Getting Ahead At Work: Are You A Hammer Or A Swiss Army Knife?

By Carlos Portocarrero on 18 May 2009 (Updated 27 October 2009) 13 comments

Everyone wants a little job security these days, and if a promotion comes our way—that's even better. That's why it's important to become a better employee. But the kind of employee you are also matters.

Are you the very best at just one specific thing? That would make you a hammer.

Or are you the versatile kind that can do lots of different things pretty well? You, my friend, are a swiss-army knife.

The Hammer

The hammer is powerful and everyone needs one. When you need to hang up a picture or put something together, it's hammer time. These are essential—the first tool I ever owned was a hammer.

The problem with being a hammer is that it can't tighten a screw or take apart your computer (unless you're going to destroy it). Sure, it's valuable, but it doesn't have any versatility.

The Swiss Army Knife

Most people have one of these too—if you're going out camping or into any unkown situation, you'll probably want your trusty swiss-army knife. Why? Because you never know what you're going to need and these bad boys can pretty much do anything.

Except for hammer a nail into the wall. While they're very versatile and do lots of things well, they don't do one specific thing better than any other tool. Its value lies in its versatility.

Which One Are You?

The ideal worker does lots of things and does them all incredibly well. But well-rounded people like that are very rare. Most of us fall into one of these two categories, and I'm curious which one is more valuable.

Do you have more job security if you can help out in several different ways at work? It's kind of like diversifying your investments—being versatile can protect you from getting laid off better than someone that can only do one thing. It won't matter how good of a hammer you are if your company needs a screwdriver.

But won't a hammer get promoted more often? Won't it get paid more money? Isn't that what specialized skills are all about? If you are the very best at something, even if that's all you can do, that counts for a lot.

Either way, knowing which one of the two you are is a great start. Once you realize you're a hammer, then try to become better at other things and chip in where you can. If you're a swiss-army knife, pick one of your talents and try to develop it as much as you can. With a swiss-army knife and a hammer, you can pretty much do anything you want.

 

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Debbie Dragon's picture

I wonder if it would be possible to create a "new tool"... one that had a full sized hammer (your specialty) and then the swiss army knife gadgets (your versatility) coming out of the handle.  That way, you can be really good at one particular thing, and still have some versatility that allows you to be "ok enough" at a bunch of other things.

Guest's picture

While the "hammer" may get it done . . . the "multi-tool" probably wins in the long run due to the inherent flexibility to adapt to change.

Guest's picture

The hammer vs swiss army knife got me thinking about my career. I have almost always beens a swiss army knife, at least in Information Technology (IT). I've been a web developer, a systems integration specialist, a database admin, an information security analyst, and IT strategist.. The challenge is that becoming a hammer requires a lot of effort and sometime by the time you become one kind of hammer, the business needs a different kind.

Guest's picture
Chad

To take your analogy further, the hammer may only be good for one job, but it does it very well. The Swill Army knife, on the other hand, is good for many jobs but it's never great. There are so many tools fit into that one package that it just can't be perfect for the job at hand. Because it's so big the Swiss Army knife isn't even very good as a knife.

Sure, you can cut through a piece of plywood the saw in your Swiss Army knife, but it will take forever and you probably won't be able to make a straight cut. But a good ol' handsaw will do it in a couple minutes (or a circular saw will rip through it in a couple seconds).

I know a little bit about everything, but not enough about any one thing to excel. This serves me well at home, but not in my career. I'd prefer to be a hammer who moonlights as a Swiss Army knife.

Guest's picture

I'm definitely the Swiss army knife here, and I enjoy it that way. I don't know if it's my personality, or what, but I prefer wearing several hats. My long term goal is to work for myself, so I think developing a broad skill set will benefit me. I understand that I will need hammers once my business takes off, and I look forward to bringing those people into the tool box.

I do agree that I would benefit from really honing one skill, and trying to become a master of it. The hardest part for me is trying to decide what I enjoy the most - so I can "do something I love and never have to work a day in my life".

Guest's picture
Guest

The problem arises when your employers don't pay you for your Swiss Army Knife like skills. Instead, they keep tossing you more and more things to do, BECAUSE you've managed to do everything else.

Guest's picture

That's part of a Heinlein quote, which is too long to repeat here. Today's jobs require you to be well-rounded. Gone are the days of a secretary who types your letters, makes travel arrangements, sets up meetings, etc. Downsizing has forced us to learn new tasks in order to pick up the slack. Be a Swiss Army Knife. You'll keep your job longer than a hammer will.

Carlos Portocarrero's picture

Funny to see most people are in the swiss-army knife category, and I see myself there. But to also have one specific thing that you dominate more than anyone is probably much more valuable, in terms of salary and whatnot.

Now, if we start talking management, then that's something totally different. Those guys get paid big time for being able to delegate like a mother.

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Guest's picture

Yeah, maybe I'm quite greedy here. Both hammer and knife have their own strength and weakness. So all we have to do is leverage on them.

For example, in business world, we must be a hammer in a field so that we can be the giant. However, we need a lot of knives to cut things in pieces so that we can hit our goal and bring our business up.

Therefore, we must try to be a good hammer and also at the same time learn how to leverage on knives.

PS: I'm a knife so far...

Guest's picture
Brian

There are definitely more rewards with being a hammer.

Think about it: A company will not succeed with a bunch of swiss army knives as employees. Regardless of their field of business, there will always be a company that has the right tool (hammer) or a better version of that tool (a screwdriver or a handsaw vs a swiss army knife).

I also think there is LESS job security as a swiss army knife. When a company needs to contract (or expand) their workforce, are they really going to keep (or hire) a swiss army knife to complement their hammer, drill, screwdriver, etc?

My opinion is based on my experience. I have allowed myself to become a swiss army knife and I am suffering the consequences of it. I was moved into an old role after our latest reorg and now I am doing work that I had done 5 years ago. If I had stayed in this role back then, I would have many more marketable skills for my niche. Similarly, if I had worked harder to get ahead in my previous role, I probably wouldn't have been moved because I would have been deemed as 'essential'.

I work with several swiss army knives and they are all "company men" in mid-level positions with no real opportunity for advancement.

Fred Lee's picture
Fred Lee

I think diversification is a good thing. While being strong at one thing makes you valuable, it also makes you vulnerable, I believe. At some point it seems easier to replace a single talent than someone who can wear many hats, but that's just me. Interesting post.

Guest's picture

I think people who have specialised skills will tend to do really well over a long epriod of time as compared to the ones who are like swiss knife with ability to do many things but none with extreme authority. For example, a heart surgen will always do better than general physician bith socially and financially.

Guest's picture

It's better to slice through all the mysteries, and all the baloney.

Hammer's are henchmen, swiss army knives are tools.

The samurai sword is what you really want to be.