Friday, June 17, 2022

Career Path for the Generalist, Part 2: The Interpreter

Well, it looks like Part 1: Commando really resonated with folks as I got tremendous positive feedback and requests for the next part! I do this to be as helpful as possible in making sense of our world, so the feedback keeps me going. Back in:

Step 2: Interpreter
At some point if you are a successful enough commando operation, resources start pouring in. (Yes I am going to sidestep all of the rigors of sales and fundraising, that's for another time). Adults arrive with defined skills. Policies and procedures get written and for a few brief moments of relief, it looks like everything is going to be OK. And then, suddenly, the dreaded "silos" emerge. There are so many people in marketing that they all talk to each other and no one in Product. Or your Clinical team has plenty of time to commiserate and decide that Operations is incompetent. Us vs. Them creeps in and trust shatters. Progress grinds to a halt. Accountability disperses. Project counts tick upwards, status meetings abound and nothing gets done.

First, it's probably time for tools like Scrum and OKRs if you haven't already been using it, but really, it is a moment for you to grow up into an Interpreter. It is probably already happening if you pay close enough attention. Some job titles may come your way-- Product manager, project manager, special projects, chief of staff, cross-functional anything, etc. People from other teams come to you to get things done, regardless of your seniority. They ask for advice, or complain about a third function's unreasonable behavior. You realize you enjoy making things make sense, but unfortunately it isn't your "real work." Well, it should be--this is your moment to evolve past your Commando phase and become an Interpreter.

The key to Interpreter is to shift your focus from what you do to getting the organization to do. That's right, the very thing you pride yourself on, that the organization values you for-- getting stuff done--is exactly what you must transition away from. Or at least recruit into.  

The reason for this is complexity. Where once you could spread across multiple functions, as success pours in you dig deeper into complexity. Mistakes you couldn't even see before now become all you talk about. It is time for your company to grow up and you have to help it. Your instinct will be to keep doing, dive in and become a specialist. You know, "learn to love the work." You won't, so don't.

You are set up as an Interpreter because as a Commando, you both know WHAT everyone is doing (and why) and just enough of HOW they are doing it to become dangerous. As an Interpreter, that knowledge converts from adequate substitution to a basis for an empathetic relationship. That empathy is the basis for the cross-functional work your organization needs.  However, to best listen to others fully, you must suppress your own opinions.  The very thing that powered your speed as a commando will now hinder you endlessly as an Interpreter.

Instead, leverage what people already want you to do-- start connecting the dots, the concepts, the people across the organization. When Engineering says they will only work on one thing at a time and Sales loses their mind, help them build empathy for one another. Be the bridge. You can see both sides, so help everyone else see all the sides, together.

What does this look like? Bringing together people that usually don’t talk and not letting them out until they see eye to eye. It means resolving disputes not by picking sides, but by seeing a new way through. Empathy, patience, trust building are all crucial in this phase and that is what makes the jump so challenging. It is a near 180, a complete reconstruction of your work persona from the commando phase.

This works just as well outside the organization as inside of it.  Great generalist interpreters can represent their organization externally in sales, marketing and fundraising roles.  The ability to encapsulate an entire organization and make it digestible for an outside customer, investor, acquirer or regulator audience is absolutely crucial to the success of an organization. 

If you can convene others across domains, internally and externally, you might just be ready to move on to Stage 3: Integrator.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Career Path for the Generalist, Part 1: The Commando

During Family Medicine Clerkship at Tulane, Dr. Pam Wiseman shared some pithy wisdom which altered my career progression forever:

Generalism is a disease. It can be treated, but not cured.

In a world of increasing complexity and pressure to specialize in all industries, there remain plenty of us that simply cannot pick one thing to focus on for our lives.  While everyone else races to the depths of a field-- learning everything and mastering their slice of the universe, we instead gaze at the whole landscape with wonder and start making sense of it all.  We appear to be dilettantes, easily bored, unable to focus, get serious or commit.  Secretly, we all wish we could love anything as much as our specialized peers.  Many of us have repeatedly tried and failed, so we feel that we are somehow broken. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If this strikes a chord, congratulations you are a generalist.  You are the type of person that would rather do something different every day if you could find a way to make a living doing it.  You have trouble deciding between fields of work or study because you love a little bit of everything (or you hate a little bit of everything). If you are a physician, you cannot fathom the idea that you would do the same thing all day long and get better at just that thing.  You try and fail to describe yourself as a collection of a few specialists.  For instance, I was once called "a doctor pretending to be an engineer who wishes he had an MBA."

The world today is set up for specialists-- clear career paths, mastery of one discipline, fitting nicely into the larger machine, marching deeper into detail.  And yet as complexity in society grows, the ability to jump branches to find novel solutions is more valuable than ever.  This notion that we need generalists to guide us forward has appeared in science fiction, later backed up by research (like all the best ideas).  So if you are a generalist, phew, you are going to be OK.  But it isn't going to be easy...

As a self-diagnosed generalist, I too have experienced the exquisite pain of always being beaten out by specialists.  Whether in medicine, technology or entrepreneurship, I've continually yielded my role to those that can focus to develop expertise on a focused topic.  So what are you to do if you are a generalist?  The way I see it there is a career path for us too, but the leaps between roles are massive, fraught with peril and rare.  See, I told you it won't be easy!

The generalist career path goes from Commando->Interpreter>Integrator.  In this post we will cover the Commando.

1.  Commando:  We've all heard the admonition: Jack of All Trades, Master of None.  This bogeyman is used to warn young generalists away from our nature toward the path of specialists.  It is a curse that we are destined to live if we are not careful.  However, it turns out that there is a time and place when you desperately need Jacks of All Trades and those are in resource-constrained environments.

For example, in medicine, we see this in rural health, global health, and humanitarian disasters.  Physicians who can do everything- deliver babies, trauma surgery, appendectomies, treat hypertension, depression- are the first ones into a disaster.  And we are in awe of them.  Similarly, in start-up environments, there just isn't enough work (or money) to have people dedicated to sales, marketing, product, building furniture, IT or compliance so you need people that can (or simply will) do all of them.

Toughness, grit, creativity in just-good-enough problem solving all while demonstrating the possible are all the hallmarks of the commando phase and they feel great.  And doing is the essence of the Commando role.  It is a blast-- you are always in way over your head, learning new things, never feeling comfortable and busy as hell.  We attempt to outrun our mistakes rather than avoid them.

And while you are having fun, part of you is always wondering when the adults are going to show up.  You are at first relieved when they do-- someone to help make sense of the mess that's been created with “Discipline” and “Experience.”  Shortly thereafter, however, you begin to feel a combination of boredom and uselessness.  Those same front-line docs don't have the same impact in a multi-specialty hospital. Start-up people flame out in large corporate cultures.

If you attempt to continue operating as a commando, you will soon either leave the situation because "things aren't the way they used to be" (boredom) or be asked to leave to make way for specialists (outcompeted).  Your next move will be to find another place to be a commando, hoping that the commando phase lasts a little longer, but secretly knowing the same pattern will play out again. The truly insidious part is that the more successful of a commando you are, the faster the commando phase will end! So what else can you do? You can move on to Step 2: Interpreter.