Through My Lens with Collin Govender: Generalists tend to outperform specialists when the going gets tough

Collin Govender

“Generalists tend to outperform specialists when the going gets tough” is the forth piece in the Through My Lens with Collin Govender series.

Let’s be honest for a moment: we’ve been taught to believe that to be exceptional at something you must become a specialist and spend 10 000 hours honing that singular skill. There’s nothing wrong with that degree of specialisation and mastery, but in today’s workplace we need people capable of thinking on the spot, out of the box, laterally, drawing on broad experience, being creative and making important decisions.

David Epstein’s book, Range, examines the best athletes, musicians, inventors, scientists and more. He found that in most fields, especially those that are unpredictable and always changing (which, to be fair, sounds like a post-pandemic workplace!), it is the generalists who thrive and not the specialists. That’s provocative as it goes against what most of us have instinctively believed.

Epstein writes that Tiger Woods started playing golf as a young boy with a singular focus. His monk-like dedication saw him rise through the ranks to symbolise the famous red shirt on the back nine obliterating everyone in the field.

Roger Federer took a different career path. He played a host of sports and only settled on tennis far later. His mother, who was a tennis coach, didn’t want to coach him because of his unconventional approach precisely because of his time spent elsewhere. He, too, rose to the pinnacle of his sport, beating specialists routinely.

Many know me as the MD at Altron Karabina, but few know that my first job was driving a forklift in a warehouse, followed by different work adventures in IT and HR on an exciting road that eventually led to me writing this article. I’ve failed, and those failures have added texture and learning. I’ve won, and those victories have taught me humility and recipes for success. Much of my tenacity, resilience and positivity comes from the range in my experience.

Range enables the generalist, who works hard to see potential outcomes and make connections that the specialist counterpart may not see. One often reads articles about the most desired skillsets for the fourth Industrial Revolution and almost always, ranking right up among the top skills outside the core proficiency, is creativity, agility and decision making: traits gained in the ranged experience of the generalist.

Finding range in the workplace

Leaders would do well to identify their top talent and then create experiences and exposure for them to nurture their careers. Don’t ask them if they’d like to challenge themselves — often people set limits for fear of failure. Create the environment and send them in.

Intentionally move the needle so that they can experience more, and in different fields. It’s only through this endless pursuit of new experience and exposure that we’ll unearth the next best talent and leaders in organisations and the country at large.

Altron Karabina is in an exciting growth phase, having turned a corner, and is seeing the fruits of very deliberate decisions taken more than a year ago. Make no mistake, this is a journey. In the pursuit of delivering innovation that matters, no one can afford to stagnate in the belief that they’ve arrived. The point is that there was a deliberate decision to cultivate range.

Before, the business was structured into discrete specialist areas with zero overlap, and separate units with no collaboration. So, in the pursuit of range, we have created competence areas across the business, and we then deliberately connected the dots between units. In other words, we have actively and intentionally created the opportunity — and necessity — for collaboration across the board. What started mechanically has become organic, and staff have grown immensely in competence, confidence, creativity and decision making.

Seek temporary discomfort to expand your experience set. As Epstein’s book shows so vividly, it’s a smart personal growth tactic

Altron Karabina is in the business of digital transformation, and so the previous, siloed structure didn’t suit that agenda. We need to engage a customer as a holistic customer and not just a data or ERP project. This journey is only a little over a year old, but the change in the business is testament that pushing people out of comfort zones to gather broad experience drives business performance.

I’d like to challenge everyone reading this to challenge themselves. Why don’t we deliberately seek out experiences to grow diversity in our skillsets? Seek temporary discomfort to expand your experience set. As Epstein’s book shows so vividly, it’s a smart personal growth tactic.

This article was originally published on TechCentral.

Reach out to Collin if you have any thoughts or feel free to drop a comment below.

The “Through My Lens with Collin Govender” is a series about life and leadership, shared by Collin in his open communication style which seeks to bring the authenticity back to corporate communications.  Collin’s career spans over 20 years and prior to being the Managing Director of Altron Karabina he was an Executive at Altron Group where he was responsible for Shared Services and then the Group CIO.  His experience of being an internal customer at Altron Group has allowed him to relate first hand, and to empathise with the experiences of many of Altron Karabina’s customers’ – an experience that few MD’s in this role can claim, and this position provides for a differentiated view point which we will see unfold in this series as he seeks to uphold the Altron vision of being a highly differentiated technology solutions provider.

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