Are You a Specialist or a Generalist?

Tim Conway

Are you a Generalist or a Specialist?

Why should you care?

As a former PRactitioner and current mentor to business owners, I can address both topics.

According to Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, a “word association” assessment determines if you are a Generalist or a Specialist.  During this brief quiz, you reply with the first thoughts that come to mind after hearing each of 100 words.  Examples are the terms “window” or the color “yellow.”  If you say “open” (window) or “mustard” (yellow) then you are likely a Generalist.  But if you make “personal” responses, such as “oval” or “hair” you are rated a Specialist.  At the conclusion, a score is tabulated by comparing your replies to those who have completed the same test during numerous years.

Generalists represent about 70% of humans worldwide.  These people “think like most,” fit well into groups and mingle smoothly.  Further, these types nurture leadership habits by supervising staff and handling project timelines/budgets.  Hence, the title “General Manager” of an agency or corporate department.

Examples of common jobs for Generalists:  public relations account executive; marketing researcher; advertising media buyer; copywriter; news editor; retail salesperson; entrepreneur.  If you’re a Generalist, strategic activities to consider:  PRSA; Chamber of Commerce; industry associations; university alumni chapter; social media (e.g., LinkedIn, blog); community volunteerism; health club.

Potential downsides for Generalists:  driven/focused on results (causes staff burn-out/turn-over); opportunistic about chasing new business (employees unclear about priorities).

Specialists, who are only 30% of the population, “see the world through their eyes.”  These subject-matter experts possess deep knowledge via advanced training (e.g., internships, PRSA certification, master’s degree).  Specialists prefer to do the workversus directing others or selling concepts.  Plus, Specialists usually choose to refine talents in an in-demand area.

Fields that align for Specialists:  internal communications; graphic/web designer; columnist; customer service representative; documentary filmmaker; novelist; sole proprietor (e.g., freelance consultant).  Hobbies that might “recharge batteries” are:  reading; journaling; webinars; nature photography; scrapbooking/Pinterest; yoga/Pilates; music/art lessons; jogging/swimming.

Cautionary factors for Specialists:  high creativity may indicate lack of focus or poor time management (suggestions:  use to-do list; set daily goals); stubborn/resists change; doesn’t collaborate easily with peers; struggles to make cold calls due to fear of rejection (tips:  find a pitch buddy; use scripts to rehearse; bring a friend to networking events).

Today’s global workplace has a mix of Generalists and Specialists.  It’s likely that marcom firms/in-house have an abundance of Generalists.  Arguably, newsrooms are chock-full of Specialists.  An ongoing challenge is to recognize up front if you’re dealing with a Generalist or Specialist.  The objective is to connect-the-dots quickly about a journalist’s persona.  Before outreach to a reporter, check their bio to discover useful clues about education, prior assignments and awards.  Once you understand a media member, adjust pitch to match typical behavior pattern.

Take-away for Rising PRos:  by accepting yourself as a Generalist or a Specialist, you’ll increase career output faster.

Recommendations for GMs/Educators:  use role-play exercises, such as faux warm/cold calls for Specialists, to fine-tune skills; delegate appropriate tasks to each.

When Specialist Tim Conway is not teaching “Discovering Entrepreneurship” at Roosevelt University in Chicago, he guides venture teams to boost profits.  Connect with Tim at 847-394-5464.


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