Generalist vs. Specialist Managers: Who’s right for the job?

Posted on March 17, 2015

There’s a dangerous myth that has embedded itself in organisations, particularly in the public sector, where all management skills are considered portable and managers can manage in any circumstance. I disagree. Extraordinary managers can manage anything, but that’s what makes them extraordinary. The rest of us need to have a good understanding of the organisation’s area of expertise to be able to manage it effectively.

The philosophy that you don’t need to be an expert in a particular area to manage an organisation is reflected in the way government has created a cadre of executives who can move from agency to agency, using their generalist management skills to run specialist agencies. Recent reforms in NSW mean some executives aren’t appointed to a particular position, they’re simply allocated a rank, with the expectation that they will move where they are needed most.

As a result, generalist managers tend to focus on developing skills in technical areas, such as financial management and contract management, at the expense of developing specialist skills in the areas they’re managing. At the time of their appointment, they have insufficient understanding of the actual operations of the organisations, the nuances in service delivery and the way it interacts with other agencies.

The problem with this approach is that we strip organisations of the expert knowledge and policy that is grounded in a thorough understanding of service delivery and operational detail. The agency essentially becomes ‘hollowed out’, which is ironically similar to the name of the ABC comedy series ‘Hollow Men’, about the relationship between the ministers’ office and government bureaucracy. In our experience, many staff at mid-level management lament the loss of specialist knowledge and expertise at the top of their organisation.

It would be unthinkable to have a generalist manager in certain agencies, such as the police, defence force or treasury. Management in these agencies are expected to have climbed the ranks and have a deep understanding of the challenges and needs of the organisation. Yet we’re quite happy to have generalist managers run other portfolios that have a similar impact on the community.

Of course, this is not to argue that generalist management skills are unimportant. Indeed, some technical experts would certainly benefit from developing their general management skills and seeing how other organisations are dealing with similar challenges. In any case, as a management consultant, it would be hypocritical for me to be too judgmental about generalist managers!

I believe it’s finding a balance between technical skills and specialist knowledge, so executives can move within portfolios but have the expertise to be able to do their job effectively. At Nexus, we like to think we bring some essential generalist skills and an independent perspective, that complement the technical skills of the experts in the area we’re dealing with. By respecting those technical skills, we can work together in solving complex problems, using specialist knowledge from every level of the organisation.

Do you think the balance between generalist and specialist management has shifted too far? We’d love to hear your thoughts.