This is a guest blog by Nancie McDonnell Ruder. Ruder has more than 25 years of marketing experience. She began her career at the Leo Burnett Company and in 2002, went on to establish her own company, Noetic Consultants, whose clients have included Samsung, PepsiCo, Nike, Marriott, Mayo Clinic and Discovery, Inc. Nancie also serves as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and is the creator of the Noetic Art & Science Assessment™.
Like you, I have worked as a marketer―and among marketers―for many years. I began my career at Leo Burnett and am the founder of Noetic Consultants, a marketing consultancy offering strategic guidance and training to senior marketers and their teams. Over these past 25+ years, I have been challenged and deeply inspired by these senior marketers I’ve had the great delight to work with. In particular, they never seem to fit into a specific box and they excel across a broad spectrum. They are creative, yet critical thinkers. They connect seemingly disparate ideas to unveil winning strategies. They are artists and scientists. So, driven by their inspiration, I decided to find out more about the critical ingredients that enable these marketers to scale the heights of their field.
Determined to uncover the secret sauce of their success, I interviewed 50+ CMOs from today’s top firms to better understand what it takes to rise in the ranks of today’s marketing landscape. The output of these conversations formed the foundation of my first book: Jack and Jill Went Up the Hill: How Senior Marketers Scale the Heights Through Art and Science. As I listened and inquired in each interview, I realized these senior marketers had some important similarities:
• They were some of the most resilient people I had ever met
• They were exceptionally passionate about their work
• And lastly, they were what I call “Accidental Generalists”
This last point is where I’d like to dive in more deeply today.
A winding road is a beautiful road
I quickly realized that many of the CMOs I interviewed had not set out to become marketers. In fact, many had nonlinear paths to their current roles. Some began as an architect or interior designer before accepting their first role in a marketing department. These leaders didn’t grow up hoping to become marketers one day. But, eventually, they fell into marketing, and consequently they fell in love. Their paths may seem unlikely and nonsensical at first glance. However, I posit that their diverse backgrounds and interests help them to see things from an entirely different―and strategically refreshing―point of view to the benefit of their organizations. Their ability to be jacks of many trades is exactly what has enabled them to become masters in marketing.
Generalists and specialists and why we need both
There are careers that require laser-like focus and force you to specialize. For example, surgeons come to mind. We tend to hold these specialists in high esteem over generalists, knowing the years of focused dedication and persistence that their fields demand of them. You may feel the way Meg Goldthwaite, Chief Marketing Officer of NPR, once did when thinking of herself as a generalist. In my interview with Meg, she said:
“I remember a boss describing me as a generalist and at the time, I did not like it. I wanted to be a specialist―but now I think it is really important to BE a generalist. You do need specialists, but people who are nimble are the ones who are more inclined to grow.”
I’ve come to agree with Meg. Generalists, in their “all tradesness,” hold the power of adaptability that the ever-changing business landscape requires of us. The diverse backgrounds and cross-functional expertise many senior marketers carry are precisely the reasons they are so valuable in their positions.
The power of adaptability
This adaptability―generalist approach―is what enables today’s senior marketer to thrive. Specialists thrive in a particular environment. But it is the generalist who can more easily adapt to changes in the landscape, the customer and with technology. Not surprisingly, the same is true in nature. It is the diverse and adaptable species that are able to flex different muscles and survive changes to their environments and ecosystems. Max Olsen puts it this way: “Generalists respond much better to changes/uncertainty. These species usually survive for very long periods because they deal with unanticipated risks better." 
Generalists can manage many tasks, and many types of tasks. This ability to jump from one thing to the next and keep many pieces moving is one of the main reasons they have been able to climb up the marketing hill. It demands adaptability and change. These senior leaders are not flaky or suffering from a lack of steadfastness. Rather, they are always questioning, willing to innovate and take risks to keep up with the changes of their industry.
“It’s an ability to shift gears, to be flexible. A relentless drive to learn, innovate and create – perhaps from the vestiges of previous career dreams – keeps them coming back for more” (Jack and Jill Went Up the Hill: How Senior Marketers Scale the Heights Through Art and Science, page 19).
Questions to consider
If you have a nonlinear career background or often wonder if you are a Jack of all Trades, I hope you now feel encouraged to own this. When leveraged, it is a huge asset for your firm as you continue to embrace the changes always heading your way.
I invite you to ask yourself a few questions to continue cultivating your generalist “muscles”:
• How do you try to grow your skillset in your daily routine? Is there a particular newsletter or podcast you listen to? I try to listen to HBR’s Ideacast regularly to keep fresh ideas top of mind.
• How are you leveraging your curiosity and diverse background for your firm? For example, I was an International Relations major in my undergraduate studies and have always loved writing. While not a large piece of the day to day of strategy consulting, I was able to leverage this skillset to write a book.
• Lastly, how are you cultivating an appreciation for generalists on your team? Are you creating an environment where your team is always opening themselves up to new ideas, industries or experiences? For example, my team and I went rock climbing for a team event last year to put some action against our value for being growth-minded.
Stay curious and keep growing―it is who we are as marketers and what makes us powerful!