March 6, 2023

Generalists Check More Boxes


Partner at Hirewell. #3 Ranked Sarcastic Commenter on LinkedIn.

Not that that’s a healthy obsession to get into anyway.

“We want a specialist who checks all the boxes.”


I know as soon as I mention box checking in hiring there’s going to be an immediate pile on. Job descriptions that ask for a laundry list of items.

  • Are they unrealistic?
  • Are they all nice-to-have even when marked ‘required’?
  • Should you apply even when you don’t have them?
  • Is there a built in bias because some demographics self-selected out when they don’t match every requirement more than others?

All valid. All stuff I’m not even going to touch on here.

Instead I’ll comment on the (what should be but isn’t) obvious: everybody wants to hire a specialist. Who can do all-the-things.

Deep experience in demand gen marketing (for example) but has also launched a product, does a little design, maybe some light coding, basic accounting, a background in derivatives, sub 6 minute miles and know which wine will pair correctly with the blackened halibut.

I’m kidding. Probably.

Specialists have value. Generalists have value. But for some reason companies go on a purple squirrel hunt, rolling them into one.

This is understandable when making a first hire in some skill set you haven’t hired below. Jeff Smith and I talked about this in the latest 10 Minute Talent Rant, “How To Hire Your First (Of Any Skill)” (Here.)

Hiring for new-to-your skills sets is hard. Often it’s driven by “the big initiative.” You want someone specialized in doing exactly that. Then piling on all the other things you think you may need, but let’s be frank, you really aren’t sure.

Later you find out the “big initiative” really wasn’t as big as you thought. Other more important things popped up. And the specialist you hired is miscast and frankly isn’t loving it either.

Yes, we’ve lived that life. Take it from me: when hiring a skill for the first time, you probably need more range and less specificity than you think.

Generalists check more boxes. Just don’t expect them to have 10 years of experience in 15 different skill sets…

Side note: I highly recommend Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. Easy read and lots of engaging anecdotes (hot takes?) on how we (as a society) got the specialization obsession all wrong.

Partner at Hirewell. #3 Ranked Sarcastic Commenter on LinkedIn.

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