Getting ahead: should you be a HR specialist or a generalist?

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As with most careers, HR presents different paths – do you choose an area of the profession and become an expert, or spread your skills across the board?

Bob Hogarth, general manager people and culture at Heritage Bank, manages a team of 32 HR professionals which includes generalists and specialists.

“You’ve got two types of practitioners, generally speaking. You’ve got the ones who are microscope peerers and there are helicopter gazers. Some people are more big picture thinkers. Some HR types are wired to develop focus specialist skills and become very proficient in one or two HR areas. They have a microscopic view of things and become very adept at a particular function.

“Organizations need those sorts of people and HR practitioners can build a very successful career if they’re a specialist. Some people aren’t built like that, they have a broader view of the world and offer a range of skills in the HR world. They maybe have a strong base in one or two HR disciplines, but generally speaking, they have a broad understanding of the whole generalist function and hopefully an understanding of things like strategy in the business and that kind of thing.”

Hogarth is a generalist himself, but he has specialists in areas like learning and development, payroll and employee relations working under him.

“In my view, I think specialists are really essential in organizations and can do a lot in their careers. For me, it’s generalists who have a much greater capacity and opportunity to drive organizations and to have an impact on the greater business and to influence culture.

“From where I sit, and others may have a different view, for an HR career you’re much better off having a foundation in one or two of the HR disciplines and a generalist has a much better capacity to become a leader in an organization.”

Theressa Hines, managing director of Employer Global Solutions PL, said that generalists usually like variety in their jobs and lend themselves well in sectors where there is great versatility, like  transport, mining, utilities, manufacturing or construction.

“This provides a tremendous opportunity in skill growth, enables them to see issues in terms of the impact to the whole business, and learn how to value add to the bottom line in the business. The downside is that you are often not able to deep dive into an area of specialty which may interest you, as you are busy with a multitude of HR matters across varied functions.”

Although being a specialist involves having a more narrow focus, it can provide benefits from a knowledge and remuneration perspective.

“Specialized HR usually means that you will work in larger organizations that have the need for specialty services, in addition to generalist HR. Your specific skill and personality would be best suited to this area of specialty so that you build your personal brand around this and can market accordingly. The downside of being specialized is that it is much more difficult to be accepted for roles in other areas of HR once you have specialized. You are more likely to report to a generalist HR Director, if you are specialized, though not always.”
 
What do you think is the better career option – being a specialist or a generalist?
  • Chris on 2014-05-08 12:45:29 PM

    I have specialized in the talent attraction and acquisition discipline for more than 10 years now (I was a generalist for 10 years prior to that) and I can't imagine leaving my role anytime soon. Excellent recruitment and selection practices are so key to the current and future success of any organization that I've decided to dedicate the remainder of my career to proving that message to hiring managers throughout the vast organization (100,000 employees!) where I work. HR is a wonderful career choice because it offers so many options and you can easily find your niche.

  • Jo-Ann on 2014-05-08 12:57:47 PM

    I'm a generalist but trying to move into a specialist role. I'm a big picture, strategic thinker but what I miss is "mastery" as Daniel Pink describes in his book "Drive". Being a Jack of all Trades is not always satisfying if you're trying to find meaning in your career.

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