Specialists Do Better Than Generalists. But Deep Generalists Do Even Better.

The new wisdom is: Become a visible expert in a niche. If you do you’ll command high fees and be sought after. You’ll get noticed. You’ll out-compete generalists.

All true.

But even more true is this: Add some breadth to your depth, and then you’ll really shine. I call it the deep generalist. (Actually, someone else suggested that name to me years ago—a famous leadership authority. Find out who it was further down).

By the way, this article headline, written about me some years ago in the Dallas Morning News, is pretty funny. It illustrates how we love “experts.” After spending an hour telling a large audience in Dallas that mere experts were commodities unless they could layer other skills and knowledge around their expertise, this was the resulting headline: “Specialists do better than generalists, says expert.”

I nearly wept when I saw it. I did not say—and have never said—that generalists do better than specialists! Ever.

Here’s an example of a great deep generalist:

David Ogilvy, the advertising genius who founded Ogilvy & Mather, exemplified the expert who, to great profit for himself and his clients, became a deep generalist. Early in his career, he won the prestigious Rolls-Royce account. Instead of holing up in a conference room to brainstorm creative ideas for the ad campaign—as many of his colleagues wanted to do—he launched an in-depth study of the company and its cars. He spent weeks interviewing Rolls-Royce engineers and managers, and pored over every word that had ever been written about the company. In an obscure technical journal he read that the ticking of the dashboard clock is the loudest sound the driver can hear at 60 miles per hour. Ogilvy had found his idea: what to an engineer seemed like a mere statement of fact became for a creative advertiser the basis for an enormously successful and award-winning campaign for Rolls-Royce. Ogilvy took this phrase—“the ticking of the dashboard clock…”—and built a major print advertising program around it, using it as the headline for full-page ads in upper-crust British magazines. Later, other car manufacturers pirated Ogilvy’s idea for their own publicity, and consequently interior quietness has for many years been featured as a key benefit in hundreds of other car ads.

Ogilvy was quite clear about his philosophy of learning: whereas many advertising professionals relied on “creative instinct” alone to develop new ideas, Ogilvy believed in carrying out in-depth research about every aspect of a company’s products, customers, and competitors. In his classic book, Ogilvy on Advertising, in a section entitled “Pursuit of Knowledge,” he writes: “I once asked Sir Hugh Rigby, surgeon to King George V, ‘What makes a great surgeon?’ Sir Hugh responded, ‘There isn’t much to choose between surgeons in manual dexterity. What distinguishes the great surgeon is that he knows more than other surgeons.’ It is the same with advertising agents. The good ones know more.”

Like some other great client advisors such as Peter Drucker, Ogilvy practiced a number of trades—apprentice chef, stove salesman, farmer, and British intelligence agent—before settling in to become one of the greatest advertising geniuses of all time.

Who mentioned the concept of the “deep generalist” to me? It was leadership authority and best-selling author Warren Bennis. Bennis virtually invented the leadership book genre in the 1980s. He told me in a conversation, “The professionals who develop into really great client advisors are deep generalists. They develop a unique blend of knowledge depth and knowledge breadth.” He knew something about advisors: He had been president of a leading university, a best-selling author, and counselor to countless CEOs.

Deep generalists:

  • Are able to make knowledge connections that narrow specialists cannot make
  • Are good at synthesis not just analysis
  • Are very effective at putting their products and services—and the benefits they deliver—in the context of the client’s overall business goals and strategy
  • Are more interesting to C-Suite executives than narrow specialists
  • Tend to be better conversationalists over dinner

How would you rate yourself on these two dimensions? Have you built a reputation as an expert in something that clients value? Then, have you added knowledge breadth—about your client’s organizations, about their industries, and about the general business environment they operate in?

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