Should We Know It All, Or Should We Specialize? – Week 5

Being cross-trained within different or all aspects of a company can sound like a great thing. Shared responsibility, lower formal roles, and blended responsibilities will furthermore surely make teamwork easier. And who wouldn’t want an employee who knows how to handle more areas of the business? That’s more knowledge, right? And who would be against knowledge?

A good manager, might.

Jack of all trades, master of none

Although an employee might be able to complete work in an area she has recently been cross trained in, there is a possibility that the position isn’t right for her. The Gallup writers of First, Break All The Rules tell the story of a hotel that experimented with cross-training all employees so that each employee was able to complete every task, while also blending the roles of employees so that anyone was allowed to do any task. In theory, this might have sounded amazing – but in practice, it was a completely different story. Gallup put it this way in the book:

“The employees liked the idea of supporting one another, as all great hotel employees do, but the team structure threw them into confusion. The best housekeepers didn’t want to become front-desk clerks. They liked housekeeping. Front-desk clerks didn’t like table serving. And the table servers, looking up from their own troubles behind the reception desk, didn’t appreciate the mess the front-desk clerks were making of their precious restaurant.”

As we can clearly see, this is not a situation that any manager wants to be involved in. An initial plan to broaden responsibilities through cross-training while blending individual roles together resulted in dissatisfied employees and even chaos. So what’s the better way?

Specialization and a role for every team member

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that cross training is important and valuable – it’s just when we decide to abolish or lower individual roles that we get into trouble. Imagine in the story above if the house keepers were trained on how to operate the front desk, but were only asked to work this responsibility once in a blue moon. They were still primarily housekeepers. By keeping this identity they would still be able to do what they did best. It’s when you take away someone’s individual role that trouble can start to brew. An employee without an identity is like a company without a mission – confused, inefficient, and frustrating.

Think for a moment about the role you play at your job. You likely have at least one particular thing that you can put your finger on and say “this is what I enjoy most about my job.” Maybe it’s speaking with customers. Or maybe it’s the satisfaction that comes from solving complex problems. Either way, there’s something that you do best, and the best managers will recognize and harness your “super power.” Each of us has a super power! You may remember in my previous blog post titled 12 Questions to (Honestly) Ask Your Employees that I presented a list of 12 telling questions that we need to ask our employees. Number three on the list was “At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.” This was ranked by Gallup as the third most important statement that employees should say “yes” to – and by no accident. It’s only possible to do what you do best if you aren’t constantly burdened with the responsibility to do, well, what you don’t enjoy doing. This confirms the validity and importance of specialization in the workplace and the need for roles and individual responsibilities.

So let me ask you – what’s your super power? When someone appreciates you for that skill that you do better than anyone else, what is it? Comment below!


Clifton, Don. (2010). First, Break All The Rules. New York, NY: Gallup Press.

What did you think? Leave some feedback! :)

5 thoughts on “Should We Know It All, Or Should We Specialize? – Week 5

  1. Hey Austin I hope all is well, cross training can be good, it may or may not bring your bottom line down, however you may want to think of cross training from this perspective. We all try and multitask, and think that we are doing a great job and we firmly believe that we are getting things done. The reality is we are switching from topic, topic and not giving our full attention to one thing, I kind of look at the cross training in that way we have so many things on our plate that we are not getting a “A” in any but a “C” for each. I much rather receive a “A” for that one focus and then if time presents itself move on to the next. I see it so often in small non-profits that there are few people and they are wearing hats that really don’t fit, and as a result the entire non- profit suffers and losses.


  2. In regards to the cross-training section…I am, personally, in this boat now. I actively sought to be cross-trained in different areas because some of the people responsible for the tasks I learned, were not doing that task. Consequently, others suffered for their lack of execution. I wanted to change all of that once I stepped into my role, but now I want to do one of those tasks full-time, even applied for a job that was what I wanted to do, and was denied because of a lack of experience. Now that is the job I want to do and will certainly leave my current company to do the job that I want. I think I’m a valuable asset to this company, and they may lose me if the right job comes along because of the denial to do it here (and other jobs are in the works now…interviewing a few places currently). I hope nobody from my work reads your blog! Ha ha. To get back on topic, I do believe I’m living proof of that model and the consequences it can have on a business (in losing quality workers if you won’t move them to the position they are passionate about).

  3. Specialization vs. generalization is a dilemma, for sure. One thing I noticed when reading The Founder’s Dilemma last semester was a company that started out advertising for general computer programmers – they didn’t specify a lot of parameters like the type of programming language the hire would need. Only after that first wave of programmers laid the groundwork did the company start saying “Yes, now we need a Java programmer”. Maybe the best of that company’s programming was done in Java (or there was a strategic vision developed after the fact), and then after that first “general purpose” phase they could start specializing. Interesting topic.

  4. The conversation is an old one, isn’t it? I think we entrepreneurs begin as generalists who learn a little about everything so that we might get our business of the ground. We quickly learn that there are some things we do not do well, while we find other things we hate to do. We strive to hire someone, quickly, to take over those things. It’s how we learn that we cannot do everything and to everything well. But, many entrepreneurs have a problem with control. 😉

    I like the idea of a “super power” in context with specialization. I encountered this idea some time ago in a team building retreat and arrived at my superpower then–seeing possibilities. I’ve always been good at building and fixing (processes, businesses, etc.), but I dislike managing those things I’ve built or fixed for extended periods of time. I have learned to hire people who excel at managing.

  5. I think you should find your “Super power” early on and seek that out in any way possible. My super power is training and teaching you in a way that you can understand and apply the subject matter, all in a fun learning environment. I used to have “real jobs”, and a past employer loved to cross train everyone. Now, I understood the point of it. If one person is out for a few days, we don’t want that one person’s job not to get done. BUT, it became a little too crazy, when everyone was doing everyone else’s jobs and your own position was falling behind.

    A great manager will know when to do this and how to execute!

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