Variety vs. Specialization

Last week we talked about whether it is more advantageous for an organization to stretch an employee’s weaker elastic bands and work to develop new skills or to capitalize on areas in which the employee has already shown strength. The other side of that coin is the question of which approach is better for the employee.

For example, Sally is a mid-level corporate associate at a large law firm. She writes up contracts, assembles closing materials, and researches various points of law when necessary. With the exception of the occasional client meeting in which her superiors do most of the talking, she is rarely required to do anything but write contracts and research. She is very good at those tasks, works long hours, and is rewarded with sizable bonuses at the end of every year.

Jennifer is a mid-level employee for a local non-profit. Her duties range from event planning to grant writing to interior decorating. She feels like she rarely does the same task twice. Sometimes she gets to do things she really enjoys like writing up case statements or chatting with members of the board about the organization’s long term plans. Other times she has to do things she feels less comfortable with such as organizing the group’s charity golf tournament.

In the short run Sally is going to feel like her situation is the more advantageous one. She has a job that she enjoys and is comfortable with the tasks she is assigned. She has been able to advance her contract writing skills to the point that she has garnered both praise and monetary rewards within her firm.

She is not, however, advancing any other skill. In order to reach the partnership level in most law firms she will need to bring business in through networking and developing relationships. If she decides that she does not want to pursue a career in law, she will not have developed very many transferable skills. In other words, she has pigeonholed herself.

Jennifer on the other hand, is anything but pigeonholed. She has tried her hand in almost every aspect of running a non-profit and will likely be a good candidate to become its director as she advances in her career. She also has the skills to move to a wide variety of different types of jobs both in the non-profit and for-profit worlds if she decides that this particular line of work is not for her.

The downside to this variety however is that while Jennifer is busy making sure to stretch as many elastic bands as possible, no particular area or skill set is being honed finely enough to make her an expert at anything. She is a competent grant writer and can throw a successful party but she is not outstanding at either task because she always feels like she is flying by the seat of her pants.

If you were Sally, how would you go about stretching your other elastic bands to make you a better candidate for promotion or a different job?

If you were Jennifer, how would you ensure that you were able to develop your skills beyond the most basic level?

Which model will give more resilience to your career? Which model contributes more to the resilience of your organization?

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