Generalists, specialists or T-shaped — who will make better CXOs?

Being a specialist is a must for any CXO but they should be able to integrate with other functions to solve business problems

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When we talk about leaders, no one misses mentioning some amazing business leaders such as Ratan Tata, Warren Buffet or Steve Jobs. Such people have had the ability to run multiple businesses in a group and provide great leadership guidance throughout.

So, if one hopes to become a CXO one day, would one require traits of a T-shaped employee or can one remain a specialist or a generalist to make the cut?

Simply put, T-Shaped employees are those who are experts or specialists in one particular area, for instance, product development, but can also collaborate with other functions and add value to them with their suggestions, ideas or knowledge.

“Having functional knowledge and expertise in an area is the ticket to reach the CXO table, where one becomes more effective when one can integrate with other functions to solve business problems”

Shailesh Singh, chief people officer, Max Life Insurance

Specialists, on the other hand, are those who choose to remain experts in one particular area, for instance compliance and legal.

Generalists are those who know a little about every function, but do not carry any specialisation in any specific subject.

Who amongst these will be the best fit to become a CXO?

All HR leaders that HRKatha spoke to were of the opinion that regardless of any other trait, being a specialist in a specific area is important to take up any CXO role.

Being a functional leader is important to lead a function. “Being in a CXO role means that one should be known for something for which one commands respect from others,” says Shailesh Singh, chief people officer, Max Life Insurance.

However, at the same time, being a CXO also means collaborating and empathising with other functional leaders to solve bigger business problems. This means, having knowledge of how other functions operate and adding value to them becomes a vital trait for any CXO.

Singh, therefore, believes that having the abilities or traits of a T-shaped employee gives an edge to any person occupying a position at the top. “Having functional knowledge and expertise in an area is the ticket to reach the CXO table, where one becomes more effective when one can integrate with other functions to solve business problems,’ enunciates Singh.

For Rajorshi Ganguli, global head-HR, Alkem Laboratories, there is no one formula to become a CXO. He does agree that being an expert in one particular function is a must to reach the top and at the same time, being able to manoeuvre to other functions and skills as and when required would be desirable. This is quite similar to being a T-shaped employee.

“For a specialist, the growth is limited to that one area or function”

Rajorshi Ganguli, global head-HR, Alkem Laboratories

Why being a specialist or a generalist may not work

Many of the HR leaders believe that specialists choose to be in one area out of interest. “For a specialist, the growth is limited to that one area or function,” points out Ganguli, but he also shares that as per the requirements of the organisation, a specialist can also take serve in a CXO role.

Generalists, being jacks of all skills but masters of none, are unable to gain any expertise. “Pure generalists fail to leave a legacy or be known for something,” mentions Singh.

Theoretically, a T-shaped employees would seem to be ideal candidates to take up a CXO role. For Lalit Kar, SVP-HR, Reliance Digital, it does not matter whether one is a generalist or a specialist, but gaining experience is a must.

For instance, Natarajan Chandrashekaran, currently the MD and chairman of the Tata Group, comes with a lot of experience working as a CEO for TCS, Tata Motors and Tata Steel. “For such people, adding value to other functions becomes easy and intuitive, as they gain more experience by spending time at forums where they keep interacting with other functional leaders and learn from them,” explains Kar.

 “It does not matter whether one is a generalist or a specialist, but gaining experience is a must to reach the top level”

Lalit Kar, SVP-HR, Reliance Digital

In these competitive times, businesses expect leaders to be more active, and focus not just one function but also add value to other functions. Many businesses have found that T-shaped employees can be very helpful in a high-attrition environment and perform multiple tasks at the same time. Therefore, going forward, being a T-shaped employee seems to be a better bet to land a CXO role.

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