Don’t hold your breadth

Specialisation can create steep pyramids within companies, when the route to succession and recognition should be more like a range of hills with multiple paths and options to the summit, writes Ed Sims. 

When facing uncertain environments and wicked problems, breadth of experience is invaluable. Facing kind problems, narrow specialisation can be remarkably effective. The problem is that we often expect the hyper specialist, because of their experience in a narrow area, to magically extend their skills to wicked problems. The results can be disastrous ….” 

This quote from Range by American writer David Epstein, atypically praises generalisation and a breadth of skills when faced with crises of the dimension of Covid. 

I say “atypically “to find a North American extolling range, from a position of personal experience.

I recently spent five years leading a large Canadian corporate where high degrees of technical capability were often deemed more relevant, more valuable, than the ability to cover many disciplines and functions in one role, as one leader.

 Of course, a culture that seeks and rewards depth over breadth can have advantages. 

Management develop high levels of technical proficiency, making themselves invaluable in highly regulated, or operationally specific, environments. 

But there’s a risk both corporately and individually. 

For the company, an emphasis on specialisation can create over-dependency on individuals who carry enormous amounts of IP in their heads, often without keeping an eye on succession management. 

For the individual, they risk being defined purely by their discipline; the better they become as an engineer or accountant, the less transferable their skills to other areas. 

When senior management look to share the management of a business or division, they look for the generalist leader rather than the technical specialist. Managing stand-alone divisions requires a focus on customer and staff issues as well as the shareholder lens, and the good generalist stays firmly between those three points, while the specialist will move closer to one audience than another.

In my own career, I could possibly not have become a successful CEO without consciously leaving my commercial comfort zone for direct operational responsibility.

Management by specialisation also has another unwanted side effect. It creates both complexity and cost. 

Here’s a specific example from North American corporate culture. 

The title “Director” implies ownership of direction and strategy and conveys the authority to get stuff done. 

But in some organisations even the lofty Director can be five levels from the CEO with Vice Presidents, Senior Vice Presidents, Executive Vice Presidents and even a President in between. Pretty complicated eh? 

Hyper-inflated job titles create more cost. Not just in the direct salaries of so many big roles, but also in the lost productivity of more staff vying for those elusive senior titles. 

Specialisation can create steep pyramids within companies, when the route to succession and recognition should be more like a range of hills with multiple paths and options to the summit. 

A ‘wicked problem‘  like Covid reminds us to broaden our personal experience base and to simplify. 

If your organisation defends multiple layers of technical specialisation, even bureaucracy, because of the ‘unique’ nature of what they do, perhaps reflect on the experience of HSBC – a complex service provision spread globally across multiple cultures, continents and time zones. 

Yet HSBC prides itself on a “6×6” culture where no frontline employee is more than six layers from their CEO and no one has more than six direct reports. 

I have worked in companies where some staff had over 200 ‘direct’ reports. I have inherited managers with over 100 KPIs. 
Scaling this back to spread genuine accountability to the broadest level requires high levels of transparency and equally high levels of trust. 

It also requires a firm commitment to simplify. 

Because of our relative scale, our entrepreneurial spirit, and maybe even our history of doing less with more, post Covid Aotearoa New Zealand is well placed to simplify our organisations and extend our range.

 Let’s ensure we don’t waste that recent crisis.  

Ed Sims is a professional director and management consultant.

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