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Generalists and specialists: when to hire for habits and when not to

When you’re building a team, each role is best filled by someone on a range between generalists and specialists. The first is flexible but lacking expertise, and the latter is experienced but lacking range.

Of course, like the term use among animals, most of us are somewhere on a spectrum, but it still can be a helpful prism to see your applicant pool. Some celebrate the generalist and others honor the specialist but both are necessary and nuanced. And perhaps most important to remember: anyone can move along that spectrum, depending on their willingness and adaptability. But be conscious of your choices.

You’ll always want a balance of this range and different roles call for different kinds of people, but there’s a development you can see as a company grows too. At the beginning, as a founder, you build the best version of a model, mostly with help from generalists — people who can and want to do anything to figure out that model. Then as a CEO you refine it with specialists — creating sustainability through repeatable, scalable process.

First, you hire for action. Then you hire for habits.

At the beginning, your vision is shaped and stretched and job descriptions morph and merge — your expertise in founding a company will need to encompass more than you can know. But you need the organization to mature with the help of people who bring real experience and some level of authority — that’s when the mastery comes. The challenge is that none of this is truly a binary — people are on that spectrum of generalists and specialists, just like your company’s needs for either are too.

This spectrum can be to your benefit. I’ve hired people who were less experienced but clearly on the path to becoming a specialist, at a time when we needed expertise but already had habits of our own we wanted instilled in them.

But it runs the other way too. Looking back, I’ve also contributed to hiring decisions that weren’t the right fit because I got this wrong — hiring someone who wanted to specialize before we needed that or someone who struggled to become an expert fast enough as the company grew.

So it’s healthy to have this paradigm in mind. Be intentional. Are you hiring for the habits of an expert or do you want someone who will do anything to get the job done?

Sure, flexibility and knowledge are qualities every hire should have, but often one develops at the expense of the other. What does your next hire need to be?

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