Focus Coaching: How tight should your niche be?
The phrase “Jack of All Trades and Master of None” is frequently used in a pejorative sense, implying that being a “Jack” at something isn’t enough. In the old craft guilds, a ‘Jack’ was the term used to describe a journeyman, someone who had completed their apprenticeship, someone competent but still honing their craft. And a great many journeymen made a decent living performing the craft they loved without ever becoming a master.
These days, we see a lot of generalists who know enough to be competent in a variety of areas, and who choose not to specialise. As consultants, they can make a decent living advising their clients on a variety of topics. And as employees, they can rise through the business by knowing enough to know when they need to bring in outside expertise. These broad-spectrum “Jacks” of business make a significant contribution to a company’s success. According to a high-powered mergers and acquisitions expert I know, top quality true generalists are very rare, and so very valuable.
The danger for generalists is that there are plenty of other “Jacks’ with their level of functional knowledge, so they risk becoming what I call “commodity contractors”. Because they have a lot of competitors, they quickly find themselves not being valued, and competing purely on price, just like a commodity product in the supermarket. So they find it hard to derive satisfaction or enjoyment in their work.
One thing I’ve noticed in my focus coaching is that where generalists start to come into their own is when they specialise in a particular industry, or even a specific company or organisation. Rather than being masters at a particular job, they become experts in a sector. They know the business so well, and some functions well enough, that they add more value than would a subject master in those functions. Their industry knowledge is also a form of mastery.
Where the most value – and enjoyment in work – lies is in specialising on both functional and sector lines. When a subject master is also an expert in a sector, they can become a trusted advisor. Their superlative functional work coupled with their expertise in the sector means that clients and employers trust them to bring in other subject masters for the areas they are not best at. And that allows them to do only the work they truly love, and surround themselves with a team they enjoy working with. So I recommend focus coaching clients to aim for mastery of a subject AND a sector – the tighter the niche the better.
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