THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Be snotty: Confident specialists usually successful

Linda Chernoff has the conversational skills of a socialite and team-building talents of a top executive. Her résumé could start with her prized "people skills," but instead she focuses herself more narrowly: event planner.

Good move. The best way to ensure you'll always be in demand is to become a specialist.

This means you should typecast yourself: action hero, funny guy, tough girl. Ezra Zuckerman, associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, studied actors' careers and concluded that even though they see typecasting as deadly, it's actually a ticket to a solid career. Actors who get typecast early on get more work, more consistently.

The typecasting rule applies to other careers; specializing is a way to differentiate yourself in a crowd. Many people describe themselves as generalists so as not to eliminate job prospects. However, specializing makes you more likely to be hired and hunted.

"Headhunters," Zuckerman explains, "are specialized, and they look for something they can package and sell. Since a candidate search is specialized, the headhunter is not set up to process people who don't fit into a specialty."

As with almost all career advice, solid execution requires knowing where your gifts lie. And, like most people, Chernoff was not initially sure. She started out as a law firm administrator, then worked in publicity at Temple University.

Her favorite part of that job was planning events like golf outings and tailgate parties. Now she's development associate for special events at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Specialization is the goal, but be wary of too much or too early. Even a reasonable specialty can go awry if you limit yourself before you know enough.

"We think it's more and more important as a business person to develop one or more areas of deep expertise over time," says Liz Ramos, a partner at the consulting firm Bain & Co. In the beginning, she continues, the focus is on "learning communication techniques and skills for the job." After two years at the company, Bain emphasizes learning to "manage one's job and develop as business leaders."

Only after three to five years does Bain encourage people to "think about if they want to continue in consulting or go to business school or another opportunity such as an entrepreneurial venture."

Once you get to that last step, you necessarily take yourself out of the running for some jobs. But if you don't position yourself as extremely good at something, you'll never have a chance at a top position.

Opera singer Stephanie Chigas knows this intuitively. She's a mezzo-soprano at the beginning of her career. While other opera singers accept chorus roles for supplemental income, she doesn't. "Some people say, 'I'll do anything that comes my way,' but I don't want to do that. I have different goals for myself. It may sound a little snotty, but I want to be a solo singer."

Snottiness is paying off. Chigas has sung at Carnegie Hall. In fact, snottiness is part of specializing, because committing to a path requires an implicit revelation that you think you'll succeed.

Conversely, generalizing often looks weak, lacking direction or commitment.

"Generalizing could be useful as a hedging strategy if you're in a volatile industry," says Zuckerman, but if you see yourself going to the top, you need to sell yourself as a specialist, not someone hedging against a darker day.

It's scary to specialize because there's the chance you'll choose something in which you can't succeed. But you can always try again. 

MIT's Zuckerman offers hope in the form of Bette Davis. Her career began in the 1930s as a blond bombshell. But there was no spark. So her studio recast her as a vampy, man-slayer type, and she was a hit.