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Debbie A Living Specialized Generalist

March 1, 2000
Related Topics: Featured Article
Excerpted with permission of the publisher Jossey-Bass, a Wiley company, from "The 21st Century Supervisor." Copyright (c) 2000 by Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer. This book is available at all bookstores, Amazon, and from the Jossey-Bass Web site at, or call 1-800-956-7739.

Talk about somebody who has seen it all, Debbie has experienced more of life in three decades than most people will experience in a lifetime. She has come a long way from her first job out of high school -- dipping ice cream in the deli section of a large, well-known department store.

Bored with packing ice cream cones, Debbie got her first shot at a "real" job by working in the accounting department of an insurance company, posting payments from the company’s policyholders. After a few years, she moved on to learn how to rate policies, mostly life and car policies. She then learned how to code policy.

"In the beginning," Debbie comments, "I was so young and naïve about the business world, I just kept my mouth shut and did what I was told to do. I seldom raised questions because that meant you were stupid."

However, her desire to learn soon led her to be more vocal and ask the questions that others were often too embarrassed to ask. One interesting bit of reality began to pop up in Debbie’s young career.

"Every time I inquired about really moving up the ladder, I was told that I would need a college education. Little did I realize that I would continue to hear that same message for the next several years before I finally decided to do something about it." She finally did decide to go to school. Then the worst nightmare in her life happened.

"My divorce could not have come at a worse time in my work life. I got divorced and lost my job at the same time. I also delivered my first child, earlier than expected. I guess the stress was finally just too much."

Moving to another town didn’t help much, even though she did remarry her husband. "Although this part of my life was better, I still wanted to work. I tried doing child care in my home but that wasn’t meeting my needs. I knew that I wanted to work, and I really missed the insurance business."

She moved back to her former town, and shortly after that her old insurance company hired her back. At work she continued to add new skills and bits of knowledge to her base. "I was so thirsty to learn that I did everything I possibly could to learn. Everyday was a new adventure to find out something I did not know the day before."

Being promoted to assistant underwriter was a sign that the future was turning in Debbie’s favor. However, when she asked about further movement up the ladder, she was given the same old answer, "You need a college education."

When a larger insurance company in town had an opening, Debbie went to the interview. "I said yes to everything they said they wanted me to do, whether I could or not!" Her attitude was that she would continue to do whatever it took to get to a position of greater respect, responsibility, and involvement in leading people. She soon got her chance.

When Debbie began working for her new company, her manager asked her if she would consider going back to school. "It took me about a fraction of a second to tell my manager yes. I couldn’t believe it; I was actually going to go back to school."

This episode in Debbie’s life was not easy. Working full time as well as attending classes two or three nights a week is tough. Within two weeks of receiving her associate’s degree in underwriting, Debbie was once again faced with a setback.

"All of the assistant underwriters were rolled back into frontline clerks. I was back to being a glorified clerk. This really hurt my pride, but I was determined not give up. And I didn’t."

Working for a manager who was threatened by Debbie’s knowledge, Debbie jumped at an opportunity to take a different job in the company. "Back to the accounting department I went. I couldn’t believe it, I was back in the department where I had begun my insurance career. I figured, well, what goes around comes around, so I just stuck it out. I knew things couldn’t get worse. Besides, by this time I had really begun to enjoy the fact that I was gaining experience in almost every department in the company."

Debbie’s well-rounded education soon worked to her advantage. When a new opportunity came along in the company, Debbie’s manager called her in for a private talk. "He told me that though he didn’t want to lose me, the new start-up division was almost tailored made for me. I would finally get to exercise the leadership that I had wanted for the last several years."

Although the move was technically back into accounting, it provided Debbie with the perfect chance to unleash all the wisdom and knowledge she had developed over the previous fifteen years.

"I think of myself as more of a ‘specialized generalist’ because I am involved with so many different people, processes, and problems. I essentially provide consulting to the people in my department, so I really don’t lead people like a more traditional supervisor or manager leads. In fact the way I see the future now, I think that many frontline leaders (like myself) will be internal consultants.

"It is very important to network. I think this may be the greatest skill that I was forced into early in my career. I’m sure that the way I have gotten ahead might not work for other supervisors, but for me, the dues I paid early allowed me to work in every department in the company. Through all the layoffs in the past seven years, I’ve always survived because I think senior managers realized that I was too knowledgeable about too many company departments and processes to be let go.

"I have a lot of people who depend on me, so my guard is hardly ever down. I’m committed to providing the type of leadership and encouragement that will make my people better. As I see the future in the insurance industry, it’s only going to get more competitive -- so a supervisor had better have all the skills to keep ahead of the game."

When asked what advice she would pass on to others, Debbie took a while to respond.

"The first thing I’d say is that you must get an education, at least an associate’s degree. If you are serious about being a better supervisor, get as much education as possible. I really think it is getting tougher to keep a good leadership position than it used to be. So, get your degree, and get it as early in your life as possible. Although I don’t regret doing what I did, I know that I missed some good years with my kids growing up. Realize that you may have to take on jobs or responsibilities that may not be to your liking but are critical to your growth as a leader.

"The second thing I’d say is to learn as many of the organizational skills as possible. I’m doing more leading of meetings, sending e-mails, writing reports, and so on and on and on. It just never stops. In fact I even give presentations to our firm’s agents about our policies. And because I’m one of the more knowledgeable people on the entry-level duties, I also get to teach new employees the ropes periodically through the year."

When Debbie was asked about her own future, she responded with an interesting perspective. "I don’t think about getting ahead anymore. I really don’t think that’s the best way to be an effective leader, employee, or person. I really think that the secret is to be as well rounded as possible. That means learning everything you can and learning it well enough to teach it to others. If you can do that, then I doubt seriously if you will ever have a difficult time keeping your job or getting a job you really want."

What makes Debbie’s story unique is that she is not your typical supervisor. Though her official job title is not supervisor, she practices all the skills presented in this book. She is a perfect example of the employee who worked up through the rank and file to become an internal expert. Although Debbie doesn’t boast of her reputation for knowing everything (she’s much too humble for that), she realizes the great responsibility placed on her shoulders to lead and coach those who are entrusted to her.

Debbie has been through it all as an employee. As anyone familiar with the insurance industry realizes, the competition among insurance companies is as intense as in any industry around. However, with frontline leaders like Debbie at the helm, her company is putting its first-level employees in some of the best hands around.

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