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The Effectiveness-Lab

CEOs & their teams: Specialists or Multi-functionalists? – Series 1 of 2

CEOs have a lot to learn from managers in the modern game of football – these managers, mostly men, live for results. In football, you either get the results asked of you or the board fires you, simple! Given the pressure for results in football, it is not surprising that successful managers like Sir Alex Ferguson, have taken classes at Ivy League universities like Harvard.

In this blog, we discuss a matter pertinent to the modern CEO’s tool box – when to recruit Specialists vs. Multi-functionalists (generalists) on their teams. One of the most decorated football managers is Jose Mourinho. Yet in football, when results are bad, even the very best at the game of managing and delivering results are not spared the sack. A few months back, Jose Mourinho was fired by Chelsea football club. Only to be rehired by one of the biggest and most successful football clubs in the world, Manchester United.

CEO's & Lessons from Football's best Photo credit:
CEO’s & Lessons from Football’s best Photo credit:

So, Mourinho must be a good football team ‘CEO’ after all, and like Havard university, stakeholders learn from the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, at the Effectiveness lab this week, we bring management lessons to CEOs, courtesy of Jose Mourinho’s management philosophy:

JOSE MOURINHO ON HIS MANAGEMENT PHILOSOPHY: ”……,I am a manager that likes specialists, not multi-functional players. I am clear with my approach and model of player. I like one or two multi-functional players. You always need someone that can give you a hand.”

Why the Specialist or Multi-functional staff at the modern organisation?

For purposes of understanding Mourinho’s management philosophy, let us, if we can at all, attempt to get inside his brain. Why on earth would Mourinho prefer specialists to generalists? We look at this through the lens of individual man/woman management and teams at the modern organisation, and not necessarily football. Ultimately, it all comes down to the same thing, bottom line results or impact for organisations.

If a CEO hired a specialist accountant, for example, they would be assured of getting the ‘depth of practice’ from such an individual. Expert accountants will know the A-Z of accounting and will cover the breadth and Depth of the function. CEOs that have such accountants working for them will retire for the day, week, and month never worrying about the unchecked boxes in regards to technical accounting standards. The specialist will cover your back as CEO – I know many CEOs who wish this were true at their companies

Ultimately, specialists ensure organisations have functional quality and subsequently health, in areas which they specialise. In this particular example, the accounting function will be run well, and CEOs many not invest lots of time checking-in, save for the monthly or even quarterly meeting.

However, this specialist accountant will do nothing but ’their’ accounting. The specialist will provide depth and breadth, but in accounts. If there were matters that need addressing in the Operations department, the accounting specialist might not be the go-to person for the CEO. Their breadth covers accounts but not other functions.

So, in Mourinho’s case above, and for those that understand football, he may have his specialist defender in Chris Smalling, but perhaps a Daley Blind that can play center back, left back, and as defensive midfielder would be an ideal player in situations where the specialists cannot do that little extra work, over and above what they know and understand. Zlatan Ibrahimovic won’t play in midfield – he is a striker, period; while Wayne Rooney can play as a striker and a midfielder if that was called for. Likewise, at the modern organisation, it may make a lot of sense to hire a generalist who has a good mastery of accounts, but can also manage the operations side of the business and human resources.

The question then has to be whether CEOs should sacrifice a bit of the depth they get from specialists for the extended functional-breadth from generalists? Should CEOs hire someone with a 70% score on the scale of accounting pedigree, 70% in Operations management, and 60% in Human Resources management? Or should they hire a 95% score in accounting pedigree, 4% Operations management, and 1% HR Resources Management?

Generalists will give CEOs breadth across functions and if you recruit from the very best, high function-quality. Good generalists will have some years of experience on their career clocks and excel at multi-tasking as well as taking on new assignments – they aren’t afraid to take on new assignments at work, and you will always find them on stretch-assignment teams.

How a CEO gets a team of Specialists or Generalists to work optimally?

We have to accept that in a CEO, comes a particular way of doing business – it is a personal brand matter. The choice of the specialist or generalist may not always be dictated by the state of business at the organisation, but the style of the CEO. A good example is Manchester United football club: Louis Van Gaal, Mourinho’s predecessor preferred the ‘generalist’ or ‘multi-functional’ approach to team management; Mourinho, with the same team, circumstances, and the same players (mostly) is to deploy the specialist style.

