Your Next Hire: Specialist or Generalist?

By Thursday Bram on 6 July 2011 (Updated 14 July 2011) 0 comments
Photo: claudiobaba

When you’re considering bringing on a new employee for your business, you probably have a few ideas of just what she or he will wind up doing in the office – a list, perhaps, of things you want to get off your desk. But it’s tough to decide whether that person should be a specialist, and able to serve one key function in your business, or a generalist, and able to handle everything that comes up in the course of a business day.

The entire hiring process can be a little intimidating. The decision of whether that perfect hire should be a generalist or a specialist is just one more step – but a necessary one.

The Argument for the Generalist

As a small business owner, you yourself are a generalist. You have to know how to handle bookkeeping, human resources, marketing, and everything else that comes up. You probably have some sort of specialized knowledge, though, that led you to go into business in the first place. If you can bring in someone to handle all of the general stuff that comes up every day, you can focus your attention on the work that is the mainstay of your company.

It can be relatively easy to find someone with the general skills to handle the sorts of administrative work that are necessary to keep a business humming along. There are a variety of job titles that can go with that position, from office manager to administrative assistant. There are also options to use virtual or telecommuting staff to fill such a position. In fact, my first hire was a virtual assistant who handled a wide variety of tasks and never came into the office.

You should expect to need to train a generalist, perhaps more than you would a specialist. That’s because a generalist needs to learn your systems for all parts of your business, as well as pick up any general skills he doesn’t already have. That can be an important consideration when you know you want a generalist, but aren’t sure just how much of a generalist you need.

The Argument for the Specialist

For other companies, though, a specialist may be the better choice. Because you’ve likely already got a system in place for running the day to day operation and probably figured out how to keep the administrative stuff to a minimum (so you can actually work), bringing in a specialist who can directly contribute to improving your business’ ability to earn money will help your company grow.

That first virtual assistant I hired? I eventually let him go, in part because I could always handle tasks faster and because with my business model – services based – it was easier to build up more income by bringing in others who could provide the same sorts of services I do.

It can be harder to find a specialist who has the exact skill set you need, but it’s generally worthwhile to take the time to find someone who has at least started to build up that skill set already. Training a specialist can take enough time and effort away from your own work that it is worthwhile to pay more for an employee that already knows what they’re doing.

Deciding What’s Right for Your Business

If you could do more to directly earn money for your business by passing the genralized stuff off of your desk, the decision is pretty clear. Same goes if you could sell more products or take on more clients if only you had an employee with a certain skill in your office.

Of course, it’s rarely that easy.

Few businesses need just one thing by the time they’re ready to hire their first employee. It’s tempting to put off that first hire for as long as possible, if only to avoid paying out a salary until you’re absolutely sure that you can afford it. But by that point, it feels like you could use a full time bookkeeper, a couple of specialists, an administrative assistant, and maybe someone to make coffee for everyone else. Scaling up at a speed that works with your business is a balancing act.

If you really can't decide, consider a few alternatives. Depending on your business, a part-time contractor or freelancers brought in on a per project basis might be the answer.

Ultimately, you may find that the most important thing is hiring the right person, irrespective of generalist or specialist skills. He might be the right personality fit, or the right person in terms of availability or some other characteristic entirely. Make sure you’re getting the right package, not just someone who fills one specific requirement. After all, the right person ought to be able to meet your business’ needs in more ways than one.

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