Art of Accounting: Specialists vs. generalists

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I’ve written considerably about the pros and cons of specializing versus generalizing. Further, I’ve spent my career as an “expert generalist,” so when a book on the advantages of being a generalist was published, many friends called it to my attention and I read it. I finished it a while ago and was trying to figure out its applicability to accountants. The book is Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein (Riverhead Books, 2019).

The book does not contain a how-to-do-it formula, nor is it that easy to read, so I am reluctant to recommend it except to diehard aficionados such as myself. I liked much of the book, but I had to read it in small bursts, so it took a while. When I read these types of books, I try to glean ideas and punch points I can adopt, adapt or share. This book is a dissertation on the wide spectrum of knowledge generalists draw upon, versus the narrow but deep range for specialists. The book is an endorsement of multiple tries, with numerous stumbles and an indictment of starting early to develop as an expert. There are obvious exceptions, such as certain professional athletes or musicians, but by and large, broad thinkers who embrace diverse experiences do better.

Generalists, while being “jacks of all trades and masters of none,” have valuable attributes, acquiring a wide knowledge that is constantly working in concert to come up with solutions. Specialists have the depth of expertise of their subject areas that comes from concentrated study, attention and practice, and they are usually able to deal with most issues that arise in their specialty area; however, they silo themselves off from learning seriously from areas outside their specific specialty or integrating the information to arrive at a successful conclusion, and that thwarts some outside-the-box solutions. Myriad examples were provided to illustrate the differences in these two major areas.

A takeaway for me is the value of the book’s discussion for accountants, particularly those in smaller practices.

Most small firm owners and partners are generalists, as are some larger firm partners. Generalists are usually great problem solvers and trusted advisors for many of their clients. They usually do their work without placing labels on it, as I did. This book provided me the luxury of classifying and explaining what I did. My generalist background enabled me to not only develop solutions, but I had no choice but to think outside the box. I was not inhibited by the “rules” of a niche or specialty. I also drew upon the experiences of all of the different types of clients I had and wasn’t constrained by the conventions of their industries, or the types of people they employed, or how they made their products or delivered their services, or by what everyone else was doing. Specialists do not usually have broad technical or inter-industry experiences.

Smaller clients cannot afford to have a firm of specialists working for them, just as larger firms cannot afford not to, with teams employing an integrated disciplinary approach. There is a place for both, and for smaller clients, the generalist would usually provide the best counsel over sustained periods. This book provided a validation of what I had always done (not that I needed that validation since my career speaks for itself) and was also icing on the cake for me.

Do not hesitate to contact me at emendlowitz@withum.com with your practice management questions.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is on the Accounting Today Top 100 Influential People List. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition.” Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at www.partners-network.com along with the Pay-Less-Tax Man blog for Bottom Line. Ed is an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University teaching end user applications of financial statements. Art of Accounting is a continuing series where Ed shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. Ed welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 743-4582 or emendlowitz@withum.com.

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