Transferable skills; the most undervalued form of human capital

As professionals, our career choices have moved fluidly across the age of the generalist to the specialist. Our role definitions transforming from being broad to descriptive, from strategic to operational. One’s remit getting more focused yet increasingly competitive.

We have reached a tipping point in the Corporate world –  we have built huge armies of experts in the field that operate in silos. From sheer economics, it is understandable that specialists maximises the division of labour – the way to get efficient outcomes is basically to have specialist people doing specialist tasks. But — does it still apply in the complexity of today’s business environment? Don’t companies lose efficiencies (and profitability) when specialist teams are created just to get stuff done?

There is now a new buzzword among consultancy hires – “Are you an expert-generalist?”. These employers are starting to recognise a new breed of talent called Expert-Generalist – term first coined by Orit Gadlesh, the Chairman of Bain & Co.

The trait of an Expert-Generalist is one who studies widely in many different fields, understands the deeper principles that connect those fields and then applies these principles to their core specialty.  This breed of talent is not new – some of the best contributions from people in history wore many hats. For example, Aristotle thought to be the “Father of Western Philosophy” had interests in biology, psychology, (meta)physics, music, poetry and zoology which had indirect influences on how he approached philosophy. JRR Tolkien better known as the fantasy author of The Lord of the Rings series drew upon his passion in poetry, philology and his experience as a university professor to shape his craft in storytelling. In our living memory, Steve Jobs was an entrepreneur, innovator, inventor and designer whereby he applied all these skills into building Apple.

I believe hand-on-heart that this is the future of talent — one who can draw on the palette of diverse knowledge to recognise patterns and connect the dots across multiple areas. Someone who is able to understand the cause and effect and the interplay between things to see the world more accurately… to see the business more accurately.

There are too many employers currently hiring based on a vertical career trajectory. People who are currently doing the same job for another company looking for shinier titles. Safe pair of hands, minimal risk, they say….. but I also say, low value. To catapult a business, this is not game-changing.

Where I have been given the opportunity to build teams, I have always preferred to look beyond the industry. I studied Business & Marketing and been in the industry for all of my career life – am not looking to form a groupthink. Instead, I look for those who travel in different circles, have access to novel information and opportunities for the group and myself to learn different things. Knowledge is power – and the more equipped we are, the more unlikely we are to bias and conforming to the assumptions of society. We are able to pull insights to gain varied perspectives that can be applied to business to create differentiation in both proposition and service.

Many people who have traits of an Expert-Generalist have two philosophies in work and life;  1) learn how to learn and 2) learn how to think. They understand how to combine ideas to use at the right moment.

There is the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) that commonly suggests that 80% of the things in this world are done just by learning a small toolset. Flip it on its own head, this also means that by learning 20% of the most important parts, one can cover 80% of the subject in question.

So be open-minded. Connect your own experiences and synthesise with new things. The more diverse the experience, the more it will result in something unique. You will be able to see connections where others cannot.

These skills are very useful particularly in a world where systems-thinking is gaining prominence and machines are surpassing humans in this capacity. It is more important than ever to be skilled in creative solutions when industries are intertwined and blurring — the market landscape increasingly becoming complex.

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