Generalist or Specialist

In my days in the British Army, we had a large pool of generalists called Infantry. I can say that now, because I can look at the subject with the benefit of hindsight and with the fact of being rather more detracted than I was when I was in.  Even then we had specialists for doing specific tasks  such as Engineers and Signals and more recently, Aviation and specialists combat operations teams.  Even in the Army, a specialism is recognised and pays more because of the additional training involved and the added value such a specialism brings.

As with all things, successful specialisms form the basis for future evolution, an example being  at the turn of the twentieth century we still used line formations in the British Army, our experiences against the highly motivated volunteer South African Boer Commandos, who used specialist tactics that subsequently influenced the way we dressed and the way the British Army conducted it’s business on the battle fields.  There have always been elements of any organisation that have required specialisation such as cooking, rations accounting (logistics) and in Cavalry units a Farrier to shoe the horses (now mainly ceremonial) . The introduction of technology has also had an impact that has resulted in evolution – machine guns and artillery along with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons has meant that battlefield tactics are completely different now to what they were a hundred years ago, and that’s my point.

With the changing aspects of any battlefield, the commanders have to make erudite decisions that take into account natural factors such as whether it is daylight or night-time, the weather and the topology of the ground, but they must also take into account friendly forces and their expected contributions, as well as enemy numbers, morale and technology as well as trying to determine the enemies intent.

I am not saying businesses are in a battle, but our own business commanders are similarly juggling lots of information, some of which may not be correct and their strategic decisions will have an impact on the outcome of our future careers and even on the existence of the business organisation we are currently working with.

As an Executive Business Coach in Bahrain, I often have to deal with the “loneliness of command” and the subject of specialisation or generalisation often crops up. Using my experience in the British Army, I usually explain that the title Captain Generale was used in many of the private armies across Europe to mean Captain of that Army. In subsequent years as the system evolved, the rank of General was one applied to any senior officer who commanded more than a Regiment, so taking a leaf from the history books of such a long lived organisation, we can surmise that at a certain level one has to become a generalist and focus on one’s organisational strategy and command.

Following on from this, I should point out that decision making should not be done in isolation and neither should anyone expected it to be. All the great generals had large teams of advisers helping them to make the right decisions and when we view many of those decisions with the benefit of hindsight, the clarity and long term soundness of the information used in the decision making process is hugely important. The ancient battle of Salamis where the Persian Sea fleet suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Greeks based upon subterfuge by Thermistocles has led a number of historians to claim that a Persian victory would have significantly hampered the development of ancient Greece and therefore by extension, western civilization, which leads them to claim that Salamis is one of the most significant battles in human history. I can also go on about Napoleon’s advance into Russia which Hitler subsequently copied and my personal favourite which is the classic Charge of the Light Brigade where Lord Cardigan’s original orders were misinterpreted by the chain of command which resulted in the heroic frontal assault onto the well prepared gun positions of the Russian artillery. I am sure you all have your own cases where advice has led to a different outcome because the advice was predicated on information that was not reliable, but that is a whole topic for a different day.

     So, How can we influence and help our commanders?

By working hard to provide the best information possible to enable them to make the best decisions. This means becoming an expert in your area of responsibility – a specialist in the organisation. By being well-trained and ready to react and able to take decisive action when called upon to do so. This doesn’t just mean you, but the whole team needs to be ready for action! By developing risk analysis plans and reviewing these with the team and identifying and agreeing mitigating courses of action to reduce or neutralise the risk. You should also train your team to be a team, ask them to be better at what they do and help them develop an understanding of the other roles in the team, so should anybody be experiencing difficulties, others can step in and support. Use mistakes or failure as a teaching opportunity and make the most as a team to analyse the issue and to work out a strategy that provides a better process for addressing the same issue in future. This enables the team to learn from their mistakes and to move forwards with the benefit of experience as one of their guiding principles. Remember, your commander and his commander are making decision that affect you based on the integrity of the information you provide – so make sure it is as true and correct as possible and trust your specialism to support your generalist!

 

Executive coaching is available by special arrangement.  Thank you for taking the time with me today – I hope it made you think!

Mike Jackson – Executive Leadership Coach and Action Effect-u-ator.

Together WE will make it happen!