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Specialized vs. general knowledge – who wins the race for C-Suite positions?

February 20, 2018

 

A lot of times in a lot of different contexts I have mentioned in my articles, that in executive search it can be quite a tricky question whether expert or general knowledge is more important. In an industry like the life sciences especially this question pops up quite frequently. There are people who say that once you reach a certain career level, expert knowledge becomes less and less important while others say that in our times today, general knowledge is more of a hobby and actually quite obsolete. I find this discussion rather interesting and that’s why I decided to take a closer look.

 

Complex knowledge about single topics

 

With the general growing speed of innovation and developments in technology, in the life sciences in particular with the “fusion” of entire industries (e.g. health IT), the knowledge you need in your field generally becomes more complex. You need to know more things and adapt to change much faster than you needed to, let’s say, 10 years ago. But you could also put it this way: you know more and more about less and less things.

 

It’s inevitable that you develop more specialized skills since you only have that much space in your brain and need to keep up with your job’s demands. So it’s easy to skip knowing about world politics when there is another update in the software you have to deal with.

 

Making hard skills soft

 

Still when you climb up the career ladder you need to expand your skills in a more general area. Or so it seems. You need to know less how the microchip is exactly built but more about how to streamline processes to make chip building better. Does that also mean that you don’t need the expert knowledge from your field but rather how to deal with any experts? Not quite.

 

The truth lies – like always – somewhere in between. You can’t really be a great leader without having any idea about what your employees do. I don’t think that’s actually possible. But you can be a great leader without being able to do what your employees do as long as you know what they do and what it’s about to enable them. In a way you need to soften the hard skills and apply them to your leadership style, your methods and execution competencies and your overall strategic approach.

 

C-Suite is a place for generalists – or is it?

 

Often you hear that the C-Suite skills are much more soft than hard skills. Let’s take a closer look. C-Suite skills are associated with leadership, management and strategy. What do you need for that? Do you need to know the technology and the industry on a deep level to be able to do that? Well, yes, you need to know the technology so much that you can evaluate the impact on your business and how to manage and exploit it in the right way. It’s simply not possible to assess that without understanding the technology. That doesn’t mean you need to have studied and actively worked with the technology for years and years but you need to understand it. And you need to have the soft skills to use this understanding strategically in the C-Suite. 

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