What possible link is there to help people succeed in diverse activities such as the USA Women’s World Cup Soccer, ┬áthe great Roger Federer in tennis and managers in business?

After the United States passed Title IX, schools and colleges were required to provide more sports for women, not just for men. Many young women took advantage of this and participated in a number of sports. Team USA Co-Captain Alex Morgan played volleyball, softball, basketball and track before finding her passion in soccer. Her teammate Christen Press played tennis and track before focusing on soccer. A number of articles have been written recently about how these other sports may have improved the overall performance of our Women’s World Cup team.

Roger Federer, who at 37, is once again in the semi-finals at Wimbledon, is truly one of the greatest tennis players of all time with 20 major Grand Slam titles and still counting! But as a young man, besides learning to speak five languages, he also played in a wide range of sports from squash to wrestling and skateboarding! Fortunately, he eventually found tennis.

A new book called Range by David Epstein talks about the idea that late bloomers and generalists, often succeed more than those who focused on just one special skill or interest. For example, Vincent van Gogh taught at a boarding school before he found painting. The premise is, that by first learning other skills, an individual extends themselves, broadens their base or range and can then perform better in the one area they finally focus on or all the areas they may encounter in complex roles.

So this got me thinking about people I have known in business. I have worked with some experts in specific financial areas be that taxes, insurance, investor relations or treasury. Many of these were very skilled at that one area where they often spent their entire work career. But then, there were other people who were either lucky enough or had sponsors who were willing to moving them from one area to another. When faced with a new and difficult crisis, this latter group often proved to be a more valuable part of the team. They somehow brought more diverse views, background or flexibility to the issues.

And then all this brought me back to my own career (my wife, Tricia, says, everything brings me back to myself!). As many readers know, I was lucky to have spent time in both small, private and large, public firms. I also personally managed, at one time or another, every area of finance and a bunch of non financial areas like human resources, legal and even general management.

When I interviewed for my last CFO role, the Chairman/President of the firm, asked me in what area of financial management did I consider myself strongest or best. A very good and first-time ever question. I immediately responded, no one area, rather I replied that my real strength was that I knew quite a bit about every area of finance and accounting, but that I did not consider myself an expert in any one activity. I got the job.

I was a Generalist before it became popular!

For those of you moving up in your profession or career, it is tempting and comfortable to stay or specialize in one area. But if given the chance to move into something new, think very hard about it. Some Generalists have done very well!