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The Effectiveness-Lab

CEOs and their teams: Specialists or Multi-functionalists? Series 2 of 2

Series 1; ‘CEOs and their teams: Specialists or Multi-functionalists?’ concluded on the note below:

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 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’.

Puzzle pieces cut too fine or too loose? Pic. Credit:
Puzzle pieces cut too fine or too loose?
Pic. Credit:

On the other hand, the specialist manager’s team is comparable to a jig-saw puzzle whose pieces fit the shape and multiple spaces correctly. 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 ’speciality’ 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?

The implications of either management philosophy

The Specialist:

  • A tendency to hire too many staff – every space on the jig-saw, however small, requires a specialist and unique piece
  • The next consequence of too many staff is increased cost, and while not always the case, reduced profit
  • Specialist teams are vulnerable to Organisational Development (OD) shocks; because every piece of the jigsaw is designed to fit a specific space in the eco-system, a failure of one critical piece may bring down the entire organisation. At specialist firms, when a core function fails, crucial time is equally lost looking (from outside the company) for stop-gap measures or new hires – the latter exposes firms to all kinds of risk
  • Specialist managers have a tendency to be ‘tunnel-visioned‘; it is befitting to use the analogy that ‘objects that are not close to the centre aren’t seen’ by specialist managers. ‘Myopia’ is usually a common characteristic of specialist managers. Let us go back to the game of football and again, analyse the philosophy of one of the most successful managers, Jose Mourinho. Mourinho’s objective is short-term, and it is, to win trophies – he cuts it that simple and straight – to win trophies, Mourinho requires accomplished players in defence, midfield including the wings, and strikers. He is not the type of manager to look after your youth development agenda. The latter is too long term for the gentleman.

Managers from the specialist school of thought do not always invest in junior staff development programs – such managers are tempted to get into the labour market and headhunt accomplished specialists or buy in short-term consulting support. After all, in many cases, the aim of such managers is to sustain short term profit.

Professions that survive hard times avoid certain traps!
Professions that survive hard times avoid certain traps!

The Generalist:

  • The generalist manager has a natural tendency to build contingency or slack in the eco-system
  • The good news is that such contingency/slack doesn’t come with extra staff head-count, but through multi-tasking of team members. Individuals that work for generalists managers bring more than one skill to the table.
  • Generalists managers tend to think long-term and look at the ‘now‘ at the same time as the ‘desired future‘; they tend to oscillate backwards and forwards, to define a strategy that gets them to the future. Such managers deconstruct the jig-saw and try to fit the same piece in more than one space on the jig-saw puzzle
  • The at times unrecognised consequence of the above is that generalists need time to test various approaches, before achieving sustainable results – in a ‘results now’ world, generalist managers are at times considered failures; not because they are failures, but because they just cannot be allowed enough time to do what they do best. Perhaps, the latter explains why a club like Manchester United, known until Mourinho’s appointment, for thinking long term, buckled and appointed Jose Mourinho – a manager known for his winning but ‘short-term/results-now’ approach
  • Generalists can save organisations money – to the generalist, business is about ‘doing more for less.’

The reality for CEOs

Of course, at any one time, there will be a mix of specialist as well as generalist skills at the modern firm; however, depending on the type of management philosophy a particular CEO ascribes to, a firm may have more specialists than generalists or the opposite.

Yes, managers tend to have a bias towards one of the two philosophies – at the Effectiveness lab, we believe that the turbulence organisations have to grapple with today, calls for more investment in generalists than specialists – generalists, via their multi-value creation habits, create much more wealth for organisations than specialists. The specialist philosophy is ‘cut too fine’ to survive the turbulence we witness today in the global business environment. When specialist entities withstand turbulence, there is usually a massive premium to be paid; they have to hire lots of spare ‘specialist capacity’ to plug the gaps on teams or become too small to remain viable.

The opposite is true when the generalist philosophy is at play; the jig-saw pieces are ‘cut too loose’ to enable a multiplicity of ‘role-fit’ and expansionist tendencies should that be called for – or better, hold on to current ground

Indeed, the emerging trend is to hire the ‘multi-functionalist’ and sub-contract to external service providers the specialist roles – after all, specialist roles are repetitive and can, therefore, be done by computers. Of course, in cases like a football club, computers cannot be asked to play the game of modern football – not as yet, but also, not impossible 20 years from today. In such instances, specialist firms will attain short term success at the cost of long-term viability.

CEOs, the case is put, the choice of philosophy is yours


5 responses to “CEOs and their teams: Specialists or Multi-functionalists? Series 2 of 2”

  1. bernard kanyiri Avatar
    bernard kanyiri

    Generalist have virtues of taking risks to do things differently, speed more time and effort necessary for personal and institutiona growth.


    1. Yes Bernard – let us hire more of them!


  2. Herbert Mugumya Avatar
    Herbert Mugumya

    Today’s blog is interesting. I had not imagined that I too ascribe to generalists style of management. I used to specialize but not any more. The higher you climb in management ladder, the less u act as a specialist.

    I think companies are following governments style of management. Politicians and administrators in central and local govts have turned into jacks of all trade. You hear them speak on technical areas to your amazement or embarrassment. It’s all about the capacity building projects empowering leaders to make informed decisions. Same leaders supervise specialists or technical managers. Therefore, despite their “ignorance”, generalists leaders remain critical in development.

    Nonetheless, at a lower and middle level management, a firm canmot avoid specialists. I agree with you that these specialist numbers must be managed for the company to remain effecient and effective.

    Thanks and have a blessed Sunday.


    1. Thanks Kairu for taking time to read the blog and doing a good review and analysis, as ever

      Generalists however, should not use the philosophy, as an excuse for mediocrity – they, in your example politicians and civil servants, should comment on issues they understand well – successful generalists as discussed in blog series 1 last week, spend years shoe-horning their skills

      There is no short cut!


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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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