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Specialist or Generalist for CEO and Leadership?

This is a question that seems to get more attention during periods of tough economic times. There are supporters for both sides of this question, so why ask the question?

Well, in a perfect world we would have a specialist called Chief Executive Officer and the question would go away. However, since they is no specialist incubator for the CEO position we have to deal with the question at hand. Who makes a better CEO – a specialist or a generalist?

Here is my take on the issue and I’m looking forward to comments from others on this topic.

First the specialist, it depends upon the specialty to a degree, yet, my experience shows that the specialist tends to bring their specialty expertise to the position of CEO. This means that decisions and strategy lean toward what was important to the specialty.

Examples of the specialist include:

  1. Financial types tend to think and act mainly upon the numbers generated by the company. Their bias is to cut expenses whenever there is problem with profitability. There is little thought or discussion about increasing sales.
  2. Operational types tend to believe that if you make it right they will come and buy what you make. No sales promotions or extra strategy is necessary if you get the processes right and execute your plans.
  3. Sales and Marketing types tend to think and believe that you sell your way out of any difficult situation. Spend on marketing programs and promotions, and have enough people to fill the orders and everything will be fine. Little is done regarding tough choices for expense control and blue sky plans overshadow the reality of the moment.

These are the main three you will find in the progression to the top office. There are other areas that have candidates, yet, line managers with P & L responsibilities tend to have the upper hand over staff position – human resources and communications.

The real issue here is the specialist tends to think as specialist and apply their knowledge and expertise as if the overall corporate good needs a specialist type decision with all their bias included. This is real nature of the problem with specialist. Their expertise is embedded with the biases cultivated during their specialist tenure.

The Generalist on the other hand brings a different perspective to the CEO position. A true generalist knows that they do not have the depth of knowledge in a functional area like sales, operations or finance. Therefore, they tend to ask questions and get input from all the functional areas before making a decision. There is a higher probability they have less bias in their decision making and will actually be open to others opinions.

The ability to ask questions of others, listen to the responses with a curious mind and get clarity on the variables or alternative solutions, will generally lead to higher level decisions. A generalist has only one bias – the good of the whole rather than the possibility of the good for a unit.

The real key in my final conclusion, is the value of a leader is the quality of person behind the title. Real leadership starts at the personal level and moves outward. Real leaders have an inner strength based in a strong self confidence and high self esteem. They are able to say no to things that are not in the best interest of the whole group and usually they lack to negative ego of needing to take credit for everything good that happens. Great leaders take action for the good on the entire organization and are willing to explore new information and ideas.

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Voss Graham

CEO / Sr Business Advisor at InnerActive Consulting Group Inc
Voss Graham is an Organizational Architect with 30+ years of experience designing sustainable business growth for organizations of all sizes. Creating the Strategic Focus with the Executive Leadership Teams, he uses Systems & Process to ensure the Drivers for Business Growth are Executed at the Highest Levels. Voss is available as a Speaker for your conferences or company meetings - contact him at 901-757-4434 or use the LinkedIn or Facebook direct messages.

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Voss Graham

Voss Graham is an Organizational Architect with 30+ years of experience designing sustainable business growth for organizations of all sizes. Creating the Strategic Focus with the Executive Leadership Teams, he uses Systems & Process to ensure the Drivers for Business Growth are Executed at the Highest Levels. Voss is available as a Speaker for your conferences or company meetings - contact him at 901-757-4434 or use the LinkedIn or Facebook direct messages.