Breadth or Expertise: Which is Better For Your Career?

I recently had a conversation with an engineering manager at Simply Hired about the pros and cons of two types of career trajectories. I was bemoaning the downsides of successive lateral career moves—where an employee moves from one role into a similar role, and performs similar tasks. Being a type A personality, I naturally assumed that people should take on different and greater duties as they move through their work life.

Challenging my view, the manager asked me, “Are lateral moves really so bad? Is there really anything wrong with a person identifying what they do well and continuing to work in that capacity over a large span of their career?”

We ended the conversation without me giving a concrete answer and I mulled over the question for part of the morning. I wanted to consider career strategies from different angles. To do so, I presented the question to my co-workers and received a number of thoughtful, interesting and informative responses.

Before sharing the feedback, I should acknowledge that there are a few ways to consider growth and movement in careers. Growth can be measured by breadth: increasing knowledge across business segments resulting in shallow but expansive acumen. This can otherwise be described as knowing a little bit about a lot of things. Alternatively, growth can be measured by growing expertise in a narrow area of responsibility. This can otherwise be described as knowing a lot about a few things. Finally, growth can be measured by advances in professional rank, such as moving from an individual contributor role to a leadership position. This third type of career growth can be the outcome of increases in breadth or expertise.

The Results

Though some respondents felt strongly that either moving around functionally or staying within a defined area of specialty had greater merit, a majority of the respondents concluded that there isn’t a clear-cut strategy for success. Instead, there are factors that you should consider in navigating your career.

Here are some of the most common responses:

1. Greater breadth of experience makes you a more versatile and well-rounded employee.

Having experience and insight from a number of different business functions can give you a more holistic perspective. It can also strengthen your ability to problem solve and innovate across an organization. One respondent noted that business activities are often multi-functional, meaning that they impact multiple groups within a single company. Having a wider outlook on various team needs, priorities and challenges, therefore, enhances one’s sense of empathy. It can also lead to more informed thinking and decision-making.

Another respondent indicated that taking on the challenge of a completely different role or function can be an opportunity to add to your range of skills:

All of us come to work with strengths and weaknesses, and usually we gravitate towards roles where our strengths can shine.  However, if you have the opportunity to try new roles and experience different responsibilities, you also have the ability to shore up your weaknesses.  Professional development shouldn’t be about doing what is easy. It should be about making yourself better!

It is worth noting that having a comprehensive viewpoint can make you a great candidate for a role with significant cross-functional oversight, such as CEO, COO or General Manager.

Tip: One low-risk way to get experience cross-functionally is to participate in a company rotation program, which allows you to work in different job functions for short periods of time.

2. Your strategy should be based on your long-term professional goals.

Some respondents used the simple logic that the roles you take on should create a roadmap leading to your final career destination. In other words: start with where you want to end up and work your way backwards. One respondent’s feedback was:

[Your career arc] really depends on your career goals. Do you want to be a VP of Engineering? It’s probably better to get broader experience to be able to manage the engineering trajectory better. Want to move into Product later? It’s probably better to focus on a variety of things, but only those that directly affect user experience and interface (UX and UI) design. Want to be the foremost expert on Big Data? Focus on Big Data. Don’t do anything else.

Tip: Identify people in roles that you aspire to and get their feedback on what decisions helped or hurt them over the course of their careers. Use this as a loose blueprint as you progress through your career path.

3. Where you are in your career informs how much job, role or function hopping is acceptable.

Some respondents noted that career exploration is ideal early in an individual’s career. Once an area of expertise is identified, specialization becomes ideal:

In the beginning of one’s career, it’s best to diversify your experience and skill set in order to better prepare for the various situations you’ll encounter during the course of your career. This will also allow you to really hone in on the type of work that you enjoy and may inherently excel at. As your career matures, it may make more sense to narrow that skill set.

Conversely, a few respondents pointed out that it is becoming increasingly common for experienced workers to change roles or functions given the rapid advances or declines in a number of industries. As such, flexibility and openness to new roles throughout your career is ideal. Finally, there is the viewpoint that you are never too old, or far along in your career, to make a radical change if that’s what you want. In the glass-half-full words of George Eliot, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

4. Know yourself and do what makes you happy.

At the end of the day, it’s your career, your life and ultimately your opportunity to make your mark on the world. Honestly assess your priorities, goals and preferences and then develop a plan that enables you to attain everything that is important to you.

To me, it really depends on what you value. If you value variety and learning a wide array of things, then jumping around will be beneficial to you. On the other hand, I’m under the assumption that staying in the same career path with lead to more stability (and money). If you understand what’s important to you, then you can take the approach that fits you best.

5. Make sure you understand and can articulate how each choice fits into the story of your professional life.

One respondent pointed out that your professional experiences make up the story of your career and that anyone reading this story, such as a recruiter or a hiring manager, will want to see a narrative that demonstrates growth and development. If you decide to make radical moves over the course of your career, know in advance what you are hoping to accomplish from the new experiences, and subsequently, what you learned or gained from taking on divergent paths. Without a strong rationale to back up your choices, you risk looking like a dilettante.

Finally, I wanted to share a quotation from a Simply Hired employee about the business need for either type of employee:

It’s hard to say that one is better than the other, though they are definitely different. But I think both kinds of people are needed. We need people who are well rounded, who know a little bit about a lot of things. We also (and equally) need people who know a great deal about a few things and can be the knowledge-authorities on specific subjects and disciplines. Both are necessary, both are to be strived for.

To complete this thought, I would add a quotation from Abraham Lincoln that states, “Whatever you are, be a good one.” No matter which of the two tactics you ultimately choose, be sure to work hard and always strive to be better, however you have chosen to define it, everyday.