Careers: The Case for Specialization

In my last job, I was a partner and cofounder of a management consulting firm, Baseline Consulting. Baseline specialized in launching enterprise analytics and data programs, but we often pitched other types of work.

For instance, we'd watch another consulting firm's project falter and offer to take it over. We might hire a clever consultant who had an adjacent skill and attempt to market it. One of our consultants would study up on a trend and suggest we market that. At various points we offered services in IT modernization, business process optimization, technology architecture, organizational design, and strategic planning.

This was the business version of, "Hey, I can do that! Here, hold my beer!" and it confused the hell out of our customers, so naturally Bruce A.'s question brought back memories.

Dear Jill:

I have decided to become an independent consultant and could use your advice. Not to brag, but I've worked on a lot of different kinds of projects on both the IT and business sides. I can code in several languages, I'm comfortable presenting to executives, and I have excellent references in the ERP, workforce analytics, and clinical healthcare spheres.

I would like to market myself as a jack-of-all-trades. In fact, I've even looked into naming my company JackBeNimble & Co., or some derivative. I'm pretty good at creative branding.

You have written a lot about company identity and culture. What do you think? Should I market myself as a specialist or a generalist? Should I stay independent or form a corporation?

-- Bruce A. in Chicagoland

Bruce, I can see that you're already pretty adept at self-promotion. Who else would add the first letter of their last name to sign off a letter to an advice column? You'll go far, my friend.

That said, I have to discourage your jack-of-all-trades approach. At Baseline Consulting, only when we decided on our niche -- analytics and data strategy -- did we become profitable. We signed more clients, won a greater percentage of bids, and enjoyed more industry buzz. Who knew that narrowing down (not widening) our focus would be the key to our growth?

In my opinion, there are too many generalists out there already. Remember Chevy Chase on SNL hawking New Shimmer as "a floor wax and a dessert topping!" ("Tastes terrific -- and look at that shine!") It was ridiculous, which made it hilarious.

In his new book, The Death of Expertise, author Tom Nicols laments the gradual erosion of "the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas." As a consultant, you want that knowledge of specific things. You carve out your specialty to set yourself apart from others, to be sought-after precisely because you can do things other people can't.

Indeed, Nicols confirms that "many of the obstacles to the working relationship between experts and their clients in society rest in basic human weaknesses." You want people to need the work you do well. You want them to need you.

Moreover, you want them to take you seriously. Choose a niche and set a goal to become an acknowledged leader in it. Start as an independent, then hire people as your credibility and revenues grow. You can always shift or refine your niche if you don't find the work fulfilling.

Congratulations on your new field, Bruce A., whatever that might be!

Whipsawed by a work conundrum? Email me a question about analytics programs, data management, organizational issues, or culture at Jill@upside.tdwi.org.

About the Author

Jill Dyché has advised clients and executive teams on their analytics and data programs for as long as she can remember. Longer, in fact. She’s the author of four books on the business value of technology and regularly talks to teams about what keeps them up at night. Ambivalent about analytics? Maddened by management? Constricted by your culture? Check out Jill’s Q&A column, Q&A with Jill Dyché, here.

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