Forget Specialists Vs. Generalists — Hire Learners

Inclusive Leadership
Minute Read

Learning is underrated.

At least, that’s the case when it comes to our collective conversations around hiring.

The debate around whether to hire generalists or specialists, however, continues to loom large.

Researchers like Tulane’s Assistant Professor Jennifer Merluzzi and Columbia Business School’s Professor Damon Phillips have studied whether generalist or specialist MBA candidates entering investment banking get hired more or paid more (the answer is generalists). Online think pieces abound on whether tech startups need generalists to wear many hats or specialist coders to architect their products faster than the competition.

The research is interesting and so are the conversations. But they only focus on the way work exists today.

Our focus on this divide between generalists and specialists — one which depending on the person and industry may be false — obscures our ability to plan for the future.

As technology transforms, as automation replaces workers, as the role of the employee shifts to accommodate new economic trends and human needs, the one skill that will matter most is the ability to learn.

Arguably, the skill that matters most today is also the ability to learn.

We need to hire learners today to create better products, solutions, and markets, but also to set us up for a future where everyone will need to be a learner.

Why We Need Learners

“This is not a race against the machines. If we race against them, we lose. This is a race with the machines. You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots. Ninety percent of your coworkers will be unseen machines.” ― Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future

We need learners for two interlinked reasons: technology and change.

In a 2017 Gallup poll, 13% of respondents answered it was very likely or somewhat likely that technology would replace their jobs in five years, and 26% answered that it was very likely or somewhat likely that it would in 20 years.

As advances in machine learning and data analytics create more opportunities for solutions to come from computers rather than the world’s 200 million knowledge workers, those numbers are likely to go up.

Massive training data sets, more robust algorithms and low-cost computer power make human solutions the less efficient options.

Just look at how IBM Watson has become the primary resource for oncologistsat Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York after being trained to read 600,000 medical evidence reports, 1.5 million patient records, and 2 million pages of clinical trial reports and medical journal articles. The future of pervasive (if narrow) machine intelligences guiding decisions previously reserved for humans is here.

Investing in Learners Now

The evolution of new technologies, access to new markets, and opportunities for new kinds of economic growth and global communications necessitate learning on the job at an accelerated speed and scale.

Companies today are living and dying by whether they can innovate.

Innovation comes from teams made up of learners who can take preexisting knowledge and couple it with an ever-growing base of new information and skills.

Take the joint Tulane and Columbia Business School study I mentioned earlier. It uncovered that hiring managers preferred people who had a diverse range of skills, which led to that preference for generalists.

But specialists can have a diverse range of skills within their own category, too.

The question should not be whether to hire a specialist in Python or a generalist who has some Python skills along with skills in financial modeling and sales. The question should be whether either of those two candidates will be able to adapt when Python is no longer useful to the business. –Click to Tweet

Which one will be able to pick up new necessary skills? Which one is already preparing for that time, either inadvertently or intentionally, as part of a pattern of chasing curiosity?

We need to invest in hiring and nurturing learners now, to give us the upper hand in achieving long-term company growth.

But how do we invest in learners?

The Best Employees and Leaders Are Exceptional Questioners

The first step in investing in learners is hiring them.

They should be easy to spot in interviews because the best learners are exceptional questions, just like the best employees and leaders.

They are the people in interviews asking questions like:

  • What is the smallest action you could take that would have the biggest material impact on the growth of your business?
  • What is holding you back from being a better manager today?
  • What is holding your company back from skyrocketing forward?
  • When you imagine the future, how does this company fit into it? What have you changed here to keep it relevant?
  • How do you learn?
  • What do your employees learn from you?
  • What skills have you had to learn to do your job better?

These learners will ask you questions you likely haven’t asked yourself before, and you may not have answers for all of them.

“Ironically, the best questions are not questions that lead to answers, because answers are on their way to becoming cheap and plentiful. A good question is worth a million good answers.” ― Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future

It’s likely, too, that learners may come off in our market as appearing more “unfocused” than well-rounded.

They may have skills that seem incongruent and unrelated, job histories that don’t tell a clear story, and approaches that feel strikingly interdisciplinary.

The trick is to identify whether they can weave a narrative together out of what at first seems disparate, and whether they can prove success across all those areas of interest and experimentation.

A Personal Aside from a Learner and Questioner

“If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes — then learn how to do it later!” — Richard Branson

I have personally been plagued by the problem of “un-focus.” I had six jobs my senior year of college alone. I had two majors and a minor and equally deep interests in everything from law and languages to strategy planning and the arts.

For me, understanding that I could tell a story about myself helped me out of a limbo with interviewers who were looking to slot me into categories.

Ultimately, my story was simple. I have always been deeply interested in the world around me, especially complex concepts that are difficult to grasp without a lot of work. I’ve loved being the one to dig in and understand them, so that I can then take those concepts, simplify them and share them with others.

This story explains my love of writing, reading, and classical guitar just as well as my interest in the future of industrial manufacturing, venture capital, and talent development.

On top of that, I have come to understand that after several years working in different, unrelated fields, I am not naturally good at anything except learning.

Retaining and Growing Learners

As of today, 23% of employees say their jobs do not take advantage of their skills and training and less than one-third of Americans are engaged in their jobs. That needs to change.

Once we focus on hiring learners, we need to put time and effort into keeping them and helping them develop. –Click to Tweet

We need to build education into our work programs.

At Hyde Park Angels (where I served as Director of Platform), we have experimented with a 70% work, 30% learning split in our internship and fellowship programs. This means while 70% of the week is spent on standard projects, the other 30% is spent at informational meetings, educational workshops, reading books off a collaborative syllabus, and chiseling away at independent projects.

The sample size is small, but the results have been impressive, with a marked improvement in overall performance, engagement, and even new ideas brought to the table.

This isn’t the only way to bring more learning into environments with employees hungry for learning.

Introducing continuing education stipends, even small ones, builds a culture where learning is not simply expected, but encouraged and supported.

Investing in employee-led workshops is an opportunity for learners to lead and teach and vice versa. Hosting lunch-and-learns where volunteers focus on their areas of expertise, whether they be PR or C++, encourages employees from across departments or specializations to learn and try new things while gaining appreciation for their colleagues. It also fosters a sense of camaraderie and support.

Shadow days allow employees to learn from colleagues outside of their immediate focus areas and potentially develop interdisciplinary ideas and approaches. Free days focused on creating new projects may spark innovative solutions that lead to business growth while pushing employees to structure their own self-directed learning.

Even having an office-wide reading list where each week, month, or quarter, everyone commits to reading the same book and discussing it in an open forum may lead to new approaches and ideas that help the business while keeping learners engaged.

These initiatives and many more can support an environment that keeps your learners fulfilled and engaged, even while breeding new ones.

Ultimately, the future of work is one that privileges learners, and as we approach that future, we need to do the same.

Alida Miranda-Wolff is the Founder and CEO of Ethos, a talent strategy firm for tech companies focused on driving company performance by shaping talent and developing culture. Follow her work on Twitter and VentureBeat.

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