At the end of the day, all organisations traditional company or football club, look for bottom line results or impact.

So let us explore how CEOs get the very best out of teams, be it specialists or generalists. The answer is in the word TEAM and how CEOs manage the same.

A manager like Mourinho that prefers the ’specialist’ style will approach team formation and management in a slightly different manner to that of a manager that prefers the ‘generalist’ approach.

A generalist manager’s team is comparable to a jig-saw puzzle whose pieces are cut to fit multiple jig-saw spaces. The natural temptation of the generalist manager is to cram in too many tasks for the members of the team. The latter is a common phenomenon at the modern workplace; employees complain about the vast stretches of assignments they have to accomplish, moreover, of a varying nature. The management paradigm for the latter is ‘doing more for less’.

On the other hand, the specialist manager’s team is comparable to a jig-saw puzzle whose pieces fit the shape and spaces exactly. There is no room for error with this kind of approach – call it the Mourinho approach. The teams working with the so-called Mourinho style will get very clear instructions (in black and white), and they have to be followed as such. Like good accountants that follow the CPA rule book to the letter, individuals in specialist teams are drilled to deliver their ’specialty’ task i.e. put the ball behind the goalkeeper or ensure that the company books align to CPA diktats.

In summary, specialist teams master the skill only to bring the jig-saw together and keep it as tight as possible; while generalist teams master the opposite drill. Generalists are drilled to ‘deconstruct’ the jig-saw and to create multiple patterns from it. Is it tougher working in a team of generalists compared to specialists?

What are the implications of either management philosophy? Look out for Series 2 next week


7 responses to “CEOs & their teams: Specialists or Multi-functionalists? – Series 1 of 2”

  1. Awesome write-up Apollo: Very rich. Looking forward to the subsequent one. I enjoyed the football symbolism that exposed how distinct the 2 are – then again how relevant they each are during the phases that a company goes through all the way from its inception, infancy, growth to maturity, actualization, and then re-brands or starts the process all over again. The article, in a sense, makes it clear why sometimes, a very effective team of generalists (or specialists) that previously earned lots of revenue for a company may see great losses all over sudden or fail to produce the initially outstanding results such that it leads to an overhaul of the human resource to hire an exact opposite kind of team. Well in!


    1. Dear moses – you have summarised it so well thank you – the literary writer in you has helped bring more structure to the blog

      Thanks a lot for taking time to read!

      We should catch up soon


  2. […] Series 1; ‘CEO’s and their teams: Specialists or Multi-functionalists?’ concluded on the note below: […]


  3. What are the implications of either management philosophy? I will wait to read…………

    I my opinion, it is about the structure adopted. If the Finance and Administration Department in comprised of accounting, procurement, administration, IT and HR units, you need a head of department who has some general idea/skills about each of the functions under the department – a multi-functionalist. If each of the above is a department, then you need a specialist for each. The later however, comes with head count and a corresponding wage bill – a direction I wouldn’t recommend.

    And for a CEO to be a specialist? Unless the business is a specialist business!


    1. Seddu – good insight and you talk to some of the blog issues for next week

      Do we even need specialists at all? How do we define a specialist? Is it by work experience or education qualification? Is a generic MBA the license to multi-functionalism or the agility that comes with learning Multiple skills?

      As ever, thanks for reading the blog



  4. Herbert Mugumya Avatar
    Herbert Mugumya

    Apollo….both types are necessary in a company. We need specialists (technical managers) as well as generalists e.g. program or admin managers.


    1. Well Kairu – not necessarily and we will get into this a little more in Series 2 of the blog next week

      You will always find a majority of one type or the other, depending on the style of leadership + i dare say, circumstances (bottom line) the organisation finds itself in

      However, I think that the world is moving the generalist route, even at the top level. Automation/digitisation is taking its toll on specialists and there relevance – and pretty quickly

      Also, welcome back from Nganwa!

      Good Sunday


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About Me

Apollo B. Gabazira is an Ugandan OD. junkie fascinated by matters that render organisations/individuals effective or not. He blogs on effective leadership and management. He is a devoted green-farmer and breeds the Ayrshire cow at Nakabugu, Luuka district, Uganda. Apollo is quite effective at what he chooses to do.


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