Generalists Supervising Specialists: A New Take

Generalists Supervising Specialists: A New Take

  • Posted by Stephen White
  • On October 1, 2018
  • effective supervision, generalists supervising specialists, managing technical specialists, non-technical supervisors, supervising effectively, tips for effective supervision of specialists


In today’s technologically sophisticated workplace is it still possible for persons with essentially a generalist skill set to effectively supervise technical specialists?  I’m challenged by this question because of past experiences and observations during my career.



The argument between specialists and generalists, or between those who possess high levels of technical competence versus those with a more managerial, strategic focus, has been around for years.  There are some who contend that there is no substitute for technical ability, that in order to effectively supervise a manager first requires a high degree of technical acumen.  The counter argument states that a good supervisor or manager possesses requires a broader focus, and that while a certain level of technical understanding may be required what is more important is broad-based, strategic skills.  So, who is right?

Twice in my career I have worked for major financial institutions.  Banks have traditionally taken the view that movement between functions and disciplines is healthy and positive.  In their succession planning and hiring models they often promote promising individuals to positions outside their technical specialty in order to provide diverse experience while fostering a broader perspective.

By contrast, I’ve also worked in the utilities sector.  Engineering organizations are often characterized by silo management, and are loathe to ever promote employees beyond their area of specialization.  Once an engineer, always an engineer.

Generalists need to be properly oriented in order to supervise technical specialists.

When generalists supervise specialists there are some important things they need to do to ensure success.




So, which approach is best? Here’s my take, and it may come as a bit of a surprise.

Several times over the course of my career in Human Resources I worked for supervisors whose professional training wasn’t in HR.  In about three-quarters of the cases the results were less than stellar.  Many of these were decent, sincere people who were promoted on the expectation that they could quickly acquire the necessary technical details required through on-the-job training.  They came from widely disparate backgrounds including economics, law, finance, IT and audit.  With perhaps one exception they floundered, flopped and failed spectacularly.

It wasn’t that they weren’t smart.  They were all professionally trained and certified in their own discipline.  It wasn’t that they weren’t provided with additional training opportunities.  Indeed, their departments spent substantial amounts of money providing them with Executive training programs, coaching, etc.  It wasn’t that they didn’t try.   Certainly, they all put in long hours and devoted the necessary time and effort to get things done.

So…what went awry?



Here’s my cut on why these initiatives went horribly wrong.

1. Lack of time to develop.  Time is of the essence in today’s business world, and there is precious little of it to orient a new boss.  It takes about 18 months for someone to gain a level of technical and professional mastery in a role.  Too often, these generalist supervisors were expected to be proficient within six months, an expectation that was both unrealistic and absurd.

2. Lack of respect.  Many supervisors came into the role with a limited awareness and understanding of the skills, competencies and background of their new staff.  They spent precious little time getting to know their employees, and they rarely deferred to their expertise and judgment.  I was often astounded at how little value many new supervisors accorded the qualifications of my Human Resources’ team members despite the fact that these same colleagues were both well educated and more experienced.  In several cases I gained a firsthand education in academic prejudice working for persons who didn’t come up through the ranks.

3. Lack of appreciation.  Most of these leaders demonstrated very little empathy or appreciation towards their new staff.    Praise and accolades were few and far between.  At times, the demeanour of many new supervisors towards their employees bordered on disdain.

4. Lack of a long-term commitment.  Many new leaders saw their posting in Human Resources as a short-term appointment and, in a few cases, a penance.  Most couldn’t wait to leave, or were too focused on their next career move to spent the requisite time and effort mastering the skills required in their present role.

Does this mean people who are generalists or persons from outside a department can’t supervise those in another part of the organization?  Does this imply that only those who are technically strong can supervise persons within their scope of expertise?  My answer is “No” on both counts.  However, if organizations are going to promote non-specialists, and if those same individuals are compelled to accept these roles, then they need to get it right.



If I were advising someone moving into a supervisory role in an area that was different from their academic training or expertise the one piece of advice I would offer them is this:  Shut up, listen and learn!

Most employees are generally sympathetic and understanding.  When presented with a good business case and rationale they can be surprisingly empathetic and reasonable.  Employees will accept someone in a managerial or supervisory role who isn’t a specialist provided that same individual demonstrates respect, a willingness to learn, and a sense of shared commitment.  They will excuse mistakes and forego minor transgressions and errors if they sense their new supervisor is genuine, sincere, and still learning their role.  However, what they usually won’t abide is someone who doesn’t know a lot but claims to, won’t heed advice, or, worst of all, won’t take the time to learn about not just their role but the people who work for them.



Today’s workplace is intent upon actively promoting diversity, and that includes diversity of background.  However, timing and context is important.  Before organizations promote they need to first ensure that the candidate being promoted into a supervisory position from a line or generalist background has the necessary temperament, awareness and perspective to position them for success.



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