Generalist versus specialist would you switch focus?

Written by
Changeboard Team

18 Feb 2013

18 Feb 2013 • by Changeboard Team

What were the key findings of the survey?

The results of the survey suggested that in the UK and Europe a quarter of HR generalists aspire to become a specialist, while only 15% of specialists would want to move back into a generalist role. While these figures raise few eyebrows, only 4% of the HR generalists surveyed said that they would use a stint in a specialism to enhance their skills and experience as a generalist. Even fewer would consider moving to a line role. 

Why are HR professionals reluctant to make a move?

The reality in this market is that it can be risky to make a move, whether it’s into a specialism or a business line role. A close friend started her HR career in reward and then successfully made the move to an HR business partner role after a secondment as a generalist. At the time, secondments were more abundant and were used to experience a change in relatively ‘safe’ circumstances. The other hurdle when moving into a specialism is moving back. Candidates do worry they will be pigeon-holed and if they stay too long, it will be harder to return. They will have needed to map out a clear career path and quickly recognise when it’s time to move back.

What are the career priorities for HR professionals across the globe?

he majority of HR professionals around the world said their preference is for an ‘end to end’ role where they can be strategic and operational. The definition and reality of how to be strategic in your position really can vary. At the senior level and indeed as number one in HR, it will involve defining the strategy and agreeing this at board level. The result is strategic projects – the main mechanism for the HR team to be strategic. It’s our understanding that when people say they want to be operational and strategic they want variety in their role in terms of content and context. They don’t want to be doing the same thing every day, seeing the same mistakes made and cleaning them up. They want to be able to effect change and be involved in making change for the better. 

In this market employers are less willing to compromise, which is understandable. What we fear for the HR profession is that, in the longer term, the same talent will rotate – limiting the business’ exposure to a new or different approach. Just because a candidate is currently working in the sector doesn’t automatically mean they’re the best at what they do. The result is a very talent-restrained market which pushes up salaries while potentially reducing new thinking and innovation.

Would you advise HR professionals to remain as a generalist/specialist or gain broader experience where they can?

Gaining broader experience makes commercial sense as it provides you with a much larger toolkit to use as your career progresses. However, it’s a highly personal choice. You may love the area of HR that you work in and have no interest in gaining skills in other areas. A specialism such as organisational development, for example, can require people who are deeply theoretical and very strong in dealing with complex behavioural systems, theories and techniques. That same person is not as likely to enjoy the operational nature of employee relations. It will also depend on how you wish your career to progress. To become an HR director you might have to work through the traditional generalist route and might not need to have deep specialist knowledge in reward, for example, to do your job effectively. A broad understanding is often enough, as the team around you will be doing the more technical part of that role. In a larger business this works well but in an SME environment you might need to develop more of that specialist knowledge yourself. On that basis, our advice is to map out your career and be aware that adding a generalist or specialist ‘stint’ could enhance your skills, knowledge and experience in getting to that dream job. 

How can HR professionals stand out in this market?

Whether you’re a generalist or specialist, you must have a genuine commercial approach, relate to and earn respect of stakeholders and not be afraid to talk in numbers. You have to be able to quantify your achievement in the organisation, relating it back to business success – in monetary terms and percentages.

1. Take an interest and continually ask questions about the financial targets, budgets and pressures of the organisation. Ask stakeholders across all areas of the business what success looks like for them and help them achieve it

2. Research and learn about the P&L (for example) and key measurements the business uses. You need to be able to talk the same language. Ensure you actively network across all areas of the business

3. Broad sector experience always helps you improve your understanding of different financial and business models. A true test of commercial acumen for an HR professional is being able to directly link the performance of the business to what is happening in HR now, and moving forward.