Is versatility in the workplace overrated?

28 January 2014 -

Swiss Army knife

A knack for wearing many hats is often praised by employers – particularly in competitive job markets where roles are merging and money is tight. But is it better to employ those with narrow and deep know-how rather than jacks-of-all-trades?

It is one of the great truths of the workplace that people who can juggle multiple tasks are held in high esteem. But that seems to go double for any employee who can step outside their specialist role and work freely and unruffled in another part of the business – a quality that shines particularly brightly in a staffing emergency. But is this something that we should all be able to do? And has that kind of office heroism distorted our view of what versatility really is?

Two managers provide their answers to our headline question…


Carla Bradman, marketing manager at Paramount Properties

People do best when they’re working within their specific skillsets. In theory, versatility is a desirable trait for both managers and their teams, but in practice this doesn’t always translate. It is much better to have a selective set of skills that enable you to perform to a high quality than be able to do lots of different things at an average level.

Not only does this work best for managers, but it suits staff better, too. Our lettings team’s strengths lie in negotiating and managing relationships with clients and landlords. They thrive when they’re getting out there and making deals.

However, an internal review found many were feeling bogged down by paperwork and admin they neither enjoyed nor excelled at. This was affecting productivity and job satisfaction so we decided to bring in a new team of admin staff whose skills are tailored to ensuring the behind-the-scenes work runs smoothly. Both teams now liaise closely but work within their individual areas of expertise.

Often job descriptions or roles can be inferred as being more generalist, but below the surface this is far from the truth. Our office manager, for example, covers three departments so to outsiders she may be seen as versatile when, in fact, she is working to a very rigid job specification. Versatility frequently gets confused with adaptability. Marketing, like many other industries, is experiencing numerous changes as digital developments unravel.

As a marketing manager, my ability to embrace these changes and adapt my skillset accordingly doesn’t make me versatile necessarily; it aids me in becoming more expert in my field.

Sometimes, though, it’s important to remember that just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should. I have a degree of knowledge and understanding in search engine optimisation but know that gaining the insight of an expert would be much more beneficial to the company.

Managers shouldn’t spread their or their employees’ time too thinly – get someone who is best for the task at hand.


Karen Meager, director of Monkey Puzzle Training & Consultancy

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Without versatility, managers can often end up doing things the same way repeatedly and offer themselves no choice or flexibility. They become the type of person to say, “It’s my way or the highway”, and discourage discussion, suggestions and alternative perspectives. But there is always more than one of way of doing things.

Many mistake versatility for over-adaptability and trying to cover too many bases at once. Or they assume it to mean being chameleon-like and always changing your mind. People see it done badly – managers moving course from day to day – but that’s just wishy-washy leadership.

Being versatile is knowing exactly where you’re going and what your aim is, but being open to different options and routes to get there. Strong leaders will benefit from having a variety of potential methods and will then be able to strategise the best course of action. Without versatility they become blind to other opportunities.

In many jobs it can be important for employees to be versatile, too. My company works with local councils whose leaders are becoming increasingly more versatile, but their staff are struggling to do the same. With the recession many roles were merged and employees have been required to adopt more responsibilities and carry out new duties.

Versatility is not the same as being generalist; you have to be clear about what you’re good at. We help individuals hone the skills needed in their specific niches. It’s about being versatile within your area, not across a whole industry. Nobody is expecting managers or employees to be experts at everything and pretending that you are isn’t going to get you very far.

The word versatile is so often misinterpreted that it is arguably better not to use it on CVs or in interviews and appraisals. Instead, demonstrate your versatility covertly with practical examples of a handful of ways you have approached a task, handled a situation or reached a conclusion. Like in so many other areas of management, with versatility actions speak louder than words.

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