There are two kinds of people in the world: generalists and specialists. Ok so there are many kinds of people but these “two kinds” groupings certainly help bring out very common characteristics. Let’s look at this particular version.

About 75% of the North American population fits in the generalist category. Therefore, generalists tend to be very good at reading a group and intuitively knowing where the group is at. Generalists tend to be very interested in being part of a team. They tend to think in terms of what the team is accomplishing. If you ask a generalist working in the business office what they do, they’ll say “We help feed starving kids in India.”

Generalists tend to like to know a lot about a lot of things. Their interests are often referred to as a mile wide and a foot deep. They wear jobs lightly and can change jobs like changing a suit of clothes. In fact, they may find themselves jumping from job to job either within a company or between companies.

Specialists make up the other 25% of the population. The only commonality these folks have is that they are not like generalists. They tend to be experts in a narrow area and value the individual contribution they make. Their interests are often referred to as a foot wide and a mile deep. Ask a specialist in the same business office what they do, and they’ll answer in terms of their individual contribution. Rather than saying, “We help feed starving kids in India,” specialists will say, “I audit the books and make sure the numbers match.” The generalist and specialist may have the same exact job, but they view their work in radically different ways.

If generalists were food, they might be like a casserole: all the ingredients blend together to make a delicious whole. Specialists on the other hand, would be more like a Waldorf salad: equally delicious as a whole but each ingredient retaining its distinctive individuality.

Have you ever been in a staff meeting that just doesn’t end? (Does this describe every meeting at your organization?) Next time you’re sitting through one, try to determine if the leader is a specialist. Specialists often don’t “get” whether the group is with them or not. They’re more interested in getting through the tasks on their agenda. If you’re a generalist, perhaps you could diplomatically call their attention to this. Please wait until AFTER the meeting! You may be able to partner together to make meetings less arduous. Email me if you’d like to strategize a situation like this.

Have you ever made an ask to a specialist? They want to know all the facts and figures, don’t they? They want to know exactly how this particular project will work or how their endowment gift will be invested. And they probably make suggestions about how it could be done better.

It’s not that way with generalists, is it? Generalists are more likely to want to know how the particular project you’re raising money for fits into the overarching mission of the organization. How is their gift going to impact the world?

Another thought: if your nonprofit raises money through special events, you’ll probably want some generalists on the team. They’ll have a great sense of what most people will respond. Plus, they’ll almost intuitively be able to run the event at the best pace for the majority of the guests.

Where do you think you fit on this spectrum? Are you a specialist or a generalist? Or are you in between? If you fall in the mid-range on this continuum, it’s best to develop a specialty and then find a way to contribute to the group.

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