Why Being an Expert in Your Field Isn’t Enough in Today’s Fast-Changing Workplace

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When looking for a new job or a promotion, popular belief suggests positioning yourself as an expert in your field. Yet today’s job market is unconventional, with career paths becoming less linear and increasingly flexible. As recent search has shown, showcasing your skills in a narrow niche is always important, but it’s often not enough. In today’s fast-paced workplace, most employers are also looking for other skills.

As narrowly defined traditional jobs become obsolete and workers react to unpredictable and increasingly complex environments, success requires a range of skills. Managers require candidates for nearly every role to be problem solvers, critical thinkers, and responsive to whatever the new hybrid workplace throws at them. These sought-after candidates are known as generalizing specialists, and they have a safer path to career advancement. Generalizers are continually improving. They are curious and have situational awareness of what is changing in their fields and how to change with them.

Data scientists, for example, cannot just make calculations. They must be creative in designing visualizations and communication skills to translate their findings meaningfully to diverse audiences. The investment industry may want junior employees to have strong technical skills, but they prefer experienced employees to complement their technological prowess with strong leadership abilities and soft skills.

To be fair, specialists are not obsolete. You don’t want an orthodontist to operate on your eyes. But in an ever-changing world, few jobs offer the luxury of a unique mindset.

Related: Our View of Expertise is Changing. Here’s why.

Transition to generalist specialists

As with most things, the key to professional success is self-awareness. Above all, you need to recognize that your field and your organization have likely been transformed by technology and the pandemic. Even the playing field today may be different tomorrow.

There was a time when an IT manager could spend all day in front of a computer coding. It was good enough. Until that is no longer the case. Now there are morning sprints and stand-ups. Role that once required expertise in a single coding language or platform, now requires a myriad of skills to communicate across departments, overcome obstacles with finance and marketing, demonstrate time management and contribute new ideas as a project evolves.

The pandemic has accelerated the transition: now hybrid work and the constant pace of change require advanced skills.

Related: Running hybrid models is no longer a luxury

A good dose of humility

For those looking to stay ahead, a healthy dose of humility is also required. You must be able to assess your own skills, honestly identify your shortcomings, seek candid feedback from managers and colleagues, and be prepared to adjust your course.

Think of it as being in a permanent state of perfection. You expand your knowledge to anything in your orbit, such as the possible effect of climate change on your business. You scan the horizon to identify what may change, analyze in-demand skills, and determine ways to acquire, practice, and display your abilities. Those who excel will have the broadest scope and plans to access learning opportunities.

Related: Understanding climate change isn’t just good for the world, it’s also good for your career and business

For many experienced professionals, change is a way of questioning their identity. If you’ve spent 20 years doing something that now needs to be done differently or is no longer needed, you’re probably ill-prepared for the path forward.

Yet someone who has developed the skills of a generalizer has the advantage of having a broader perspective. If they have 25 different abilities and one doesn’t work, there are 24 others to turn to.

Related: The Era of the Specialist Is Over

80-20 rule for skill development

Making the adjustment is not as difficult as it seems. It starts with unleashing your curiosity. Apply the 80-20 rule to what you read and watch. Eighty percent of your energy can still be used to strengthen your specialty. But use the other 20% to learn something different by taking classes, listening to podcasts, reading, sponsoring, networking, and/or doing extended work assignments.

If you’re in marketing, for example, you need to understand finance and budgeting to explain ROI. You will also need to study leadership to identify the concerns of other stakeholders outside of your department, as well as to bring your project to fruition. You can invest in a course on Excel spreadsheets or financial management, have a senior industry executive mentor you, and attend virtual events on persuasion and influence.

Building relationships and networking also helps you connect to the rest of the world. Meeting professionals from other specialties, and even from other sectors, helps you assimilate new ideas and improve your interpersonal skills. In our workplaces today, we need to shift to a growth mindset, from a fixed mindset. It means understanding each other and building relationships.

Like the economy as a whole, our jobs have gone into a state of endless disruption. Consider the fate of switchboard and telegraph operators who lost their jobs when technology replaced them. If you don’t adapt and keep a watchful eye on the horizon, your specialty becomes obsolete and your career goes with it.

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