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Jack of all trades? Yes please

Generalists tend to outperform specialists when the going gets tough, says Collin Govender, MD at Altron Karabina.

Johannesburg, 24 May 2022
Altron Karabina Press Office
Read time 5min 10sec
Collin Govender is MD at Altron Karabina.
Collin Govender is MD at Altron Karabina.

Put your head down, shut out the noise and zone in on one skill you want to master. Better yet, start young and put in thousands and thousands of hours until you’re a master. Sound familiar? While you may not have heard it in those exact words, you’ve no doubt encountered some iteration of the belief that the best in any endeavour are specialists, not generalists.

Our obsession with single mastery has led to a figure of speech that’s often used as a jibe: Jack of all trades, master of none. The truth is that in today’s workplace we need people capable of thinking on the spot, out of the box, laterally, drawing on broad experience, being creative and making important decisions. These people are often those with the most experience. Is that experience gained in a singular pursuit?

To answer this question, David Epstein’s book “Range” takes the reader on a journey, examining the best athletes, musicians, inventors, scientists and more. He found that in most fields, especially those that are unpredictable and always changing (sound a bit like the modern workplace?) it is the generalists who thrive and not the specialists. Let that sink in for a moment as it tends to go against what we have been taught to believe.

A comparison that sits in my memory is that of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Here, we see two exceptional sportspeople. The former started as a young boy with a singular obsession and rose, with zen-like focus, to become the Tiger Woods that took golf by storm. The latter took a different path. While his mother was a tennis coach, he dabbled and did well in a number of other sports and only really gravitated towards tennis later, where his mother didn’t want to coach him because of his unconventional approach. He, too, rose to the pinnacle of his sport, beating specialists left, right and centre. One can be a jack of all trades and still grow into a master.

Through my lens, I am cognisant of my role as MD at Altron Karabina, but few know that my first job was driving a forklift in a warehouse, followed by different work adventures in IT and HR on an exciting road that eventually led to me writing this article. Much of my tenacity, resilience and positivity comes from the range in my experience. I’ve failed, and those failures have added texture and learning. I’ve won, and those victories have taught me humility and recipes for success.

Range enables the generalist – who works hard – to see potential outcomes and make connections that the specialist counterpart may not see. In an age where computers are increasingly taking on roles that humans have fulfilled for decades, it's the agile person, the creative manager, the person with range in their experience set that will be able to join the dots and make critical decisions.

Finding range in the workplace

As leaders, we should identify talent in the workforce that has capability – forget about competence for now, lest we go down the specialist rabbit hole. Once we identify these people, we should deliberately curate experiences and exposure for this top talent to nurture their careers. I’d go so far as to suggest that this shouldn’t be a discussion, as the fear of the unknown has been known to stop many in their tracks.

Rather, you tell them that they will be doing whatever it is that you identify. Deliberately move the needle so they can experience more, and in different fields, than what they are currently capable of doing. In other words, you push them. This can be replicated in the pursuit of excellent leaders everywhere, as long as we actively seek to curate experiences and exposure that drive the next level of talent in an organisation or the country.

Altron Karabina is in an exciting growth phase, having turned a corner, and is seeing the fruits of very deliberate decisions taken more than a year ago. Make no mistake, this is a journey. In the pursuit of delivering innovation that matters, no one can afford to stagnate in the belief that they’ve arrived. The point is that there was a deliberate decision to cultivate range.

Before, the business was structured into discrete specialist areas with zero overlap, separate units with no collaboration. So, in the pursuit of range, we have created competence areas across the business and we then deliberately connected the dots between units. In other words, we have actively and intentionally created the opportunity – and necessity – for collaboration across the board. What started mechanically has become organic and staff have grown immensely in competence, confidence, creativity and decision-making.

Altron Karabina is in the business of digital transformation and so the previous, siloed structure didn’t suit that agenda. We need to engage a customer as a holistic customer and not just a data or ERP project. This journey is only a little over a year old, but the change in the business is testament that pushing people out of comfort zones to gather broad experience drives business performance.

Just imagine the possibilities if every one of us deliberately pushed ourselves to experience diversity, not by accident but as a strategic personal growth tactic. Let’s be brave and become generalists with accomplished competency in our chosen fields. There’s no price for the pursuit of wisdom. 

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