Generalize, Specialize Or Both?

Vantage Points Header Joel ElvesonLET ME ASK you a question which is why did the man throw the clock out the window? If I may let me ask you another question which is why did the chicken cross the road? I have two more questions for you the first of which I will not provide an answer to as I want you my reading audience to provide the correct responses to each of the above. Why did the man throw the butter out the window? This I promise is the last question but unlike the other questions, I just asked I am going to give you an on the spot answer. What do the worn out “corny” jokes presented above have to do with the content that the article title suggests the subject matter to be discussed is? The answer is NOTHING! The jokes were put in as a brain teaser to see how far back your memory goes back while at the same time keeping you “off balance” as to what I am really going to write about.

When I started my first sales job in the mortgage business I worked under the tutelage of a gifted sales manager whose philosophy was to specialize in selling one mortgage product and one mortgage product only. He held steadfast to the belief that if you take one product and learn it better than anybody else ultimately you would be very successful. Years later I can look back and conclude he was right but only to a certain degree as his theory began to lose credibility as the years went on.

As time went on, the mortgage market became overly saturated with mortgage products and programs to fit the needs of just about every borrower with no regard to risks the borrower was unknowingly taking. I am not going to get deeply into the negative ramifications of what all of these products/programs were since that would take away from the focus of this article. Moving on I quickly realized that being a specialist in that type of market would have hastened my exit from the mortgage business. Had I heeded the warnings I kept hearing leaving the business would not have been the worst things I could have done.

To prevent a reoccurrence of the generalize or specialize dilemma I learned how to do both. In other words, if there was a product to sell I sold it no matter what is was or what industry it came from. That practice served me well especially when the mortgage industry crashed and burned not once but twice. Shortly thereafter, I joined a high-powered Executive Search Firm in Manhattan whose VP ( a superb teacher) who recognized my ability to reach people but felt trying to develop client relationships in many different industries was not the way to go. Once again I had to shift gears and become a recruiter who only recruited for clients in those sectors I knew very well aka specialize.

Staying on recruiting and being a recruiter for a moment there are many firms that do have areas of specialization from which they will not deviate. Other Staffing Firms are more generalist in nature as they would work on any assignment including Temporary and Temp to Perm Jobs. Although I had expertise with financial positions I still wanted to branch out into other areas such as Contract IT. My supervisors wanted me to focus on the industry’s I knew best since the results were there. Feeling stifled not to mention limited in what I could earn I migrated to more of a start-up firm where myself and a couple of people I worked with at the last firm who had joined this new firm prior to me afforded us the opportunity to create a “boutique style” agency where we were free to develop job orders from any sector we chose. Igeneralize kept up with my core specialty but increased my reach way beyond what I had been doing. So now I could specialize, generalize or both.

Now let us put the focus on you. In what you are doing now do you specialize, generalize or do you do both? Seeing that there is evidence to suggest (both within this article and in conjunction with other sources) that suggest either way can work well depending on the environment you work in, where do you feel your talents are best utilized given the three choices of direction? Since this is an open-ended question there is no right or wrong answer as everything depends on you.

In case there is any confusion or uncertainty on the three methodologies let me introduce them to you. The generalist works with the broad spectrum of products or ideas and does not stick to one. A downside is that a generalist may not have the necessary expertise needed in one particular area as there is too much to focus on with insufficient knowledge bases to call upon. Still, there are very distinct advantages to working in this manner.

As the name suggests, a specialist has laser lights set squarely on what he knows or does best. Their downside is that they may be too narrow to take in something new or be able to move into new areas as might be needed. The specialist knows his product or service so thoroughly that he can sell it in his sleep while still practicing his craft with surgical like precision. Should the need to broaden his horizons suddenly arise one would question can he stop on a dime, reverse course and go in a completely different direction? The generalist can go in either direction.

With any school of thought, arguments can be made for and against both ways to make your point. I lean to the opinion that being an expert in a field, product, etc. is the best way to go. Being a specialist, and the best specialist in what you do will always give you an advantage. However, learning to adapt to a new way of doing things, or being able to make changes, or keeping your door open to taking in something new with the idea of incorporating it into your current expertise produces what I feel is the best of the worlds combined into one.


Joel Elveson
Joel Elveson
INDEPENDENT Executive Recruiting By Joel is an "up and coming" Executive Search Firm formed and headed up by Joel Elveson whose visionary ideas, leadership & creativity have brought to life a more "user-friendly" approach to recruiting. His clients and candidates form powerful strategic partnerships that we use to help you. Joel’s Firm offers Permanent, Temporary (case by case), & Temporary To Permanent staffing solutions for all of your Human Capital Requirements. Contract IT/Consultants are available if needed. Above and beyond they are experts (by way of their personal industry work experience) with mortgage, mortgage banking, middle-market banking, accounting, along with many others under the vast financial spectrum of disciplines. Their business goes beyond candidate recruiting as they also train, mentor and develop your internal recruiting staff with an eye towards helping you reduce the cost of hiring. They will also work in areas such as compensation, effective onboarding processes and alike. In other words, their business is to help your business by becoming an extension of you by filling in gaps that cause delay or waste. The recruiting methods employed by Joel’s team are time tested that results in a high rate of successful placements. Joel was trained in the art of recruiting by some of the top staffing industry executives in addition to the best recruiter trainers who to this day drive me to exceed the lofty goals he has set forth.

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  1. Larry,
    Thank you, for the compliment, your thoughts, and of course thank you for taking the time to read my article.
    In your situation, I would think of you as a Retail Store Product Specialist. At the same time, we both know you could be either a generalist or a specialist and be great either way!
    In your heart not to mention in the back of your mind you realize that you are one of those special people who can accomplish things that others would not even attempt to do.
    Take care, Larry!