Generalist and specialist managers

A really long time ago, I’d written this blog post about “comparative advantage” versus “competitive advantage” employees. A competitive advantage employee is better at a particular kind of task or skill compared to the rest of the team, and he is valued for that kind of skill.

A comparative advantage employee, on the other hand, is “dominated” by at least one other person in the team – in the sense that someone else is better than this person at everything required for the job. In that sense, the value that the comparative advantage employee adds is by taking load off his colleagues, and allowing them to do more (and focus on the more productive parts of their jobs).

Thinking about it now, I realise that a similar classification exists from the manager’s perspective as well. And this is broadly correlated with whether the manager manages a “generalist” or a “specialist” team.

A specialist manager manages a team all of whose members work on and excels at one specialist task. This task could come from any part of the organisation – it could be sales or a particular kind of operations, or some financial activity or whatever. The defining feature of this kind of task is that it is usually repetitive and needs to be done in high volumes. Such tasks also offer high “returns to experience”.

The average employee of a specialist team is usually a “comparative advantage” employee. In most cases, such an employee is likely to be “dominated” by the manager, and the value he adds is by taking the load off the manager and allowing him to do more. Over the course of time, he becomes good enough at the job to become a manager himself, and the cycle continues – he will manage a team of people who are mostly inferior to him in the job.

Due to managers dominating direct reports, such teams end up being largely hierarchical, and there can be a tendency for the manager to micro-manage – if you are better at the task than the person actually doing it, you can do worse than giving specific instructions.

Generalist managers, on the other hand, manage teams that involve at least a few competitive advantage employees. What this implies is that there is a set of people who are better than the manager at certain parts of the business. The manager’s role in such a team is more of a facilitator, in terms of bringing the team together and coordinating in a way that they can maximise the team’s effectiveness.

Generalist managers seldom micromanage, since usually their team members know better (literally). They are also usually open-minded, since extracting full value from the team means recognising each member’s strengths (and consequently their own weaknesses). They learn the art of asking questions and verifying insights and work of the team in a cheap manner (remember from complexity theory that the complexity of verifying a solution can be much lower than the complexity of finding a solution).

Regular readers of the blog might have anticipated this paragraph – the trouble comes when a generalist manager has to manage a specialist team or the other way round.

A generalist manager managing a specialist team may not offer as much as he can to the team based on his experience. He might be too hands-off and team members used to more handholding and direction might feel lost. And so on.

A specialist manager managing a generalist team can be more damaging – not appreciating that some members might know more about some parts of the business might limit the performance of the team (since what the team can do is limited by what the manager knows). Also too much micromanagement on employees who know better about some parts of the business than the manager can result in disillusionment and ultimately backfire on the manager.

I wonder if this has something to do with the Peter Principle!