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Team Player or Individual Contributor?

Different Paths to Career Success

Did you ever wonder why some people love sharing responsibility and ownership by working in groups, yet others prefer to work independently, using their own ideas and talents? Neither one is better - just different!

The Ball Aptitude Battery® measures an important personality trait called Work Orientation. Understanding if you have a more generalist or specialist work orientation can have a significant influence on making a career choice as well as managing your career path. Not understanding where you fit could have an impact on your success and happiness. Self-awareness is always important in evaluating a particular job or role, and provides insight into what type of organization would best suit you.

What are the differences between specialists and generalists?

Specialists are wonderfully idealistic and tend to see the world from their own unique perspective. They are most comfortable establishing an area of expertise and being recognized for their high level of performance. Specialists have high standards and want to do their work well. Preferring a degree of autonomy, they may not appreciate external interference with their efforts. Their satisfaction comes from having the authority to independently plan and complete the work itself. That doesn't mean a specialist doesn't enjoy working with others. However, when working as part of a team, they prefer to work with a group of equally competent colleagues tackling a big issue or a project. This allows the specialist to take a part of the project to work on, then return to the group to make their contribution rather than participate in a group process. Specialists may view meetings and committees as taking them away from their "real work."

A specialist is most comfortable if their role is defined. Until that evolves, the specialist may be more of an observer. Early career planning is especially helpful for specialists because of the time and training required to develop a specific area of expertise. For example, consider a student who wants to work in the trades and who selects carpentry. It will take several additional years for him or her to develop an area of fine craftsmanship like cabinet or furniture making. A college-bound student might choose a professional major such as accountant or nurse, or an occupation that requires advanced credentials such as a masters or higher level degree. While specialists may enjoy the courses offered in a liberal arts program, they tend to be less comfortable when they graduate and don't know what they are "qualified" to be. Specialists like to be well-prepared and have the right credentials. They may be more comfortable at smaller colleges where they will have smaller classes and closer contact with faculty or a university that has smaller departments.

The generalist is comfortable knowing a little bit about a variety of things. They see things in more typical ways. Generalists tend to be on the same "wavelength" as other people, understanding the thinking and needs of a variety of individuals. Their strength lies in their interpersonal skills and the ability to work with and through others to accomplish company or group goals. Generalists are collaborative, easily recognizing the contributions of others in achieving the goals. They tend to delegate responsibilities and also take direction well. They perform to high standards but may not view their work as a direct reflection on their identity. They often find themselves in managerial roles, responsible for the coordination of one or more departments of people and the achievement of their collective goals. Depending on an individual's overall talent profile, it may be important for a generalist's job satisfaction to retain some of his or her own work to fully engage all their abilities. This is particularly true for generalists who have spatial ability, are highly creative, or detail-oriented.

Generalists are adaptable and flexible in their career choices. They can look at the broader picture and may offer a more objective organizational view. They tend be comfortable in new situations, willing to make mistakes and learn from them. With a wider array of interests they enjoy interacting with a variety of people in new and different areas.

In this discussion, we have described more the extremes of specialist and generalist orientations. About 25% of the population tend to be specialists, 25% generalists, and about 50% somewhere in between the two. If individuals are in that 50%, it is often an advantage to select an educational path that prepares them for more specific occupations or careers. That makes their initial job search more defined and comfortable. Initial positions may be in an individual contributor role. However, after developing competencies in their field, they often gravitate to a role that involves managing others. These individuals may find their satisfaction is influenced by the size of the organization and the scope of the managerial responsibilities. Too large and varied may create more stress. Examples might be the excellent lawyer who eventually moves into a role managing the workload of other lawyers, or a top physician who becomes chief of staff at a healthcare facility and finds most of his or her time is spent managing other physicians and the business itself.

Whether generalist, specialist, or somewhere in between, knowing who you are and having the insight to shape or influence your career choices is important. This type of information provides valuable direction in establishing educational objectives and in crafting a satisfying career path.

© Copyright 2006, Career Vision / Ball Foundation. Article may be reprinted with permission.


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