recruiting top talent and the danger of specialists
By andrew scarcella in Editor Picks
I’ve never been hired for one skill. And unless you’re a kicker in the NFL, neither have you. For years I worried about taking jobs that weren’t “what I do,” only to realize that the skills I thought I needed to grow weren’t the ones I already knew how to do. They were all the ones I acquired that weren’t “what I do,” but became essential parts of a diverse skill set that I credit for keeping me employed all these years.
Okay, so I’m not advocating you stop trying to be better at what you do. All I’m saying is that becoming really, really good at one thing—becoming a specialist—isn’t necessarily the best way to become a top talent. And if you’re looking to recruit top talent, specialists aren’t the first place you should look.
Tim Ferriss, angel investor, prolific podcaster, and author of The Four Hour Work Week, doesn’t mince words skewering specialization: “Was Steve Jobs a better programmer than top coders at Apple? No, but he had a broad range of skills and saw the unseen interconnectedness.” An easy example, but compelling. Ferriss goes on, casually flaying the argument against versatility:
“The specialist who imprisons himself in self-inflicted one-dimensionality—pursuing an impossible perfection—spends decades stagnant or making imperceptible incremental improvements while the curious generalist consistently measures improvement in quantum leaps. It is only the latter who enjoys the process of pursuing excellence.”
To some, it’s more of an argument against the tyranny of overly-specific job-titles. The bigger a company gets, the more detailed their job titles become, narrowing already narrow positions until everyone is so specialized no one can see beyond their own desk. Collaboration withers, communication wanes, and engagement and productivity die a slow death. Google combats this problem with strategy, focusing on recruiting what they call “learning animals.”
In a discussion with Harvard Business Review, Google SVP of Products, Jonathan Rosenberg gets right to it, “Specialists tend to bring an inherent bias to a problem, and they often feel threatened by new solutions . . . things like experience and the way you’ve done a role before isn’t nearly as important as your ability to think.”
Of course, not all companies can be as progressive in their recruitment as Google, but companies of every size can learn from their example. Especially when recruiting for leadership roles, where versatility has the most impact. Generalists embrace context over content, preferring to understand how each part of a company works together, rather than the details of how each one works individually. They encourage cross-departmental collaboration and foster the acceptance of new ideas—influencing the greatness of everyone around them, the ultimate sign of true top talent.
Versatile people not only bring value to a company through their diverse skill set, they also bring self-sufficiency—another trait of top talent. But I’ll save that for part three.