As training professionals, we routinely enable others along their career paths, but we aren’t always consistent about facilitating our own careers. Like the proverbial cobbler, we make for others, but rarely ourselves.

The accelerating pace of change in business and in the training world means many training professionals I know are struggling to identify whether it makes more sense to generalize or to specialize in a single area of training or line of business.

I confess, the idea of specialization is tempting. It provides you with a laser focus to drive your skill development. And in many cases, the specialist’s route to “expert” status is shorter than the generalist’s path.

However, the risk of obsolescence is real. Technology has replaced or limited the scope of some functional training roles, and I have seen entire business lines wither or vanish due to structural changes in the marketplace. The specialist also views the world through the lens of his or her own experience and capability. To paraphrase, if your only tool is a hammer, then you treat every problem like a nail.

Partly for these reasons, I am an advocate for the generalist’s path.

Here, I need to pause and explain that my view of a generalist is different from what may be typical. In my experience, the best generalists grow from specialists. They are people who have moved from one function or business to another. Essentially, they’re really serial specialists.

This serial specialization allows them to acquire additional skills, building perspective and knowledge in multiple functions or businesses. It gives them insight into the systems that make the company and the world around it tick. In turn, this insight builds the generalists’ credibility and enables them to be better learning consultants.

The reality is that organizational issues are rarely simple, and decisions have wide-ranging ripple effects, often unintended and unforeseen. To see these organizational systems requires the 10,000 foot view – and the more robust toolbox – that a generalist can provide.

So, the question then becomes: How do you plot a path that helps you develop into this type of generalist?

Consider your career a lattice, not a ladder. Look for lateral or diagonal opportunities in your organization – both inside and outside of training. They could be full-time opportunities or project assignments that require you to enhance or learn a different skill than what is already familiar. Alternately, they could expose you to a different business line or functional area.

Another option is a role exchange. Five years into my career, I partnered with the supervisor of an adjacent area to propose swapping roles for six months. What an eye-opener! In addition to our own steep learning curves about the other’s business and technical functions, we were able to leverage our new perspectives to propose meaningful changes. Despite his initial hesitance to approve it, when we asked to extend the assignment for another six months, our boss was enthusiastic.

Of course, drink your own Kool-Aid. What do we advise those who want to expand their skills and knowledge? Take courses. Get your hands dirty with a new technology. Attend staff meetings of other business lines. Ghost with those who have different functional responsibilities. Partner with someone else in managing an unfamiliar project. It’s hard to find the time, I know, but these efforts should be personal development priorities.

By leveraging the broader skillset and perspective of a serial specialist, you will improve your career’s longevity and be a better consultant to your organization.

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