Specializing in one field or at one skill is a double-edged sword, potentially increasing your employability and pay in a narrower range of areas, but limiting your opportunities to those areas. Improving your specific skills while adding a few general abilities will help you grow and prepare to climb the ladder into management.
If you’re thinking of becoming an expert at something, you can focus on specializing in a specific task or in a specific area. For example, if you have a human resources degree, you might specialize in benefits and compensation, or specialize in general human resources management in the health-care profession. A real estate agent might focus on only residential, office space or commercial property. A headhunter might specialize in a single industry, such as technology.
The more skill-specific your specialization, the more in demand you’ll be by companies that need or want that skill set. A generalist might be able to manage a department, but the company will need more staff or have to spend more on contractors for that department. When larger companies have enough need for a full-time person to handle a specific function, they’ll want a specialist. For example, a small business that infrequently updates its website won’t need a full-time developer. Instead, it will ask its generalist IT director to farm out development. When a company grows large enough that it frequently needs to update its website, it will be cheaper to hire a full-time developer.
Fewer Management Opportunities
Managers are often said to be in charge of everything and nothing because they manage functions, or departments, letting specialists perform the work. For example, an executive chef spends less time cooking and more time planning menus, making budgets, ordering inventory, scheduling kitchen staff and creating budgets. Your award-winning career as a pastry chef won’t get you a job running a kitchen if you don’t have business skills. If you specialize and focus only on developing your skills to perform that work, you won’t be qualified to manage others. Adding general business management skills, including strategic planning, budgeting, scheduling, team building and report writing to your skill set will help you climb the ladder. Volunteer outside of your area of specialization at work to get more experience, and take community college night classes to increase your knowledge base.
Who knew personal computers would rapidly give way to smartphones and tablets, or that print magazines would largely be replaced by digital content? If you stake your career on knowing one skill or working in one industry, you risk being left out in the cold, finding it tough to get work and command your customary pay. If your area of specialty begins to fade later in your career, you’ll have a much harder time learning a new skill and gaining experience to make you an attractive candidate when you’re in your 50s.
If you specialize in an area few people can do, it becomes harder for companies to replace you. If you don’t get along with your boss, she may keep you on simply because it will be a hassle to replace you. The more processes, software programs and relationships you tie to your job, the more difficult it might be for someone to take your place without a significant learning curve. Ask your employer to pay for a few continuing education seminars and workshops to help you add new skills, reminding your company just how knowledgeable you are and what unique skills you bring to your job.
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.