With only two months left in 2016, performance review season is officially upon us. As many of us know all too well, it can be an awkward experience. But one key to nailing your review this year may be a departure from conventional wisdom. Typically we're told to make a strong case for how well we've performed in our particular roles—show you've mastered the job skills required of you and delivered great results, and now you're ready to move on to bigger challenges.
And it's not that that's bad advice. But as the workforce evolves, the value of a broad-based skill set may be rising. Your employer might not even be totally aware of the shift, but they're more likely to need jacks-of-all-trades than they did even a year ago. Here's a look at why, and how to play into that trend during your next review.
"I guess you can look at me and say that I didn’t specialize in anything," UX designer Amanda Yarmolich reflected recently. "But a lot of times, it ends up being more valuable to have somebody who can kind of pick up whatever you need."
Yarmolich isn't alone in that sentiment. According to the 2017 salary guide published earlier this month in the design magazine HOW, employers will gladly pay top dollar, "but they expect value, which comes in the form of worker versatility." And that may not just be a quirk of design-focused industries. Yarmolich works for the insurance marketplace eHealth. In her recent experience, "You just have to be ready to do whatever needs doing at the drop of a hat."
How come? For one thing, the changing macroeconomic landscape is pushing more employers toward low-labor business models—in other words, to find ways of getting more value out of fewer people. That necessity may have first gripped recruiters amid the last financial crisis, but since the recovery since then has been so incremental, it's seeped into many employers' hiring mentalities.
As one staffing expert told Fast Company earlier this year, "We’re seeing more cross-pollination among industries than ever before," which is not only expanding what counts as "transferrable skills," it's also requiring workers to be more comfortable tackling a greater range of tasks—including unfamiliar ones. That type of agility is becoming less of an added bonus and more of a basic prerequisite for many job openings in a widening variety of fields.
On the other hand, employers have always prized versatile workers. In his 1957 book The Problems of Design, famed industrial designer George Nelson observed that employers have long sought "general flexibility in relation to almost any situation. Translated into action, this means an ability to bring a high level of detached perception to any problem, and this has a very special kind of value to management."
The difference now is the change from management preference to economic imperative. Corporate boards seem to understand this value, judging from the kinds of people they put in the corner office. The New York Times recently reported that the quickest path to CEO these days is a circuitous one—often via several functional areas—according to new research suggesting that a mix of skills may now count more than simply long experience in one specialty.
These utility players are what coauthors Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin describe as "neo-generalists" in their new book The Neo-Generalist: Where You Go Is Who You Are. They use the term to describe knowledge workers who excel in "combinatorial creativity." As Mikkelsen described it to me, "Neo-generalists are people who expand their craft by bringing in knowledge from disparate areas and creating new ideas and methods from those new combinations."
Martin added that knowledge workers everywhere often feel their organization or industry is too siloed, but he believes it’s the type of worker that makes this true or untrue: "We are arguing that people who have a more neo-generalist mind-set make a difference because they deliberately step outside of those silos."
Hiring managers may be wising up to this idea. Not only are versatile workers often more cost effective, they also bring silo-busting behaviors to companies that help organizations stay innovative over time. What may have started as a dollar-stretching measure often turns out to be a competitive advantage.
According to Martin, "Everybody has the potential to be a neo-generalist—absolutely everybody. But it's a question of being willing to accept that learning is never done, that you’re never a finished article, always beta."
In their book, the authors point out that knowledge can go from acquisition to obsolescence in just five years. For knowledge to stay relevant, it must stay current. There are three main tricks to doing this; none of it's rocket science or even particularly novel, but if you can adopt all three strategically, you may stand a better shot at showing your boss you're an asset precisely because you're so adaptable—right when that's needed most. To prepare for your upcoming performance review, here's what to try:
1. Read. "Reading is a sense-making process," Mikkelsen says. It's not just a method of deepening existing knowledge—it's about getting a handle on unfamiliar ideas. Almost all of the 50-plus "neo-generalists" interviewed in the book cited a voracious appetite for the written word. (Among the interviewees, there was a perhaps unsurprising affinity for Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, among other sources.)
What to do now: Start with current events, cultivate some patience for long reads, and strive to include fiction or even poetry. You’d be surprised at the new ideas and connections you’ll make by reading a wide range of genres and forms. Be sure to share those ideas at work, and ask for feedback. Be the one to spark fresh conversations, and let your boss see it.
2. Seek out informal learning. Amanda Yarmolich started out in traditional print graphic design but found herself working at a small web design agency, where she began bumping into areas typically outside her bailiwick. "I started getting more exposed to wireframes and information architecture, and I realized how much I didn’t know but needed to know. So I started looking around and found General Assembly."
GA was practically unheard of at the time—Yarmolich was in its second cohort of students. She worked on three projects during an eight-week immersion. It’s that sort of informal educational venture that the most versatile workers give themselves all the time without being poked or prodded. That's something managers are more likely to find highly valuable.
What to do now: If there's a training budget at your workplace, use it, and don’t wait to be asked. If not, find whatever free online courses make sense for you. Attend meetups and talks, and share your notes with colleagues. As Woody Allen once quipped, "Showing up is 80% of life." Show up, and let your boss know you’re doing so.
3. Take on unfamiliar projects. We’ve long been encouraged to pick up work for which we’ve honed a specific facility. But it's the opposite that works for developing versatility. "I've had to sometimes take employment I didn't really want, but I treat it as a learning opportunity rather than an oppression," says Richard Martin. Showing a willingness to work in unfamiliar territory is something all neo-generalists do and all managers want.
What to do now: Next time you hear about an unfamiliar project or unusual need bubbling up, raise your hand. That’s it—simply volunteer. Understand that your unfamiliarity with the project space is an asset, not a liability, because it gives you permission to not know—to ask "dumb" questions, take best guesses, and truly learn.
To be fair, you may not get a huge promotion or pay raise as soon as the calendar switches over to 2017, but developing versatility (and communicating its value effectively) is likely to keep you relevant in the months and years ahead. And preparing for your performance review is a great time to start.
It also frees you to think and work more intuitively and creatively. You probably already possess pockets of knowledge that, for whatever reason, you’ve been habitually checking at the door each day. Versatility eschews that kind of narrow role playing in favor of a more authentic, whole-person approach. Who can argue with that?
Lisa Baird is a former principal designer at IDEO. She recently earned her master of design at California College of the Arts and previously earned her MBA at University of California Berkeley. Follow her on Twitter at @bairdlisa
Update: An earlier version of this article attributed the three tips for keeping knowledge relevant to Mikkelsen and Martin when in fact they are the author's. This error has been corrected.