Peter Church: “Specialist in everything – really?”

Peter Church, managing director of industrial chain supplier FB Chain, reflects on whether it really is possible, or even desirable, to be a ‘specialist in everything.’

Today I followed a van down the M1 that had a sign written in large red letters on the back saying “specialist in” and then a list of more than 10 things that the company supposedly specialised in. This is not the first time I’ve seen something like this and it never fails to strike me as odd.

Whenever I’m looking for an expert to solve a problem, I always focus my search on a single company or person who most closely matches my requirements. Indeed, I’m actually turned off by someone who claims to be able to do ‘everything.’ The expression ‘Jack of all trades and master of none’ certainly springs to mind.

Two-times Olympian and The Times columnist Matthew Syed wrote a book a few years ago about becoming world class. Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, in which he describes his journey towards becoming one of the world’s best table tennis players, is an excellent read and I took a great deal away from it. One of the points that struck me the most, however, was that, in order to become world class at anything you need to do it for 10,000 hours and as you develop you need to practice and learn from experts.

At FB we make a very conscious decision to divide our people into business-focussed product areas, and within these areas, staff focus on particular market sectors. In doing so, our people learn and experience issues that impact on the performance of our products in the niche markets we work in very quickly.

We also make sure our older and more experienced experts spend time with younger and newer staff, allowing them to benefit from their experience and in-depth market knowledge. When older staff members approach retirement, we have an open discussion and make sure they have enough time to pass on their knowledge and skills. This normally involves them reducing their working days and training other members of staff over a 2 year period. Yes, this costs money but think how much time, money and knowledge is wasted when companies rush a handover! In many cases, there is no hand over at all because the head count cannot increase even temporarily.

FB Chain is not the biggest chain company; nor do we even sell every type of chain that’s manufactured, but our targeted and in-depth approach means that in our chosen markets and products, we are indeed specialists.

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