It’s been a while since a former British Lord Chancellor declared “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts”, striking a populist note in the lead up to the UK’s Brexit referendum. In Watching the English, an entertaining book recommended to me when I first immigrated to this country, anthropologist Kate Fox writes about the English having “vestigial traces of a ‘culture of amateurism’, involving an instinctive mistrust of professionalism”. Others have argued about the superiority of generalists in a highly specialised world.1
I reflect on these ideas often, especially in my work at Fnality International. My reflections lead me to believe that a dichotomy pitting specialists against generalists is not particularly helpful. Rather than self-identifying or categorising colleagues into either a specialist or generalist camp, what matters more is the need for problem-solving in teams drawing on a wide diversity of skills, experiences and perspectives.
For many years, my work persona was one of a specialist, a self-regard cultivated through years of law school and many a stressful day (and night!) at elite law firms. I take great pride in having acted for a long list of prestigious clients (big banks, BigTech, publishing and media firms) on their most challenging legal and regulatory matters. I enjoy debating the finer points with colleagues who also earned admission to a gated profession. I live and breathe law.
When I joined Fnality, for the first time, none of my teammates were lawyers. Like all Fnality staff, I joined one of our cross-functional teams, with teammates representing all disciplines (which we call “Guilds”) within our company: Product Management, Technology & Operations, Commercial, Finance & Strategy, People & Talent, Change, and Legal & Regulatory.
To say that I felt lost at sea would be putting it mildly. Advising a demanding investment banker or a slightly disorganised operations manager is one thing – in that context, I am the expert lawyer, working for a client who has requested my legal advice. Collaborating in a cross-functional team – working with team mates to solve business problems holistically, with people whose backgrounds and worldviews vary from my own – is a different kettle of fish. I soon realised how working exclusively in teams of lawyers for the first 15 years of my career simply constrained the way I thought and worked. I too easily slipped into thought patterns that automatically assume the centrality of legal/regulatory issues (which, in a business like Fnality’s, is often but not always the case). My previous work environments also kept a lid on my curiosity about a wide range of intersecting topics that impact, or are affected by, the legal advice I give.
This is not, of course, to say that since joining Fnality, I have stopped being a legal expert, nor that I have given up on increasing the depth of my lawyer’s craft. Indeed, as the General Counsel, I lead the Legal Guild, comprising all other lawyers in the company. In that capacity, I not only nurture my fellow guild members’ professional growth and legal competency development, but also serve as the company’s thought leader on legal topics. It is therefore an essential part of my job to keep learning and think deeply about the law.
But since joining Fnality, my eyes have opened to the nuances and complexity inherent in each of the disciplines in our organisation’s cross-disciplinary teams model. Other disciplines that, once upon a time, I may have regarded as “softer” or more generalist compared to the “hard”, specialist skills of a good lawyer are indeed just as valuable and difficult to master as my own. Also, I came to realise that some of the best specialists I have encountered are those with the widest range of professional interests and knowledge, and an open, curious mindset. What makes me a stronger contributor at the company – and what makes Fnality stronger and resilient as an organisation – is constant collaboration among colleagues who think differently about problems, pose healthy constructive challenge to each other in solving them, and always learn from each other.
In a recent joint Discussion Paper, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) and the Bank of England discuss the need for greater diversity and inclusion in the financial sector.2 They note the positive correlations between diversity and inclusion and positive outcomes in risk management, good conduct, healthy working cultures, and innovation. All of this resonates strongly with our approach at Fnality.
Perhaps I shall never be a “true” Englishman (if Ms. Fox is correct in her observations!) because I do firmly trust in the value of expertise and professionalism. But I also believe we need to look beyond a false dichotomy of specialists against generalists. Instead of being drawn into a cultural war that forces me to self-tribalize, I would rather spend my energies celebrating the value of diversity in the workplace.