Generalist or Specialist?

Generalist or Specialist?

The thought of being a generalist or a specialist has been in my mind for longer than I remember. As a young trading quant working on bespoke foreign exchange products for Japanese retail clients, becoming a specialist made me feel like I was getting trapped. But, going neck deep into Fintech and Payments this summer feels refreshing. So, when is the right time to be a generalist or a specialist?

Who is a generalist/specialist?

The words are self-explanatory. But a generalist is a jack of all trades, while a specialist is a master of one. A T-shaped person is a mix of both.

Can you be both?

My faculty advisor at HBS recommended that I choose my courses to create a similar T-structure: 50% courses to develop deep knowledge in my sector of interest, and the rest on general management skills and topics I personally enjoy. This was a great way to balance being a specialist and generalist.

But I ended up over indexing on the vertical bar over the horizontal bar. And much like the courses, that’s the route I might end up taking professionally too. Maybe there are people out there who can balance both sides equally, but one often ends up tilting in one direction or the other based on what suits their industry.

So, each industry is looking for a unique T I guess.

Speaking from experience…

I started my career at Deutsche Bank spending night and day creating bespoke financial products for Japan. I didn’t know if I wanted to end up in that industry for life. And being forced into a specialist role only scared me. Which is why I left my job pretty early.

My stint in Venture Capital started as an associate supporting market research and diligence across multiple sectors. My first deal was in enterprise SaaS and the very next deal was in healthcare. The constant jumping around was useful to build perspective. I felt that I couldn’t be very helpful to the founders or add value in thesis building. But, the flip side to that was the value I added to my fund overall by taking up the mammoth task of helping sector focused partners with the diligence and processes. Which in turn led them to contribute more to our portfolio companies.

So the process of building up the generalist in me helped me understand which sectors I enjoy more and understand better. It helped me decide what I wanted to specialize in.

This summer, I am focused on fintech and e-commerce enablement. I am getting into the details of understanding the entire value chain. The multiple layers of software, security and checks that enable money flows finally make sense to me. And I can see a difference in my own evaluation of businesses, by thinking product first instead of just the business and revenue model.

So for me, becoming a specialist after getting a flavor of generalist has worked well. And I am graduating from a horizontal stick to an I-shaped person.

It’s like filling up your plate with as many cuisines in a breakfast buffet. The next time you go, you just fill your plate up with your favorite.