Should CEO’s be specialists or generalists?

“The higher you get in an organization, the more likely you are to encounter problems from a variety of different areas,” he says. Because CEOs in particular encounter so many different kinds of issues, “those people have to be generalists.” 

 A CEO with strengths in only one or two narrow areas can tackle a problem in those fields, but “the difficulty is, if you get a problem in an area outside your expertise and have no knowledge there, then you totally blow it,” says Lazear, the Jack Steele Parker Professor of Human Resources Management and Economics and Morris Arnold Cox Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. ”A good CEO is someone who’s very good, possibly not excellent, but very good, at almost everything,” he says.

To determine the extent to which individuals are generalists, Lazear analyzed the number of prior jobs held by 5,000 respondents in a 1997 survey of 12,500 GSB alumni. Among those with at least 15 years of work experience, respondents who have had 2 or fewer roles had only a 2% chance of eventually becoming a C-level leader, while those who have held at least 5 positions had an 18% chance of reaching the top. 


As I’ve said before, most business books are awful. I do recommend these: Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick), and Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco.

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