ESPN and the need for generalists

14 May 2017
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As a small business coach, I’m always interested when the conversations I’m having in my client strategy meetings are echoed in news from the Fortune 500.  And we had one such example last week – ESPN’s transition of their on-air talent from specialists to generalists.

Specifically, ESPN’s President John Skipper said, “Dynamic change demands an increased focus on versatility.”

Many of my clients are professional services firms – they are selling their people’s skills and thinking.  Several weeks ago, in a quarterly strategy meeting with a 40-person services firm, the leaders asked me what I thought about a shift they were considering to organize themselves in specialized teams that could create deep expertise in certain areas.  Here’s what I said:

  •  There is a lot of uncertainty in the market.  That means that you don’t know what kind of work will come in, or when it will come in. (I am seeing this across my client base.)
  • As a result, you have to have flexibility in who you assign to different jobs, because your talent assignments are probably not going to work the way you plan them.
  • The only way you can have the flexibility you need to handle work in this uncertain environment is to actively develop cross-discipline agility – you have to make sure that people’s “downtime” is spent developing new skills.

In other words, you need to have a talent base that has a lot of flexibility in what and how it works – which is exactly why ESPN is making the shift they are, to multi-dimensional on-air talent.

Creating a flexible staff is no small task for small businesses.  The large majority of small businesses under-develop their talent – that is to say, their talent development is mostly opportunistic and accidental assignments that happen to build new skills.  That’s often OK – but it’s less likely to be OK these days, and companies who don’t get better at talent development are going to feel the pinch and pain of less-agile workers more and more, since the market will continue to be an uncertain place.

What’s needed to actively develop your people?  How should they fill their downtime?  Have your people…

  • Explore new areas by looking through trade publications or surfing industry web sites
  • Hold regular lunch-and-learns for your staff to educate each other
  • Shadow each other doing work that’s new to them
  • Sit in on internal or customer meetings that involve new areas for them

Are you developing the generalists your business needs – the ones with the skills and agility to navigate the uncertain environment we all face?