising, promotions, social media or public relations of a small business. At a large company, she might specialize by handling one of those duties. A specialist might not be able to handle all of the tasks in her area, but knows enough about them to manage others. For example, an advertising specialist will be familiar with media buying, layout and design, pay-per-click strategies and copywriting. While she might not have advanced layout and design skills, she understands the basics of graphic design and can direct a graphic artist.
A management generalist has a broad skill set that allows her to manage multiple areas of a business, overseeing functional specialists. For example, the chief executive officer or chief operating officer of a business help create the big-picture strategies for a business, working with the HR, marketing, accounting, sales and production managers. A generalist has more than a basic understanding of most areas of a business, but most likely doesn’t have expertise in more than one area. Small business owners often must become management generalists when they launch their businesses because they don’t have the money to hire experts for each function.
The advantages of being a functional specialist include being able to focus on one area of a profession you love, job security that comes with being an expert, higher salaries as you develop more expertise, and the ability to work without a hands-on supervisor as you demonstrate more expertise. Management generalists enjoy the ability to strengthen an entire company, rather than just one area, which can help you avoid boredom or burnout. Generalists are more likely to make it into the C-suite, earning CEO, COO and CFO titles. Both specialist and generalists have the opportunity to work as consultants or starting their own businesses. If you’re interested in being a consultant, the more services you can offer as a generalist, the more clients you can attract. If you specialize, you can charge higher fees.
Specialists might have fewer job opportunities than if they can offer a business multiple skills. If you commit to a specific function, it might be hard to change fields if you burn out, based on the amount of education and training it takes to become a specialist. Generalists must prove they have the skills to run a business, often starting out by working for low pay as consultants for small businesses. It’s easier for specialists to demonstrate their specific expertise and value to a business, unlike a generalist, unless she as a track record of launching, turning around or managing businesses. Consultants who provide a wide variety of services will have trouble competing against specialists in certain areas. Specialists might find it more difficult to find as many clients as generalists.
Sam Ashe-Edmunds has been writing and lecturing for decades. He has worked in the corporate and nonprofit arenas as a C-Suite executive, serving on several nonprofit boards. He is an internationally traveled sport science writer and lecturer. He has been published in print publications such as Entrepreneur, Tennis, SI for Kids, Chicago Tribune, Sacramento Bee, and on websites such Smart-Healthy-Living.net, SmartyCents and Youthletic. Edmunds has a bachelor's degree in journalism.