Generalist vs. specialist: Why both remain viable career paths

Should a future development leader have a generalized or specialized skill set? Photo by: Devex

The debate between recruiting specialized versus generalized talent in top development organizations continues.

The future development leader will possess a holistic view of the field and won’t overspecialize — but that’s not to say that technical skills won’t remain in demand, according to panelists at Devex’s 7th Annual D.C. Career Forum.

A technical specialist has a specific depth of knowledge concerning a particular sector, which proves very useful for the organization’s overall strategic objectives. But leadership positions, more often than not, require a generalist approach to management.

“Maybe it’s because we’re the U.N. and we do things globally, but we have more need for generalists,” said Michael Dahl, chief of talent management at United Nations Population Fund.

Worldwide, generalists will be all the more in demand, Dahl said, since development funding is increasingly being channeled to conflict zones where aid workers need well-rounded skills.

“Unfortunately, development in humanitarian settings is growing, the global trend is we’ll have more settings where the world is in distress and aid workers will need coordination skills, the ability to handle stress and adapt,” he said.

Passion, courage, social awareness, inclusion, advocacy, resource motivation, distribution and communication are attributes he said candidates must have and do well to help the organization “find diplomatic ways to get under the skin” of areas in which they work.

And those areas themselves are broad. Candidates must be versed in issues ranging from sexual reproduction, health, youth, gender equality, gender-based violence, population and analysis, Dahl said.

RTI, on the other hand, focuses more on recruiting specialized skills, according to Jon Herstein, international human resource operations director at RTI International.

“We are looking for technical skills combined with practical management experience — that’s the holy grail for us,” Herstein said, adding that technical specialists can lack management skills and managers technical skills, causing challenges in leading a project.

RTI seeks a blend of both in all sectors, from health and education to governance. Still, Herstein advised job seekers not to “overspecialize” and “have a focus, but be able to adapt.”

Whether specialists or generalists, no candidate can get around the importance of well-rounded soft skills.

Strong candidates have versatile skills such as interpersonal skills, empathy and motivation, Herstein said, and the candidates who stand out are “curious, innovative, proactive and entrepreneurial.”

Dahl also emphasized the need for development workers to have good storytelling skills to share messages and produce behavioral changes, a point echoed by fellow panelist Alexis Bonnell, director of the Office of Engagement and Communications at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Global Development Lab.

While she agreed that the combination of technical and managerial skill sets is a powerful one — especially carrying through on projects to get things done — Bonnell also said that candidates need to see the big picture of development and understand the softer skills of empathy and mutually beneficial relationships for human-centric design even when dealing with technical issues like mobile technology and data.  

“The important thing is to feel purposeful, have passion, have fun, and have influence,” Bonnell said, “and it’s important to see the big picture.”

Will there be more generalist or specialist jobs in the future? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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About the author

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    Claire Luke

    Claire is a journalist passionate about all things development, with a particular interest in labor, having worked previously for the Indonesia-based International Labor Organization. She has experience reporting in Cambodia, Nicaragua and Burma, and is happy to be immersed in the action of D.C. Claire is a master's candidate in development economics at the George Washington Elliott School of International Affairs and received her bachelor's degree in political philosophy from the College of the Holy Cross.

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