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Book Review: The Neo-Generalist

I’ve had several roles in multiple organizations over my career. All of them have been rewarding. When I look back I can distinguish one particular fork in the road of my livelihood. The moment I left the public education sector for the corporate world was the time at which I was introduced to the term HR Generalist.

Being in education, there was no such thing as an HR Generalist. I had never heard of the job title before. It not only sounded foreign, it made me laugh.

“What did an HR Generalist do?” I mused to myself. It sounded so goofy to me I thought the role was about having a very low-level of knowledge of Human Resources to translate to people like me. Maybe it was supposed to be like an interpreter. Given the company assigned me one that first week of employment in my new corporate world gig, I needed to figure out relatively quickly what it was she was actually going to help me with.

That “she” was named Diane. And she was fantastic.

As it turns out, an HR Generalist is a bit like what authors Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin expertly surface in their new book The Neo-Generalist: Where You Go Is Who You Are. They write that a neo-generalist “dislikes labels and categorization precisely because it has the effect of fragmenting and polarizing, creating artificial boundaries and divisions.” My new colleague, Diane, was not a specific HR payroll person, or a learning professional, or a recruitment agent, or a labor analyst, or an organizational design consultant. Diane was all of that. She could deftly move around the continuum of human resources, “in and out of different specialisms and responsibilities, working with an array of groups and communities,” as Mikkelsen and Martin depict.

Diane was indeed someone with that raw and uncanny ability to go wide and narrow. She was both deep and shallow in her knowledge of human resources. She was working in a state of perpetual beta.

The crux of The Neo-Generalist is that each of us possesses the potential to both specialize and generalize . Diane was a perfect example. She generalized the principles and policies of HR in order to specialize for me and the other executives she worked with. Neo-generalists bring their background, unique and oftentimes gifted knowledge as well as diversity of thought to their places of work.

“While the specialist aspires to membership of the guild, populated by experts in their field, and the generalist heads for the salon, which is polymathic in both membership and outlook, the neo-generalist is drawn to a café culture in the hope of combining the best of both worlds.”

As I read the book, I caught myself not only thinking about Diane, I began to think about my own situation. Maybe I’m a neo-generalist?

The author’s simple yet succinct observation is based on a wide range of interviews with athletes, scientists, professionals, artists, film makers and writers. Littered with historical references and pop culture reflections, I could not help thinking about my career and tendencies while reading.

As I approach problems at work or in life—as I tackle projects or ideate on new concepts—I realized I am tapping into a diverse background of personal and professional experiences, ultimately surfacing an answer, a thought, or a possibility by virtue of looking at things specifically and generally. I am like the capital letter T. Along the top of the T is my breadth and along the stem of the T is my depth. As necessary, I shift along the top of the stem to accommodate a given situation.

The authors describe it differently, and perhaps more astutely, by virtue of what they describe as “The Infinite Loop” found below.

The stories are rich and diverse. One minute you can be swept away to the Rugby World Cup and another to an anecdote about Picasso. But the real gold is mined from the personal neo-generalist narratives the authors surfaced with people from around the world. One of my favorites (and most enlightening) was with Susy Paisley-Day, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Kent.  While studying wild bears in concert with her PhD research, Paisley-Day became a detective, using sense-making and pattern recognition as part of her scientific analysis. But, she also blended this with the unknown—the mystery, uncertainty and ambiguity—of being in the wild and figuring out how to track these spectacled bears. It’s this specialization and generalization blend where the magic appears.

“Pattern recognition, therefore, requires a fine balancing act between perception and reality; an awareness that objective can be affected and distorted by the subjective.”

As I look back now at the time I spent with Diane, I know not only what an HR Generalist does, I fully appreciate how important her role was to me and my team’s success. She was not a generalist; she was a neo-generalist—a restless multi-disciplinarian who is forever learning and bringing people together through depth and breadth.

By the end of The Neo-Generalist, I was ready to classify myself as one, too.

2Comments

  • Marie-Louise Collard / 4 March 2017 4:32

    Hello Dan. Thank you for providing such an interesting post and although I have not read the book you talk about I do feel bound to make a comment based on your post. I apologise in advance if I have misconstrued anything in the book itself.
    I have come across the word “generalist” too in different work places. It is difficult to deny that there are preconceptions around the word itself, just as you mention. Unfortunately for many onlookers or colleagues those preconceptions can be negative – ” a Jack of all trades and a master of none” springs to mind. Isn’t that what can be implied by “generalist”?
    The reality of course can be quite the opposite – as you say, “multi-disciplinarians” and even experts in different areas. But the perception of the word “multi-disciplinarian” is quite a different proposotion! Indeed “an expert in many fields” instead of a “jack of all trades”.
    Your learning curve with Diane took time and understanding. Does a “generalist” need to be discovered to appreciate their worth? Or is the title merely an opportunity for any employers to pay the “Generalist ” less than their real expertise deserves?
    I would ask whose perception is it, and whose reality?
    Thank you

  • Halelly Azulay (@HalellyAzulay) / 14 March 2017 11:58

    Cool – thanks for bringing this book to my attention, I hadn’t heard of it. It is about a topic I’m very intrigued about, actually, and I, too, self-identify this way. It sounds like the term “expert-generalist” that my friend Michael Simmons has written about (https://www.forbes.com/forbes/welcome/?toURL=https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelsimmons/2015/03/23/how-one-life-hack-from-a-self-made-billionaire-leads-to-exceptional-success) and talked about on my podcast (https://www.talentgrow.com/podcast/episode18), which he says was coined by Bain & Co Chairman Orit Gadiesh. It’s also similar to the concept of ‘T-Shaped individuals’ described by IDEO CEO Tim Brown (http://chiefexecutive.net/ideo-ceo-tim-brown-t-shaped-stars-the-backbone-of-ideoae%E2%84%A2s-collaborative-culture/). I’ll go order a copy of this book now! (But ratz, *I* was going to write it! 😉 )

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