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Consulting Specialization

Students and consultants usually ask us for help on specialization. Today’s post will provide our perspective on this topic. Many consultants do not understand specialization.

Define your area of specialization around three areas

Sector and type of work are not mutually exclusive. What does that mean? To specialize, you need to define your area of specialization around three areas:

Sector: Within which sector or sub-sector do you want to specialize?

Type of Work: Within the sector do you want to do strategy, operations, organizational design or other work?

Geography: Sometimes you will need to choose a geography within which you specialize.

As an example, you can decide that you want to specialize in the micro-finance sector and strategy work within the South-East Asian market.

How specialization work at the top consulting firms?

Now that you know what specialization is, how does it work at the top consulting firms?

Initially you have no choices. It’s harsh but true. When you first join BCG or McKinsey they will put you onto assignments to learn the core consulting skills – MECE, MECE, MECE…and more MECE. You will be assigned to different sectors, types of work and so on to ensure you understand and can apply problem solving across any type of situation.

You can choose sectors of interest and attend training, but the majority of your engagements will be spread out. So an analyst, associate or even manager will have little choice in engagements. As you progress you can request certain types of assignments, but the firm will ensure you get a broad mix.

Early specialization is bad. Do not limit yourself to a sector or type of work initially. After the 1st or 2nd engagement you become familiar with the type of problems you will face. So in the 3rd or 4th you can rapidly diagnose problems and move forward.

This industry knowledge will feed a dangerous and debilitating habit. You will start relying on industry knowledge and experience rather than your core problem solving skills. In fact, you will never develop these skills and allow what little skills you have to stagnate.

For this technical reason, early specialization is not at all recommended and this is why you are not encouraged to do it. First learn the problem solving skills until they are second nature. Thereafter, if you choose to specialize in, for example, pharmaceuticals you will naturally bring these core skills to any engagement.

Early on you do not know enough to select a specialization. I love cars. I feel absolutely alive driving a German sports car or luxury sedan. Italian sports cars? It’s like I am on drugs. Could I specialize in the automotive sector? No. I tried it and did not like it.

Be careful about choosing a sector for specialization. Liking the products, knowing employees and so on are not at all valid reasons to select specialization. Interest in university is also not enough. You need to work on a couple of consulting engagements in that sector before you can decide. The grinding-behind-the-scenes work is what you need to like. Not the $300,000 sports car or $80 La Prairie creams.

Almost every candidate we know, including plenty of consultants, does not understand the differences between strategy, operations, implementation and IT work. Do you? Maybe strategy sounds glamorous but is it? Does glamour equate to interest and career satisfaction? How do you know operations and strategy do not require similar skill sets? You do not know and it is wise to first learn before choosing your specialization.

We wrote a long post previously about choosing offices. We will not repeat the post but add one point which is relevant to specialization. India, Brazil and China are hot topics and markets. Telling people you specialize in China or want to specialize in India comes off a bit shallow if you have never been there, never worked on a China project or have no interest of spending plenty of time there. Avoid fads. Germany or Italy can be just as interesting. The US provides equally challenging assignments.

Do not specialize to avoid learning core skills. No one really talks about this but we see it plenty of times when we review candidates for coaching. A sneaky candidate with weak analytical skills chooses to major in something like marketing. Drawn to the allure of management consulting, they want to get in, are aware that they lack analytic skills and are unwilling to learn it. Planning to specialize in what you think is a non-analytical subject since it may be easier is totally flawed and will not get you far.

Here’s why:

• For one, the absolute foundation of management consulting is analyses. You will not even get in unless you can prove this skill.

• Once you get in, you cannot select your assignments. You will be put into situations where you need to logically analyze issues. You will be lucky to find a marketing engagement at all.

• Analytical thinking does not mean understanding math or the sciences of engineering. Plenty of brilliant math and science graduates fail to get into management consulting or succeed there. Analytical thinking means thinking logically. So do not sell yourself short. A law graduate or marketing specialist can be just as analytical as an MBA graduate. Try it. You may be good at it.

• Finally, if that does not convince you, I can assure you that there is no such thing as non-analytical engagements. Engagements on marketing, economics and organizational design are grounded in rigorous analyses. In fact, they are tougher because the analyses are not obvious.

Our advice is to keep an interest in a sector or practice, but do not push it initially. Try out different things, learn about a sector or practice and when the time comes, choose to do what you enjoy.

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Image from Jon Herbert under cc.

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