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Jack of All Trades: The Advantage of Career Generalism

Friday, August 29, 2014


The iconic Sinatra song lyrics, “I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king ..." make for a great song. 

But, career advice? Not so much. People can’t run around being a bunch of different things. Contemporary work theory screams "domain expertise!" Employees need to be ONE thing, and they have to demonstrate sustained results in that area of expertise. 

But what about those who don’t want to do just “one thing”?

Well, there is good news for them. Turns out, they can build a career on the idea of NOT doing one thing!

One of the best local stories of this theory in action is from a locally prominent  executive who’s made a career out of being, well, a generalist.

Erin Graham, vice president of development at OMSI and member of the OMSI Senior Leadership Team, spoke recently at the Women’s Center for Leadership. She shared a bounty of stories, insight, and advice about how she’s made a career out of not doing one thing. It’s served her, and this community, well. Her wisdom is a gift to any careerist, of any age, who doesn’t want to be tied down to a one-dimensional career. 

Here are three significant themes she spoke about that will help any careerist in their professional adventures:

1. Skill collection works just as well as career path. 

Traditional career dogma focuses on a path. Start here, perform a series of incremental roles in a certain industry or focus, move across the metaphorical game  board and – voila – a career path. 

But Graham would say there’s as much, if not more, value in building skill sets, even though the areas of career focus might be quite diverse. For her, it was theater director, city attorney, project manager, procurement and operations, member relationships, strategic partnerships and now development.

Not exactly a linear path in one area of expertise, is it?

In the process, she’s gained a plethora of skills that honed her mastery as a contributor and leader. There’s only one problem. Employers associate skills with experience. That makes the transition process harder.

For example, when she moved into the nonprofit world, she was told, “If you had worked in social services, your skills would be transferable. Your law degree and your MBA will not help you in nonprofit.” 

This is not true at all. But often such an adventurous career path seems antithetical to what a hiring manager is expecting in the perfect candidate. What Graham learned is that people have a hard time drawing lines between people’s skill sets and their functional jobs.

Her solution? She became a great storyteller. She learned to illustrate the connections in her experience and skill sets that most people and employers won’t innately make. 

People who aspire to a diverse career path, or have diverse experiences in their job history, need to learn how to tell the story about where they have been, and how it can be of service to where they are going next. 

2. Liberal Arts has a place in the world

Graham was once asked, “An English degree with a focus in Shakespeare. Are you planning to be a teacher?”

Traditional thinking dictates that kind of response, but Graham has blown that traditional thinking right out of the water.

Liberal arts and English majors are the intellectuals, the writers, and the creatives no matter what field they pursue. It’s an educational background that informed Graham’s writing skills, presentation skills, critical thinking ability and much more. In a digital text-oriented world, employers, including Graham, find it a struggle to hire candidates who can write well.

So when she sees it on a resume, she knows that Liberal Arts or English degrees can be a beacon of hope that there’s a great writer, and a good thinker, in the candidate pool. 

Those with Liberal Arts degrees shouldn’t apologize for it. They should ignore those critics who say, “What are you going to do with a degree in that?”

Then go out and solve the problems, bring their intellect and write their best for the employer that’s a perfect match for them.

3. Passion comes in many forms. 

Graham didn’t riff about the need to identify, focus on, and single-mindedly pursue one’s passion to find career satisfaction. Her career has been quite diverse, as has her education. 

She’s commented that “the passion is found in the learning, growing and stretching.” Part of her passion was found in mapping skills she wanted to develop and then looking for opportunities that would afford her the chance to do so. As a manager, she now assigns projects based on the skills her own people want to hone. 

And her other passions, like the arts, found other forms of expression. While in a marketing job, for example, Graham sidelined as an arts director for a local live theater.

Her passion came through in ways other than her job. It’s part of why she’s now at OMSI, the largest cultural organization in the state. And even though it has the largest science outreach program in the US, who’s to say there won’t be an opportunity to integrate the arts at some point? 

Some people think the only conceivable job they can do is about their passion, but they should think again. They need to look for opportunities to grow, experiences to capture, and knowledge to gain. They just might find some passion in the discovery process. 

Careers come in all shapes and sizes. Graham is one shining example of creating a career of experiences.

Maybe it’s something everyone should try as well!


Lea McLeod, M.A. coaches professionals to get more done, be more confident and deal with workplace issues such as challenging bosses and overwhelming workloads. Her career insights have been featured in publications including Forbes, Mashable, Yahoo, and Business Insider. Connect with her onLinkedIn. Follow her on Twitter. If you’re ready to take action, get started with her free 21 Days to Peace at Work e-series.


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