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Business Unplugged™
This blog features Carol Roth's tough love on business and entrepreneurship, as well as insights from Carol's community of contributors.

The Curse of the Generalist

Written By: Scott McDowell | No Comments

Entrepreneurs are often dyed-in-the-wool generalists; they show a curiosity about the world and a deep, abiding interest in learning. This is great, at least in the beginning. But when your business approaches any sort of growth, the Curse of the Generalist rears its ugly head.

One of my personal heroes is Wyndham Lewis. In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, Wyndham Lewis was the publisher of BLAST Magazine, a cubist painter, prolific novelist, essayist, rabble-rouser, friend of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and leader of the Vorticist movement. His work is confrontational, thought-provoking, and energetic. It makes you want to do something.

And yet, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve never heard of Wyndham Lewis. His books are out of print. Only typography nerds have heard of BLAST. He’s not getting a major retrospective any time soon.

Wyndham Lewis was a generalist.

Being a generalist means that you’re comfortable doing a lot of different things. You’re well read. You thrive at switching up responsibilities by the hour, focusing on one at a time. You know enough about marketing and sales, a lot about your product, a bit about finance and operations and HR. If there’s information that you lack, you know how and where to find it. You’re creative. You synthesize complex information across borders. You plug all of the holes.

And in business it can be a problem.

Chances are, you’re not memorable. It’s a scary fact that if you or your business can’t be labeled properly, you’re difficult to remember. And worse, you’ll probably be confusing to your customers.

Your business is totally untenable. Get past a certain size and your generalist tendencies spread you too thin. You need help. You can’t possibly do everything and keep this thing afloat. Your wife hates you. Kids? What kids?

You get bogged down in the details. Generalist business owners often jump down rabbit holes to fix this or that problem. Prioritizing is a big issue.

It sounds dreadful, but don’t fear. Being a generalist can also give you an edge.

I’m convinced that the secret to business growth is learning how to properly muffle your generalist tendencies, without snuffing them out completely. To continually prioritize and focus in on what matters:

Pick, then delegate. Instead of being content with doing everything, learn how to delegate. Choose a few areas you really want to be responsible for, such as marketing and business development, and slowly pass off the rest. Resist the urge to say things like, “Let me just do it myself. It will be so much faster.” Your ability to share responsibility with your co-workers will lead directly to the long-term success – or failure – of your business.

Keep something weird. The joy of being a generalist is exploring the dusty corners of knowledge. Decide in advance what type of exploration you can tolerate. For instance, schedule blocks of time for exploring. Or, when you’re deciding on what responsibilities to keep for yourself, try picking a few quirky things that pique your interest, like stocking the company fridge with craft beers, handling the Twitter account, or designing the company holiday card.

Add specialists to your team.  A common hiring problem of founders is to hire people with similar skills and qualities as yourself. Instead, stock your team with a range of specialists, and look for complementary personalities.

Collaborate freely. Seek out collaborative situations where your skills will shine. Look for opportunities to brainstorm, develop ideas and utilize the range of your interests. Just do it with awareness.

You already know that being successful in business requires laser focus. The generalist’s response to problems is often the kitchen-sink approach, which can hinder delegation, bog down your business and confuse your customers.  Learning how to tone down your generalist tendencies is actually one of the keys to business growth.

So, what do you think? How have your generalist tendencies affected your business? We would love to hear about them in the comments below! 

Article written by Scott McDowell
Scott McDowell helps creative businesses grow. He works with leaders to find Hiring Gold. Follow Scott @mcd_owell on Twitter.