Corporate world needs more generalists

I just finished a long call with an old buddy who just finished selecting a team for his new startup and it stirred a lot of thoughts in my mind that I thought I will share in this post .

Our experiences dictate our “gut” feelings , and it’s those feelings that help us interpret the data available to make a decision . When a decision is taken at the highest levels of an organization – it needs to be balanced against many dimensions .

Most executives grow up in one area for their entire career till they get to the top management . By that time they are totally set in their ways and would have learned to optimize heavily along one or two dimensions .

Let’s say hypothetically a “make or buy or partner” proposal comes up before the CEO and staff . Head of engineering firmly believes that no one can build with same quality as in house team . Head of BD believe it is cheaper and faster to get it done by a partner . Head of sales thinks he can sell better via direct sales than via indirect channels . Head of services doesn’t think it is wise to do this at all since her team does not have skills on that area . CFO just wants to know what is the cheapest way to do it . Head of HR is worried about burn out of developers if we do this in-house .

So how does a decision get made ? Usually one of the following happens

1. CEO listens to everyone and makes a decision since no one option has enough support from most of staff
2. A large degree of trust exists within exec team and a collective consensus decision gets made
3. A majority opinion forms and CEO agrees to it
4. No decision gets made and issue lingers for a long time

These are normal decisions and pretty much any option above works out ok . The key word here is “ok” – as opposed to “great”. Why doesn’t “great” happen ? Because individual executives very rarely have the breadth in proportion to the depth of their experience that aids a better decision .

Except in really large companies – or for a small time in the early days of a really small start up , people grow up as specialists . By the time they need generalist skills – they are set in their ways and they can’t afford to make mistakes and learn from it .

Individual brilliance can over come this to a large extent – but it has its obvious limitations . But I think there is a way to over come this problem – start rotating high potential employees really early in their careers .

I have seen IBM and GE do this effectively for upper management . Another company that I have seen do this effectively is Lam Research – where it is not just upper management employees that get this benefit . I think they all reap the benefits in spades .

This realization came rather late in life for me . I was fortunate to have had a relatively successful time fast tracking through the partner track in consulting . A mentor in IBM suggested to me that I should do some non SAP gigs in consulting and I did that kicking and screaming – and it opened my eyes to the world of possibilities that only happens when one sees a problem with fresh eyes .

From then on , I moved to presales and sales with a lot of ease . I grew up hating sales (cool developers hate sales peeps as a norm , And I definitely counted myself as a cool developer) – but I smashed my quota every year at IBM since the time I had a quota on my head . Why ? I think (in hindsight) because neither me nor my customers felt that I was “selling” – I was just “consulting” and to my luck , they saw value in my advice and usually agreed to invest in my ideas . It all worked out well for me – But it wasn’t some grand ore planned strategy , and that first step was REALLY hard !

Since then I have made it a point to gain more breadth in my career . I did a stint in engineering at SAP and now I run channels at MongoDB. It is a constant learning experience – and my own deficiency in marketing and product management skills dawn on me every day . On the other hand – my background in direct sales , presales, consulting and engineering help me a lot in being effective in my current job . And I have the best channels team working with me !

Bottom line – I should have started a lot sooner in my life to branch out and try other things , but I am glad I started it at some point even if it was late . I am also thankful that every time I have made a case to someone in my management to give me a shot at trying something new , they have been supportive .

With this realization , my outlook for my team changed quite a bit too . Over the last few years – I have actively sought out opportunities outside my team for my best performers , even if it meant my headcount and budget had to be sacrificed . It hasn’t always worked – but is has worked out well more times than not . When I hire – I do give due weightage to candidates with breadth of experience . I intend to carry on doing that for rest of my career .

One other learning was that not everyone likes to go broad – and some prefer to go deep . That should be respected by managers. Deep has its benefits too – especially in some jobs like finance and engineering . But even in those jobs , a little bit of variety won’t hurt .

For me – without my mentor pushing me into it – I would have never gone out of my comfort zone on my own . And the way he put it to me was to try it as an experiment for a while and to go back to SAP consulting if it didn’t work out . It is important for leaders to provide a little bit of a safety net before you push your team members into new things . Your network is your safety net – and the last best time to start was in college , and if you did not do that – the next best time is today .