Are you the seven-foot superhero, the conniving villain, the strong-willed woman, or the family-man cop? You'd better be one of them, or risk being cut from the cast. After studying Hollywood actors for three years, MIT Professor Ezra Zuckerman found that actors whotypecast themselves (PDF) early in their careers tend to earn more money, have longer lifespans, and enjoy more fame compared to generalist actors. Moreover, young actors who specialize are able to land their first role quicker and receive more job offers over the course of their careers.
There's a lesson in this research for career generalists wondering whether it's time to specialize in their next role, either within their current organizations or in a completely new company.
I've previously argued that in today's world, diversifying your dreams is smart. There is a permanent new dynamism and volatility in the job market, and the cost of experimentation has fallen dramatically. But an oft-overlooked part of this strategy is the requirement to amplify your passions and double down when you see early signs of success. Instead, unfortunately, I often see the people who've created the most options for themselves continuing to select the one that keeps the most options open. Over the long term, that is a career strategy with diminishing returns.
The lure to stay general is strong. For starters, the intellectual challenge of constantly jumping from industry to industry can be exhilarating. As one management consultant framed it, "Why would I ever work in one industry for the next 20 years when I can work in a new industry every other month?" Our research in Passion & Purpose confirms the appeal of such exploration. We found that intellectual stimulation is now the most important factor when Millennials are choosing where to work, overtaking both money and prestige.
Plus, specialized positions can be hard to find. Specialist roles are often unadvertised and typically filled through networks. Embarking on a comprehensive, relationship-based job search can be daunting. As another consultant told me, "I really want to get a job as an e-commerce manager, but it's hard to start when you don't know anyone in e-commerce." For young graduates looking to land a job early in their career, hunting down a specialist role particularly difficult given their lack of work experience and small networks.
But the generalist faces career risks, too. First, by staying a generalist, you're actually limiting your potential — and narrowing your options — the long run. Imagine a marketing consultant — experienced in industries from farming to financial services — being asked to run a $200 million budget for a big bank. Rare, also, would be the strategy consultant tapped for a CFO role at a Fortune 100. That's because over time, the generalists become specialists, too. They just specialize in being generalists.
Filling a niche early in your career can help you stand out at a time when competition can be brutal. At the application phase, demonstrating strong skills and role alignment will maximize your chances of an interview. You'll also be more memorable: Generalists are much more difficult to cast for open positions and often must push harder to demonstrate their fit for more specific roles.
As a specialist, you'll be able to convince potential employers of your ability to deliver quick wins without hand-holding, a crucial advantage in today's business environment. You'll also be able to lay out a credible track record of past successes in similar roles and perhaps even reference mutual contacts and influencers in your area of expertise.
For young leaders especially, it may be time to focus your pitch. Here are three questions to ask in the quest to typecast yourself:
1. When do I specialize? For those who are truly unsure of their career passions, it makes sense to stay general. However, this isn't an excuse to stop hunting for a specialty. As Clay Christensen argues, it's important to set aside time to discover your passions and work to amplify them throughout your life. Do this early in your career, so you don't get stuck in the audience while someone else is winning the Oscar.
2. What do I specialize in? In today's dynamic economy, it can be difficult to choose an industry and function that will be relevant in the long term. With your passions front-of-mind, make an educated guess on an area that is big, growing, and where you can accumulate transferable skills. If you define your industry and functional parameters creatively, you'll avoid getting stuck in a career rut. Robin Williams' comic skills took him to the heights of Hollywood. He also starred in animated films, on stage, and on Broadway.
3. How much do I specialize? Deciding how deep you'll go is crucial. Retaining some degree of intellectual breadth is important, as is a level of future career flexibility. In practice, though, this is more a function of opportunities that come your way, rather than a predetermined strategy. Be alert: If your role lacks challenges or if you're disengaging with the content, you're probably being dragged too deep. It may be time to find something on the side that stimulates you, or, conversely, to dig further into the aspects of your role that you're most engaged with.
The choice between staying general and specializing is a difficult one, but often, the specialist wins. Those who successfully typecast themselves can seize new job opportunities, deliver value quickly, and move forward with confidence.
Is it time for you to specialize?
This post is part of the special series The New Rules for Getting a Job.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 3/19/2012.
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