From Specialist To Generalist: The Journey Of A Small Business Owner

In most cases, small business owners start their journey from being an employee that has spent considerable time in formal and on the job training in order to master specific technical skills before plucking up the courage to head off to the exciting prospect of “living the dream” and becoming their own boss. While it is perfectly admirable to acknowledge the achievement of just simply taking that first step or to embrace that feeling of boldness that is embodied with taking such a leap of faith, the transition process is far more nuanced and requires a whole new skill set that only the battle hardened business owner can attest to.

The best analogy that comes to mind is to think about those wonderful romcom movies, where the trials and tribulations of getting to that exciting end stage or climax of the couple finally getting together compares with the journey of the salaried employee courting or romanticizing the idea of going on their own one day. All those twists and turns in the process of building skills, credibility and connections to eventually find the “moment” or the “one” to settle down with and live happily ever after. Sound familiar? Now, I don’t mind a good romantic comedy once in a while, but I have always wondered what happens after they finally make it happen (usually at an airport before the plane departs) and real life kicks in. Unfortunately, the curtains close and we are left with a predictable, half-baked story that quite frankly is more entertaining and provides a good enough dopamine hit until the next new release comes out. Although this is a superficial comparison, just like the evolution of how the newly formed relationship takes shape, the small business owner also needs to go through a transition process from being a technical specialist to thinking like a strategic generalist.

There is no point in covering old ground that well renowned authors and thought leaders have been talking about for years, such as the notion of working “on” rather than “in” your business. My focus has rather been on really understanding how this translates to small business owners based on my own experience in the field. As part of the coaching process, the ability to work below the surface in a supportive and judgement free zone, helps facilitate the true challenges facing these brave owners and exposes the bare realities of how hard it is to connect with and implement such well intentioned advice. I believe there are three key ideas to consider that can soften the level of discomfort that a business owner may experience as he or she learns to grasp how the different functional areas relate to one another.

1. Generalist Mindset

Having an open mind to learning all the important areas that make a business run is the first step. A growth mindset in this direction will help motivate you to attain the breadth of knowledge required to think more strategically and grow the business. Whilst I am all for an MBA degree, if you have the time and money to invest, there are many other ways to support this process. Hiring a business coach is a good option, but short, sharp and inexpensive courses in specialist areas can also help. Of course, there is always the fearless approach to just get stuck in, learn as you go and read as much as you can on an ongoing basis.

2. Gradual Process

It is easy to get overwhelmed and feel as if you need to know everything at once. For heaven sake, please be kind to yourself and allow time to build these capabilities gradually. This is where it is so important to have an action plan that focuses on learning strategies in the key areas that support and drive business growth, while at the same time making sure those small wins are celebrated along the way. There is no doubt that eventually one needs to consider letting go of certain operational activities, however during the early stages of the transition process, this expectation is simply unrealistic for many small business owners and it would be naïve to suggest removing that person (owner) completely from doing what they are expertly known for. In theory, what I am trying to say, is that the timing would be perfect at the intersection of where the small business owner transforms into a generalist and the business starts to scale-up.

3. Strategic Outsourcing

Gaining a broader perspective on how to run a business is a great skill to have, however be careful and avoid the temptation to try and become a master of everything. Going back to your technical expertise mindset and exploring in depth knowledge of all areas can lead you astray and can defeat the whole purpose of running a smooth and successful operation. Know your limits and use your new-found business insights to better guide and integrate with those who can support and help implement your strategic objectives. This way, you are still in control of your business and can remain as the driving force behind the decision-making process.

Regardless of where you are on this journey, never lose sight of the reason or purpose for going down your chosen path in the first place. If you persevere for long enough, you will ultimately become both the specialist and generalist in the end. Sometimes, it helps to have good advice along the way as I often come across those who say: “If only I had been told that all those years ago, things would have been so much easier to manage”.

From Specialist To Generalist: The Journey Of A Small Business Owner

One thought on “From Specialist To Generalist: The Journey Of A Small Business Owner

  1. Really good read Oren and it speaks honestly to the realities of what it’s really like to run your own business – the highs, the lows, the fear, the fascination and the building of sufficient skills/capabilities in areas you’re not too strong in or natural with and learning just enough of it to be dangerous before you outsource it (if necessary) AND then playing to your strengths.
    I would add that it is also very important as a business owner to surround yourself with good people that are there to support you. Be it a business coach, neighbour next door who happens to be a crash hot accountant and is always up to date with the latest on tax law, reform and how your business can benefit, legal and of course experienced sales operators. The message of remembering your purpose and applying an open growth mindset coupled with optimism and a hardy can-do attitude is often a compelling winning formula in most cases.

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