From Generalist to Specialist: The advantage of finding your place in the market


By Mark Schroffel

I reckon the word “and” should be banished from consultants’ bylines.

Sure, there are many things we can do. After all, as well-educated and experienced knowledge workers, we are capable of tinkering in almost any part of most businesses. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t focus our expertise and build our reputations on maybe one or two key areas of service.

While the generalist consultant might find comfort in the notion that they are not closing themselves off to a wider range of professional opportunities, I can assure you there’s nothing more comforting than knowing exactly what you are doing—certain that you are one of only a few people, in your market, who do.

Case in point: Yesterday I phoned a consultant about an opportunity with a client that required a certain mix of skills. One of them was experience in Agile Project Management. The client is eager to hire someone who can run a project and, in the process, do a bit of capability building. “It could be a nice little earner for someone,” so I thought.

My connection turned the opportunity down.

Why? Because his niche involves establishing and building lasting Agile capability (not just to do it on the sidelines of delivery). He has an impressive track record and wants to work with clients who are ready to invest in building an Agile capability—not just dabble in it.

That consultant had just delivered a powerful message to his market. And, in doing so, he effectively created an exclusive opportunity for himself. Whenever a client is ready to invest in Agile Project Management, we’ll be bypassing everyone else and going straight to this specialist.

He’s built a reputation and isn’t willing to compromised his position.

By being willing to specialise, this guy has limited his competition and will get good rates to boot. This is why I think we need to be very judicious of our use of the word “and.” If we offer too much, we end up being just one of the millions of reliable and well-educated resources out there.

Are you a generalist? A specialist? What are the drawbacks? The benefits? Tell us what you think!

5 thoughts on “From Generalist to Specialist: The advantage of finding your place in the market

  1. Hi Mark,

    I think that your point is well made. We are all a bit different and should give ourselves credit for what we do well, perhaps exceptionally well. I’d be interested to see how your connection markets himself so that his niche is differentiated from the crowd.

    Rod Johnston

  2. I’d agree but to an extent it depends on the field you’re in. For instance, as an internal communications practitioner, I’ve found that specialising in change/projects with a specific emphasis on restructures/outsourcing/offshoring has enabled me to build a good body of expertise…and therefore work. At the same time, I’ve found that I can’t be industry-specific. When you and I worked together we were in financial services – since then I’ve found that working in a range of industries has improved my “marketability” (although many of the comms/change issues remain the same but that’s another topic).
    In summary, I do agree that some level of specialisation is well-regarded (ie I don’t see myself as a BAU comms resource anymore) but in my line of work, it’s important to have some industry-diversity.

    • Thanks Ben, I agree that we don’t need to be industry specific but it certainly helps to have some depth of knowledge across one or two sectors (if nothing else, you can apply the knowledge and experience somewhere new). My view is that it takes some time to discover or develop a niche – the problem for some is that they are scared of specialising.

  3. Mark,

    It’s an alluring concept I grant you, to specialise in one thing so as to have unique expertise that is a market advantage. Trouble is, organisations are systems that require us to have broad knowledge and skills in order to achieve all of the outcomes needed to be competitive. Further, specialising in an area such as Agile PM does not, of itself, make me more marketable. As we know, trends come and go. Being a TQM specialist today would be akin to wearing body shirts, flares, and two-tone platform shoes to the pub. Neither are anywhere as appealing today as they where when fashionable? Why do business trends go out of fashion? Because they don’t deliver to the expectation. Tying my marketability to a trend, therefore, is a risky strategy for both me and my clients.

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