Career Advice from Stem Cells: 4 Lessons

Career Advice from Stem Cells: 4 Lessons 720 359 The Body Corporate

Do you spend time worrying about whether it’s better to be a generalist or a specialist? Are you a specialist that is now required to work as a generalist? Are you a generalist trapped in a knowledge economy that requires deep specialization for promotion? I have wrestled with this question throughout my professional life. As a specialist, you enjoy the confidence and authority of being an expert, but your domain of value is necessarily limited. As a jack-of-all trades, you are valuable across a broad range of topics, but when the going gets serious, people look for an experienced authority.

Nature has always proved to be a valuable mentor. I believe that the human body has a near-perfect design, honed by millennia of evolutionary pressures. So, I went in search of biological models that could help us to solve this dilemma.

The human body is made up of an estimated 37 trillion cells. Each cell has its own specialized role. A liver cell along with millions of identical neighbors is responsible for processing nutrients sent to it from the gut, and in detoxifying the blood. That’s a gross simplification of a complex roll, but it is the role of a liver cell (or hepatocyte), and not the role of a bone cell, a sperm cell or a brain cell.

I have looked for a prestigious line of generalist cells that perform multiple roles – perhaps coordinating roles, communication roles, or overview roles. They don’t exist in large, complex multi-cellular organisms. Each cell is a specialist. Only one human cell does not act as a specialist: stem cells are undifferentiated cells. They are of no functional value, but can morph into specialist cells when needed. They play a prominent role when we are tiny embryos. The primitive multi-potent stem cells transform into an array of adult cells such as heart muscle cells, bone cells, and brain cells. That’s how we develop from an amorphous jelly into the intricate adult specimen we are today. These cells then persist as adult stem cells and act as a critical, life-sustaining reserve that repair and replenish adult tissue.

How does this relate back to human organizational structure and function? Most striking is the parallel between biologic and organizational development. The start-up organization is well served by founders and employees with a wide range of skills. In the beginning, employee #3 may have to be a design engineer, a marketer and a salesperson. Like the multi-potent embryonic stem cell, she may develop into a specialist over time, but initially she has to be a generalist. As the organization grows into a mid-sized entity, specialist departments are established. When the organization grows and matures further, career paths emerge for the specialists that comprise the bulk of the organization, and the value of a generalist declines substantially.

I have heard many specialists complaining about their roles changing as they climb the ladder. The teacher complains that they are consumed by administrative duties as head of department. The VP of sales no longer serves customers, but does the hiring and firing of the sales team. Many say that the value of a generalist increases up the organizational structure. I disagree. Let’s return to the human body for a moment. Where is the managerial layer in the body? Do we see the upper echelon of liver cells congregating with the elite of all the other body tissues around the boardroom table? The answer is obviously “no”. We have specialists performing these higher functions. Not generalists. Head-quartered in the brain, specialized nerve cells run our body. I would propose that corporate “management” is similarly a specialist role.

How then should we apply these insights into tangible career advice?

  1. If you’re a specialist by nature, then you’re maximally valued in a large, mature organization. If you’re hungry for promotion, you’re going to have to choose larger organizations where you can both remain a specialist and climb the ladder. You could also consider positions in smaller nests of specialists in an out-serviced model, such as the specialist advertisers in an agency that supports large corporate clients.
  2. The role of the generalist, the true utility player, is limited in large organizations. If this is your default style, you’re probably going to be happiest working in a small organization, or start-up. As economic pressure builds, people in large organizations are asked to do more with less. Opportunities may open up for generalists as companies downsize.
  3. If you’re starting your career, and don’t know yet what you want to be, then look for a company that has a stem cell program. Many large organizations recruit graduates into management trainee programs. New hires rotate through several specialist departments, giving them a broad view of the business. This allows the individual to select a preferred specialty, and gives the organization a pool of versatile talent.
  4. If you’re destined for a senior leadership position, consider this a specialist role. You will benefit from having a broad base of experience, but the managerial skills themselves are specific. Understanding context, making connections and setting collective strategy are the domain of this specialty, similar to the specialized role performed by the cells of the human central nervous system.

In 2012, Sir John Gurdon and Professor Shinya Yamanaka were awarded the Nobel Prize for research that started in Gurdon’s lab in 1962 and climaxed in Yamanaka’s lab in 2006. They demonstrated that mature, differentiated cells could be reprogrammed to become multi-potent stem cells. These groundbreaking discoveries have transformed our views of cellular specialization. In our human organizational analog, they speak hope to the millions of specialists who seek second careers, and those who choose to re-specialize as senior managers.

Have fun,



(Roddy Carter is an executive consultant who uses nature to provide analogues for human organizational structure and function. Through the BioSimilar Programs he helps organizations select and learn from a species or environment that closely resembles their own circumstances. This is a fun way to build and implement strategy and to enhance performance. Please reach out through the connect tab at if you’d like to explore a BioSimilar Program in your organization.)

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