Sean Lloyd






International relations


Sep 2018 - May 2020

By Sean Lloyd

An ode to the generalists

There are times during our Executive MBA (particularly when you reach the stage of discussing process theory…) when you look round the room and marvel at the specialisations of some of your classmates: expertise and experience in areas like neurosurgery, financial risk, biotech or satellite technology. And there are times when, as a consummate generalist, you wonder whether being a generalist is an advantage or a drawback in the professional world. It’s sometimes hard to translate the value proposition of a diplomatic career, working on multiple different policy issues without ever necessarily becoming the expert on any of them.

During Module 6, we took a careers session on Interviewing Skills. It’s fair to say that some of the most confident people in the room can become an incoherent mess in interviews (I’ll leave my own experiences for another blog in the very distant future…). So I was particularly interested in how the business school approached this topic, given the mix of specialists and generalists in the cohort. Through the session, what struck me most was the focus on developing a personal narrative to answer the “Tell me about yourself” question which often trips up interviewees. We worked closely in small groups on developing “pitches” for a 60-90 second narrative. This was the first time I’d explicitly thought of narrative in a personal and career sense.

For a generalist, it struck me that developing a narrative is a double-edged sword – a range of experiences in very different areas can provide a plethora of examples, equally it can lead to indecisive storytelling and a lack of a “golden thread” that really explains what you’re about – what drives you. The key is to find the essential experiences that explain what drives you (and why you want the job) and build them into a coherent whole. Ever more professional roles require candidates to have both “passion” and “vision”, and sometimes these can get lost in a rush to hit traditional interview markers such as “teamwork”, “problem-solving” and “leadership”. All of those markers can still be hit in an effective personal narrative.

At the same time, it got me thinking more broadly about the skillset of the generalist. If today’s job market seeks professionals who are “adaptable”, “flexible”, “dynamic” – that’s pretty much what a generalist does for a job. Generalists, by dint of what they do, need to be able to adjust to different issues and learn quickly, and be able to effectively communicate in different paradigms. Covering mining in Papua New Guinea is about as far from working on UN peace and security issues in Africa or unpicking the impact of the Brexit vote as one could imagine – and yet they’re all experiences I’ve had across my career. Or even skipping from the fundamentals of macroeconomics to operations management in an Executive MBA…

So perhaps the message this week was not that everyone needs to be a specialist. But that everyone needs to find a narrative that defines them. It’s amazing what you can craft from your career story with a little planning and practice.

Spring evenings
Misty mornings

Author’s note: The views expressed in this blog are my own and not as a representative of the Australian Government.

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