Consulting hopefuls often ask me about specialization. Some ask in hopes of locking themselves to a topic they feel passionate about. Others want to make sure they won’t get stuck in something they don’t like.
Different firms take different approaches to specialization. Before selecting what firms to apply to, you should find out how they think about specialties in new hires.
What specialties exist?
To understand specialization, you first need to know what kinds of specialties exist. When I talk with aspiring consultants, they tend to think of specialization in terms of an industry. Some examples of industries include
- Consumer goods
- Industrial goods
- Public sector
Although most firms will have some level of industry specialization, this typically makes up just half the story. In addition to industry specialties, firms will have functional or practice area specialties as well. These can include
- Change management
- Corporate development
- People and Organization
The lists above don’t include all possible industries or practices, and firms may take different levels of breadth or depth into each.
How do firms approach these specialties?
As a new consultant, you should first understand how the firm approaches the specialties overall, and then find out how new consultants fit in their approach.
Many boutique consulting firms exist that will serve just a few intersections of specialization. For example, you might find a firm that only does digitization for public sector clients, or procurement for healthcare providers.
To get into these firms, you may need to have experience or demonstrable expertise in the area they serve. This obviously means that new consultants will integrate into the niche of services provided.
Some larger firms (such as the consulting arm of some of the “Big 4” firms) will provide services in a wide variety of industries and practices, but will keep some practices on a separate career track. For example, many firms have a separate division to provide services to the public sector, or may also split out technology, healthcare, or other industries.
These firms may value skills in the specific area, but it still may not be required. You will likely need to submit your application to the specific division or career track that you will specialize in. Crossing specialties mid-career may be possible, but may also be challenging, sometimes impacting your tenure credit.
Most of the largest firms (such as McKinsey or BCG) have a fairly integrated model of industries and practices. Entry-level positions (on the consultant track) will work as generalists, not specializing until getting closer to the partner level. Senior leaders will often have both an industry as well as a practice area for which they are considered experts, but will often lean more heavily on one over the other. For example, a partner may specialize in procurement and consumer goods, but spend plenty of time doing procurement across a wide variety of industries.
As an applicant, you will not need to have any expertise in, nor apply to any specific industry or practice area. Even if you want to spend all of your time on a particular topic once employed, staffing will typically require you to work on a wide variety of cases to build a well-rounded skillset. This will increase your ability to draw from other fields when working in the area you finally specialize in, and broaden the perspective you can provide.
Even after reaching the tenure where you do specialize, some cross-specialty movement sometimes happens. Senior positions depend more on the kind of business you can bring in, and if your functional specialty gets you into new industries, you might end up specializing in, or at least spending more time there.
How should you approach the firms?
When applying to different consulting firms, make sure you understand how they approach specialization. If you have a specific interest, find out how well the firm will let you pursue that interest. Think deeply about how much you value getting a variety of experience before becoming an expert in a field. Not all firms make their approach clear on their website, so you may need to talk to someone at the firm to find out more.
Doing this thinking and research ahead of time will ensure that you apply to firms that will help you achieve their goals, as well as have a more convincing story to share in the interviews. When you apply to a generalist firm, you should have a clear reason why you want the breadth of experience and why you find that a valuable approach to business. When applying to a specialized firm, you should have demonstrate long-standing interest in as well as skills valuable to their field.
There’s no universally right answer on what kind of firm or career track to pursue. Make sure you know what you think is right for you.
Keep seeking truth.
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