Saturday, 25 March 2017

Jack of all trades

In any profession you have to do a range of different things.  Is it better to be good at all of these things, or to be world-class in a few of them and adequate in the rest?

I'm asking because I've recently been giving this a lot of thought, prompted by at first watching Dr Jon Griffiths' TEDx talk on Specialists vs Generalists.  Now, Dr Griffiths has worked for some time at my GP surgery and is someone for whom I have a great deal of respect - he's advised and treated myself and my family for a long time.  But I watched his TEDx talk with interest, because he is advocating the primacy of the Generalist (eg a GP) over Specialists (eg a Heart Surgeon, Paediatrician or other such medical specialist) and saying its better to be a "jack of all trades, master of none" than to be master of just one.

So this made me think quite a bit and I've tried to relate it to both the HR world and the sporting world, which after all are the two main professional worlds I inhabit.

One of my sporting heroes when growing up was Daley Thompson, the Olympic gold-medal winning Decathlete and arguably one of the greatest British sportspeople of all time.  I admired him because his success was based on being awesome at no less than 10 different sports.

In essence, the ultimate generalist.

Or was he?

Years later I heard Frank Dick, who was Thompsons' coach, deliver a motivational speech.  He pointed out that whilst Thompsons' success was based on him being better all-round than anyone else, he wasn't the best in his field in all ten sports.  And he was right - Thompson was truly world class as a sprinter and jumper, but no more than average at things like the discus, javelin and pole-vault.

Thompson himself was quoted as saying "Sometimes you have to resist working on your strengths in favour of your weaknesses. The decathlon requires a wide range of skills." - but tellingly, Frank Dick said different when I listened to him.

He said that he knew Thompson would NEVER be a world class javelin (etc) performer, that his physique and skills could never be improved beyond average level.  So he didn't bother trying to get him to do well in those disciplines, as aside from anything else, Thompson simply didn't have the motivation to do it.  However, he knew (and so did Thompson) that Thompson was beyond world class as a sprinter and long jumper, and in fact could have won Olympic Gold in both those events had he entered them.  And Dick focused on making the gap between Thompson and his nearest rivals bigger in these events, to compensate for and overcome any perceived weaknesses in other events.

So I reflected on this in light of Griffiths' talk also.  The two are slightly conflicting - Daley Thompson appears at first glance to be a jack of all trades, master of none - but in fact he's not.  He's master of several, and adequate in others.  Working on his specialist skills was the key to his success.

And this is at the heart of the strengths-based coaching model which I'm very interested in and which I've discussed at length with Ian Pettigrew in this podcast.

But what does it mean for HR professionals, who are often sub divided into specialists and generalists?

In my HR career, I've been both.  I started out as a pure L&D specialist before picking up some OD work/skills and then moving sideways into generalist HR, and my last three roles have encompassed all possible aspects of HR (including L&D).

But does having a specialist skillset mean you cannot be a good generalist?

I don't think so.  Its definitely possible to be a good all-rounder, like Griffiths says.

But, can you be world-class as an all-rounder?  I'm not sure.  I think you can be world-class at several disciplines within a generalist role, and no more than adequate at others.

What I'm saying is that HR generalists are a bit like Daley Thompson.

Focusing on one or two specialist disciplines doesn't mean you're rubbish at the others though.  You HAVE to be at least adequate otherwise you wouldn't survive in the role.  But in terms of development and performance focus, I subscribe to the Frank Dick/Daley Thompson school of thinking:

- Focus on being world class, and constantly improving, on the things you're already good at and enjoy - make the gap between you and your peers as big as you can
- Don't ignore the things you don't enjoy, ensure you perform adequately at them, but accept that you might never be world class at some things and so don't waste time trying

And this links us nicely back to Griffiths' TEDx talk.  He advocates being a jack of all trades, master of none.

I disagree.  I think be master of some trades, and good enough at others.

And yet this can lead to some organisational problems.  I've seen people (including some good friends) managed out of organisations because even though they are very good at some aspects of their role, they are not sufficiently good enough at other aspects and its those aspects that the organisation REALLY wanted them to focus on.

But that says more about fit within the organisation.  It doesn't mean that those people aren't good at their job, it just means the organisation needed different things.  In essence, they were asking Daley Thompson to win Gold on purely his javelin skills, but weren't interested in the fact he could set world records at the long jump.

So, performance-wise, what really matters?  What are you ultimately judged on?

If you're a generalist HR professional and considered world-class at, say, employment law, but only adequate at talent management - does the world-class employment law knowledge outweigh the adequate talent management skills?  Which matters more?  Is the overall performance picture affected more by the higher end of the skillset or the lower end?  Will the professional get better by focusing on their higher end or lower end skills?

And, ultimately, if the organisation wants Daley Thompson to be really good at javelin and doesn't care how good he is at the long jump, do they consider themselves to have an awesome decathlete (based on the overall picture) on their hands and celebrate that, or do they consider themselves to have an average javelin thrower and take appropriate action?


Till next time...


PS in other news, my summer sports are starting to get going again now and the world seems a lot brighter - and busier - as a result.  I'll be spending a lot more time outdoors until early October...

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