Career Planning to Get the Best Finance Jobs: Specialise or Generalise?

Throughout your life you’ve specialised. In school, you likely went down the business, economics and accounting route, whilst picking your University carefully on the basis of courses offered in your desired career area. While at University, it’s likely you also specialised, into an area you hoped to pursue after University. Then, in your first job, whether you had the choice or not, you will have become a ‘specialist’ in one vertical of accounting, be that commerce and industry audit, or management accounting. You’ve more than likely, been ‘labelled’, and often, as many of you will have already experienced, your career route is now defined through the specialisations you’ve made. Sound familiar?

Do specialists get more attention and better jobs?

There is one upside to this. If you have a niche, the conventional wisdom dictates that you have a USP. And if this niche is in demand, either widely, or in a particular industry, you’ll be headhunted for like-for-like roles. For instance, if you’re a Financial Accountant with US GAAP reporting and SAP experience, you will have little problem finding another job in this area. You may even command a premium, depending on your area of specialisation. So in one sense, yes, specialists do get more attention and better jobs.

However, you may also find yourself backed into a corner. If you’re a Financial Accountant with US GAAP reporting and SAP experience, and want to move into a more well rounded Financial Controller role, it’s likely you may find this process challenging, and be told you don’t have generalist enough experience or exposure to ‘other’ areas of accounting. You’ve developed a niche, and as much as you are confident in your ability to transfer your skills, you may find breaking out of your cast frustrating.

Which leads me to an article in June’s issue of HBR by Nicole Torres. The article is entitled, “Generalists Get Better Job Offers Than Specialists”, showcasing a piece of research demonstrating that businesses are starting to hire, and reward more favourably, generalists over specialists. The article reveals some key findings, but centres on the point that generalists tend to be more accomplished, flexible, adaptable, and potentially less risk-averse than specialists.

Look to your CFO or CEO

What the article also points to is that many leaders are generalists, rather than specialists. All we need to do is look at upwards, and you will see your leaders’ capacity to shift and adjust to different disciplines, relying on the specialism of others to shape their direction. In fact, one of the key criteria required for many CFO appointments is diversity of experience.

The point to take away from this is that developing a portfolio of more ‘general’ skills and accomplishments may make your next career move, and the one beyond that, easier, and more lucrative. You can only showcase so many achievements in one niche, so proactively taking the opportunity to gain experience outside your specialisation could be invaluable. Even beyond ‘looking for a role’, developing skills in areas you are not an expert in will only strengthen your skills as a future leader or executive.

So go on, break the mould!

Read more: Torres, N., “Generalists Get Better Job Offers Than Specialists”, HBR Magazine June 2016 Issue

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