Generalists in Dubai, specialists in NYC – Is it still possible to be a generalist management consultant?

Given the ever increasing sophistication of business world and client needs, is there still any room for a generalist track in management and strategy consulting?

One of the top reasons to choose a management consulting career is the generalist experience. Many people coming out of an MBA or undergraduate program want to get a broad exposure to many industries and get different types of tools under their belt. Consulting firms have the generalist experience as an important part of their value proposition for recruiting.

However; clients and business world have gotten more sophisticated, business problems that the clients face have both diversified and gotten more complicated. While the management consultants can still cater to the CEO agenda they need to have a better understanding of the issues and have contextual knowledge to serve the clients.

The pressure on delivering results immediately has increased in the last decade. Clients are hesitant to bring smart consultants in with no industry or functional knowledge and pay them to learn about their business first before delivering results. They want consultants who will bring that knowledge and hit the ground running. This means, given the choice, they prefer specialists.

Clients also got smarter about buying consulting, they almost always have multiple firms bidding on a piece of work and look for the qualifications of even the junior team members. They not only want to see the partners with 25 years of experience during the selling process but also the junior team members with significant industry or functional experience.

Many firms react to these changes in the consulting marketplace. They have moved their staff towards specialization earlier and focused on bringing people in with specific expertise for their portfolio of work. This could potentially impact the generalist experience that the students would like to gain as well.

The regional differences play a role whether one can be a generalist. For example in Middle East, many clients are in the process of getting their business fundamentals right. There are many questions around some basic issues: “what should our strategy be?”, “do we have the right people to execute?”, “how do we establish an operating model?”, “how do we build an international brand?”. These kinds of questions can be answered with a generalist background especially if the client has not thought about them before.

Markets such as the US and Europe have a relatively more mature client base, they are used to strategic planning exercises, they usually have teams that work on strategy issues. They will rely on management and strategy consultants in areas where they have not ventured into before (e.g. buying another company, entering a new market) or they sometimes staff their stategy teams leaner and outsource some of their work. In either case, they value knowledge about the industry more than raw intellectual horsepower.

Given the regional differences for specialization and the growth rates these developing markets (India, China, Middle East, South America) have seen, it may be prudent for junior staff to look for staffing opportunities in these regions to gain both generalist and international experience.

You can career advice and ask your questions in the management consulting forum. We will review them periodically and answer your questions.