Consulting Lessons Learned 34: Specialization in consulting
One important question I get asked a lot is about specialization: When is the perfect moment to specialize in a certain field as a consultant? What should I specialize in at a top management consulting firm?
Although this is a topic that is highly dependent on your specific situation, I would like to contribute some arguments for your thought process.
You will have to specialize
Many graduates think that as a consultant you can stay a generalist forever. This won’t be possible. Latest when getting promoted to project manager, you will usually have to define a specific profile with regards to specialization. Usually, you can specialize in certain industries (e.g. automotive) or / and topics (e.g. restructuring).
The Pros of specializing early
The sooner you specialize, the quicker you can build significant knowledge within your field. This will not only make your work more efficiently, it will also make it easier to become the trusted advisor of your client. You will be able to build up a reputation earlier, therefore sometimes even get promoted quicker. With former colleagues I noticed the earlier they specialized, the earlier they seem to be receiving interesting job offers from (former) clients.
The Cons of specializing early
One of the big advantages of consulting is that it offers fresh graduates the opportunity to experience different industries and functional topics early on. There is definitely a lot of value in spending the first 2 years just experiencing new stuff. You get a pretty good sense of how business works and also what you like. Look at my case for example: As an engineer I always thought I would focus on operations. After several different projects, today I know that actually M&A and restructuring projects are my dream field. I wouldn’t have been able to realize that without starting as a generalist.
Also, the different practice teams within a consulting firm will be different. There will be different sub-cultures, different career options, different reputations, and so on… Ideally, you want to make a decision on a certain specialization with full transparency on these topics.
For everyone who isn’t 100% sure about his or her dream specialization, I strongly recommend you to start as a generalist and specialize after 1-2 years. Don’t worry about career options in consulting. There is a significant value in experiencing very different projects within your first 2 years. However obviously, if you are really certain about a specialization it only makes sense to commit to it right from day 1.