Saturday, April 24, 2010

Subject Matter Experts Rule! Best of reCareered

Today's employers hire Subject Matter Experts to solve problems. Managers and executives might not like this, but the day of the Generalist is over.

Now that it's easy to completely customize and individualize a resume to demonstrate Subject Matter Expertise, why would a hiring manager give a second glance at a general resume that didn't exactly match requirements?

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These five statements summarize why hiring managers look for Subject Matter Expertise over general skills:
  • Leadership and management skills are no longer searched for skills: Sure, they are still valued, but these skills are now assumed, and validated during an interview – if you get that interview (

  • Contractors and employees are considered equivalent: Distinctions between contractors and W2 employees have blurred, as more workers embrace advantages of project work. Hiring managers started seeking full time employees to solve problems that consultants solve…for less cost. Employers complete workflow under times of headcount reduction by hiring contractors to do the work of employees - sometimes the same employees who were laid off are brought on as contractors. There's not that great a difference in the risk-adjusted cost between employees and contractors.

  • Shortened cycles: At the same time, technology life cycles have shortened, and employee turnover has increased.

  • Supply and demand: In the midst of the great recession, there's a great supply of workers who describe themselves as generalists. Generalists risk being viewed as a commodity labor source and commodities are purchased based on price over quality. On the other hand, there's a shortage of specific subject matter experts, who command a higher dollar and greater demand for their services - why else would employers still be willing to pay recruiter fees in the midst of a bad recession? (see:

  • The costs of delay have increased: As technology cycles shorten and the cost of technology increases, it has become critical for employers to deploy technology and get staff up to speed as quickly as possible. Employers have reacted by hiring problem solvers to make an immediate impact with minimal training or ramp-up time – Subject Matter Experts (see:

Back in the days of paper resumes, sometime between the Declaration of Independence and the year 2000, the common knowledge was to write resumes as generalists. Especially for management level professionals, the "rule of thumb" was to write resumes to appeal to a broad audience, as a generalist.

The reason made sense at the time…resumes were printed on paper then. Your resume HAD to appeal to a broad audience, because it was static. The only way you could change it was by changing the cover letter.

But that changed around 2000. Right around the new millennium, job boards exploded, and overtook printed ads. When job boards exploded, HR departments and recruiters responded by purchasing applicant tracking systems, implementing pre-screens that increased efficiency of searches, and enabling hiring managers to micro-target candidates. Hiring managers changed their expectations and expected exact fits, because they could … Subject Matter Experts.

Cover letters stopped being considered as part of a search … why look at the cover letter, when a candidate could easily customize their resume? That's why 96% of hiring managers today make their interview decisions based on the resume, not the cover letter (For the data, see:

There are a number of ways to demonstrate your Subject Matter Expertise, even for those who consider themselves generalists. Here's seven ways to start:
  1. Lose the cover letter & customize your resume -
  2. Use Fishing & Response resumes to customize your expertise for the employer -
  3. Use Resume Search Optimization for resume submissions -
  4. Use Online Reputation Management to brand your Subject Matter Expertise online -
  5. Focus on relevant accomplishments over industry and function -
  6. Make every communication address WIFT (What's In it For Them) -
  7. Stop looking for a job, start looking for problems you can solve -

So, all you generalists out there….How will you change your job search strategies to respond?

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Related Articles:
How to Rise Above Resume Hell: Best of reCareered
Interview Road Kill - “I Haven’t Done It, But I Can Learn”: Best of reCareered

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Joju Mangalam said...

Phil: Thanks for the post. I would say that one should build SME on top of the "capable generalist" platform. This will help employer feel that they are killing two birds in one - that they get a new team member who can solve the problem on hand and have option to place this person in other roles as needed.

J Michael | Post business consulting jobs Free at

Phil Rosenberg said...

Joju, Sounds good in theory - only problem is that your suggestion rarely works. Hiring managers primarily hire for specific skills, and promote based on general skills. The few hiring managers that look for general skills find them during an interview - branding yourself as a generalist on your resume looks like sales pitch, difficult to back up with examples, and there are few candidates who can pull it off successfully. Focusing a resume on general skills is a quick road to disappointment, few interviews, and bad odds in job search.

Lewis Lampkin, III said...


Thanks for this post. It makes sense. It's what my own organization does. The longer term employees are the ones who can do a little of everything. The higher paid consultants work on the odd project that comes up that we don't have expertise on staff for.

I have been fortunate, as my organization has sent me for training on several occassions, to develop basic competence in our technologies, which has enabled us to reduce the support contract from one vendor (though I didn't get a split from that into my salary). Now, it would seem logical that reducing the time to resolution of issues (and even preventing them from occurring or recurring in the first place) due to not having to call the vendor at all, would seem reward-worthy ...

So, it is obvious that this organization likes the benefits of expertise, but certainly does not want to pay for it on a day-to-day basis. So, this does make me question my long-term goals.

Do I plan to stick it with this organization? And if so, how can I get into a higher position here? And if not, how do I get into an organization that values and rewards expertise?

Honestly, you want to avoid sounding greedy, but you can tell when you're the go-to guy, and when you're not.

Have a nice day!