Deep vs. Wide: The New Career Strategy

Times are tough.  Today we learned of another 590,000 jobs lost and that US unemployment rose to 7.6%.  We seem to be getting several emails each week from high powered HR or L&D professionals who have lost their positions at their favorite employers.  

I also speak regularly with top HR and L&D managers about their internal career development and talent management programs, and I see a major shift taking place:  organizations and individuals are changing their view of what we call career potential – with a stronger and stronger focus on deep levels of specialization.

I call it the “deep vs. wide” career strategy.

The Traditional Business Career:  Breadth and Influence is Valued

Consider the traditional, somewhat old-fashioned idea of a business career.  You start your profession as a trainee or junior person in some organization, and you develop some level of expertise.  If you’re lucky, you get rotated to another position to help round out your expertise – and then hopefully get promoted to management.  Once you have reached management status you realize you’re now on the “fast track” – time to read up on management styles and behaviors, and start shooting for that big Director office in the corner.  And if you work hard enough, play the politics well, and learn how to lead change in the organization, in the next 5-10 years you find yourself in a position as a mid-level leader or young executive. 

Now that you’ve arrived at this high level position, you look for an opportunity to move from a “manager of managers” to a “manager of a business” –  and in many companies this involves changing locations, moving from sales to marketing (or vice-versa) and possibly even changing industries.   Your experience and level of confidence rises, your salary gets doubled, and you see yourself rising into the ranks of a real “executive.”

Companies like GE, IBM, (“I’ve been Moved”), Procter & Gamble, and many others popularized this model in the 1950s and 1960s and many of our internal processes for succession management (the famous 9-box grid) were built around this career model.  The whole theory behind this is that your value to an organization goes up exponentially when you develop a larger and broader sphere of influence.

Today’s Reality:  Deep Expertise and Judgement is Valued

Well the world has changed.  Today’s organizations are narrower at the top, and these “executive” positions are more stressful, more accountable, and more risky than ever.   People now work in organizational networks, not only hierarchies.  And ultimately businesses now change so fast that the business you are running is likely to change right out from under you.  Can a traditional GE manager understand the company’s dramatic transformation into green energy, low cost financing, and globalization of every business process?  Will an old-fashioned IBM general manager be able to understand the company’s need to shift its resources into global innovation centers,  learning on-demand, and cultural collaboration for every client engagement?  Maybe, maybe not.

Right now we are in the middle of helping two highly innovative companies (one in telecommunications and one in pharmaceuticals) revamp their leadership development programs.  In both cases the HR leaders have realized that the traditional leadership development model is not working:  they have to find a way to develop, promote, and honor the specialist leaders:  the individuals with deep levels of expertise who know more about certain mobile technologies or pharmaceutical markets than anyone else in the company.   Should these people become generalists?  No, in both cases we realized that the success of these companies is dependent on deep expertise and judgement:  not simply good management and leadership skills.

This is not to say that leadership capabilities are not important:  they clearly are.  But if you look at what we call “enduring organizations,” they endure because they are very focused on their core competencies:  they are the “best in the world” at one or two things.   Intel succeeds through its vast experience in the design and manufacture of highly dense and complex integrated circuits.   Qualcomm succeeds through its patent portfolio of a wide array of wireless technologies.  Pfizer made its business by developing some of the world’s most important pharmaceuticals.  McDonald’s continuously maintains its growth rate by its intense focus on low cost, easy t0 produce foods for the masses.

These companies did not become billion dollar companies by hiring and developing “good managers” – they did it through expertise and specialization.   Early in their lives they found their niche:  they focused heavily on it over many years;  and they build deep levels of skills, expertise, experience, and sustainable competitive advantage in these areas.

Changing the Career Pyramid

So what does this mean to job seekers and HR executives?  Rethink the career pyramid.  Rather than try to build or become a generalist, honor and focus on becoming a specialist.  Deep skills and expertise give people deep levels of judgement:  if you hire an engineer with more experience and skills, they will make better decisions about what to build, how to build it, and whether or not a product will succeed.  If you are building a career model for manufacturing leaders, focus the competency model on the core competencies of excellence in manufacturing, not just excellence in management and leadership.

Redefining Career Development

Fig 1:  Redefining Career Development

If you are out on the job market looking for work, you will quickly learn something I learned 10 years ago when I was laid off:  try to figure out what skills you have which are world class.  If you have world-class expertise in something, you will always find great work awaiting you.

If you are an HR executive, L&D manager, or HR leader, consider re-thinking your model of “high-potential.”  In the old model, a “HiPo” was someone who had the potential to be “promoted” two levels or more.  But in today’s world this concept must also include the technical professionals, consultants, engineers, financial analysts, and even sales people who may be the best in class in their roles.  Should they be incented to move into “general management?”  No, probably not.  Your company will be far more successful (and they will in-turn be more engaged) if they are rewarded and incented to further build and exploit their deep levels of expertise.

Watch for our upcoming research study on career and succession management for far more on this topic.  

Here’s to the specialists and experts in the world:  may you become even deeper, more specialized, and more expert every day.  If you do this, your career will grow and grow even in today’s economy.