Start as a Specialist, but Become a Leader


Start as a Specialist, but Become a Leader

However, flexibility in dealing with space and learning to twist time favorably are only two-thirds of the battle. The invincible executive is flexible in "matter" as well—matter being in this case the subject matter of his or her profession. Most invincible executives have switched professional disciplines completely at least one time. Bill Marriott changed the direction of his family's business from food services to hotels; Mike Sears of Boeing moved from engineering to program management to finance; Secretary of State Colin Powell and Admiral Joseph Prueher moved from war to politics and diplomacy—as have warriors from George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower before them.

To become invincible, you cannot be known as an engineer, accountant, or information systems guru. You must be known as a leader. That means you can start as a specialist, but you can never stay one. Specialists can do well in the world, but only generalists are invincible. According to the CEO of a midsized public relations company, "When you are starting out, people are looking for knowledge and skill with a little leadership mixed in. However, as you begin to achieve success, people are looking more for leadership with a little knowledge and skill mixed in. The higher you get, the more you can rely upon technical experts for the details. You are capable of an ever-increasing realm of leadership—often in fields for which you had no formal training." Or, as Doug Bain, the general counsel of Boeing, put it, "I keep telling people about the whole idea of flexibility. If all you want to do is work in this specialty, in this location, and in this division, you are really hurting your chances of getting ahead. If you want to focus just on being a high-level narrow specialist, you may be cutting your own throat. It's breadth of experience that you need to move ahead."

As invincible executives move seamlessly from one field to another, they must walk an increasingly wider path—i.e., increase the number of subject matters over which they can exercise confidence and control. Soon they become known simply for being good at whatever they do. Flexibility includes, therefore, stretching your professional length and your professional width. "Cut a wider and wider swath," a successful small business owner once told me. "As you go wider in your responsibilities, you will go higher in your organization."

Bill Marriott told me an interesting story along these lines. In 1956, the Marriott organization was a restaurant company. It had no hotels. Company officials decided to open a hotel, but they did not know who would run it. "We did not have anyone who could supervise the overall operation of the hotel," Marriott noted. "I asked if I could do it. And they looked at me like I was crazy. They said, 'You don't know anything about the hotel business.' And I said, 'I know, but neither does anybody else around here.' So I began supervising that first hotel, and then we opened a second, and then a third and fourth and I never looked back." Mr. Marriott surrounded himself with experts in the field and demonstrated his capacity to lead those people. Ultimately, his decision to widen the swath of his expertise led him to become the most famous hotel operator in history.

So here is what we have learned so far. Have ambition but don't have a plan. Determine and develop your skills as early as possible. Use those talents to achieve enough success that you are known as much for your success and leadership abilities as for your specific skills. Develop this reputation by adopting a flexible approach to space, time, and matter that will allow you to branch out to new and different areas such that your skill is leadership and the initial field of your skill becomes increasingly irrelevant. We're making progress.