This past fall, when in-person conferences were still a thing, I attended a session on the evolution of staffing models in foundations. It was clear that while in the for-profit world, companies are often looking for candidates with a wide range of skills (and willingness to go even wider), philanthropy is just now beginning to see the wisdom and economic efficiency of hiring generalists rather than specialists that slot nicely in siloed organizational charts. I found this session intellectually fascinating and a bit troubling. I suspect many would classify me as a generalist, and I am currently seeking career advancement in the philanthropic sector. Am I ahead of my time?
First things first, a generalist (according to the dictionary) is a person competent in several different fields or activities. In September of 2019, Forbes author, Nicole Smartt Serres wrote, "The thing I love most about generalists — and ultimately why I love hiring them — is that they've learned, repeatedly, how to adapt. They've got problem-solving minds, and they're comfortable feeling uncomfortable (because what feels more uncomfortable than learning something new?). And they know, because they've done it, how to translate skills for different industries or roles. Who wouldn't want to hire someone like that?"
Despite that glowing recommendation, oftentimes, nonprofits, especially in the field of philanthropy, recruit individuals with scalpel-like expertise, i.e., ten yrs. experience in early childhood education policy. Many organizations are dedicated to one central issue area, so in a way, recruiting specialized talent makes sense. You're looking to move the needle (look forward to a future blog about jargon) in a specific space, so you want expert-level thinkers in that area.
Second, am I a generalist? Actually, yes. But, I think a better term would be renaissance woman (note: I identify as a woman, but please apply renaissance to your pronoun of choice). I have invested time and energy into cultivating a broad spectrum of skills. Every team needs its utility players. It hasn't been a flight of fancy jumping from one to the other, but the conviction that the more I can learn about everything that impacts or affects my work, the better I will become at problem-solving, communicating, consensus-building, and so on. Being a generalist doesn't exclude me from becoming an expert in any given subject, it just means I have chosen to take the "yes, and" approach to be most effective.
I eagerly seek knowledge and get a sense of personal and professional pride when applying that knowledge to strengthen people, organizations, and communities. The effectiveness of The Patterson Foundation is proof of the strength of a staffing model with a strong core of utility players saying "yes, and" with an army of expert consultants on call. Most of the time, I'm very comfortable as a strong utility player adding value to the projects I develop, manage and participate in, but every once in a while, I'm reminded that I may be ahead of the philanthropic curve.
Recently, a very sharp and experienced leader in the field said he thought being a generalist would prove challenging to finding my next chapter in the sector. As I finish my fellowship with The Patterson Foundation, this reminder that not everyone has yet realized the wisdom of hiring experienced generalists makes me more determined to find forward-thinking organizations who value well-rounded knowledge and ever-present curiosity. Organizations who know the benefits of hiring individuals with broad experience because they are better equipped in perspective taking, inclusion, communication, and consensus-building.
It is impossible to solve the challenges of the world, our nation, or even our communities in a silo. We can't do it alone, and what's more, we shouldn't do it alone. If an organization wants to affect change, it's going to take trust and time. Sometimes, field experts have difficulty taking the learning posture and working across sectors or expertise. Bringing in young leaders willing to build bridges and invest the time it takes to learn from others to become experts in a field allows us to create a rising tide that will truly lift all boats and the people in them.
Now, there is always and always will be a place for subject-based experts. But, experts aren't what's needed in the game 100% of the time. As philanthropy works on itself, considering new power dynamics, new partnerships, and new roles, people who can connect and build on the human level will be critical. So, when you hire your next team member — a generalist, a utility player, a renaissance person — you'll realize we are not ahead of our time. Perhaps you'll realize we are just in time.