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How does the expert track differ from the generalist track at McKinsey, BCG and Bain?

In order to achieve client impact in specific practice areas, McKinsey, BCG, and Bain all have a requirement for consultants with deep expertise in certain industries and functions.

Usually hired through the firms’ experienced professional hiring channel, these expert consultants are aligned to a specific practice area, such as Digital, Data Science, Operations, Life Sciences, Sustainability or Marketing.

In this article we explore the ‘expert career track’ at the world’s top-3 consulting firms, and consider the ways in which it differs from the generalist career track

Key takeaways:

  • There are two ways in which individuals with deep expertise can join a top consulting firm: as a specialist on the generalist track – with the same career progression as a generalist consultant – and on the expert track, which has its own career path and different opportunities for progression.
  • In order to meet client demand, maximize impact and develop new capabilities, McKinsey, BCG and Bain have all had an increasing requirement for consultants to join their expert career tracks over the course of the last decade.
  • Unlike generalists, expert consultants at top consulting firms work on projects that are focused on a specific industry or function within their practice area.
  • There are a number of ways in which career progression differs between experts and generalists at McKinsey, BCG and Bain. This includes job titles and levels of seniority, the performance measurement and promotion process, and the prospect of becoming a fully-fledged Partner.
  • Although there tends to be a greater number of roles and fewer candidates on the expert track, the recruitment and selection process for generalist and expert roles is very similar
  • When it comes to deciding whether to join a top consulting firm as either an expert or a generalist, there are a number of pros and cons to consider. Candidates should ultimately be guided by their expertise, interests and aspirations.
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What is the expert track in a top consulting firm?

Individuals who have deep expertise in a particular industry or function have the option to join McKinsey, BCG or Bain in a focused role, rather than a generalist one. They can do this in one of two ways:

  • By joining the firm’s generalist consulting career track in a specialized role. In this scenario, the individual will progress along the traditional consulting career path, and will have the same opportunity as a generalist to become a Partner.
  • By joining the firm’s expert consulting career track. In this scenario, the individual will progress along a different career path, which has its own roles and levels of seniority. Experts are given more time to progress through the firm’s ranks and deepen their expertise, but have less opportunity to become a fully-fledged Partner.

In the last decade, the expert career track has developed a great deal in top consulting firms. This has been driven by a growing demand from clients for tailor-made solutions that require expert knowledge. It’s no longer enough for the firms to staff all their projects with generalist consultants or to deliver one-size-fits-all solutions.

This is compounded by the fact that McKinsey, BCG and Bain are all getting bigger. Consequently, they are becoming more deeply involved in their clients’ organizations, sometimes in niche areas that require a high level of technical understanding. These are often areas that also help to drive the firms’ growth (e.g. sustainability, AI and the digital space).

As a result of these developments, there is now more demand than ever before for individuals with deep expertise to join McKinsey, BCG and Bain on their expert career tracks.

What type of work do consultants on the expert track do?

Ultimately, expert consultants are concerned with the same business as generalists: working with large organizations to solve their most important and complex problems.

However, while generalist consultants in a practice area work on a variety of projects in a wide range of industries and functions, expert consultants focus either on a single function (e.g. turnaround specialists) or industry (e.g. Oil and Gas specialists). Consequently, they are assigned to projects that align with their expert knowledge.

In addition to project work, these consultants are given time by the firms to hone their specialized skills and expertise. They are also expected to help build knowledge about their specialism within their practice area.

How does career progression differ for those on the expert track?

When it comes to career progression at McKinsey, BCG and Bain, there are a number of ways in which the experience of an expert consultant differs from that of a generalist: from job titles and levels of seniority, to the performance review and promotion process, and the prospect of becoming a Partner.

Here’s a breakdown of how the job titles on the generalist and expert consulting career paths compare to one another at each of the world’s top consulting firms:

Roles on the generalist and expert consulting paths at McKinsey

Generalist path Expert path
Business Analyst Analyst/Fellow
Associate Specialist
Engagement Manager Expert
Associate Partner Associate Expert Partner
Partner Expert Partner
Senior Partner

Roles on the generalist and expert consulting paths at BCG

Generalist path Expert path
Associate Associate
Consultant Consultant
Project Leader Project Leader
Principal Associate Director
Partner Partner and Associate Director
Managing Director and Partner Partner and Director
Senior Managing Director and Partner

Roles on the generalist and expert consulting paths at Bain

Generalist path Expert path
Associate Consultant Associate
Senior Associate Consultant Senior Associate
Consultant Lead (sometimes Consultant)
Manager Expert Manager
Senior Manager Expert Senior Manager
Associate Partner Expert Associate Partner
Partner Expert Partner
Senior Partner

A different approach to performance measurement and promotions

The performance of consultants on the expert track is assessed differently from that of generalists. Their knowledge and expertise naturally plays a larger role in their performance review and, ultimately, their success at the firm.

While generalists operate under a formal ‘up or out’ policy – where they may be asked to leave if their performance doesn’t meet the required standard for promotion – expert consultants are given more time and space to progress. This is because the firms recognise that expertise takes time to develop.

Less chance of becoming a fully-fledged Partner

At McKinsey, BCG and Bain, expert consultants rarely become fully-fledged Partners. A key role of a Partner is to act as a trusted advisor to CEOs of client organizations in every area of their business. This is naturally less achievable for consultants who have deep expertise in only one function.

To address this issue, the firms now have Partner-level roles on their expert career tracks. This reflects the fact that all senior expert consultants are expected to leverage their expertise to help generate new business. Although not as well compensated as generalist Partner roles, these positions give ambitious expert consultants the opportunity to reach the top echelons of their firm.

How does recruitment and selection differ on the expert track?

More demand and fewer candidates on the expert track

As the demand for specialist expertise increases, top consulting firms are consistently on the lookout for candidates with relevant expertise. When there is a pressing hiring need, there are usually only a few applicants who can meet the firms’ highly specific criteria.

While this may seem like welcome news, an exceptionally high standard of application and interview performance is still expected, and candidates for specialized roles must invest heavily in their preparation.

A similar recruitment process for roles on both tracks

Although many candidates choose to apply to their firm of choice in a specialized role, others apply for generalist consulting positions and are sometimes encouraged by the firm to consider the expert track. This happens when recruiters recognize that a candidate has deep expertise in a sought-after area.

The recruitment process for experienced candidates is therefore the same as it is for generalists: candidates must first submit a resume and cover letter and, sometimes, complete an online test (such as McKinsey’s digital assessment). Those who pass these initial screening stages are then invited to take part in consulting interviews with the firm. These consist of a case interview followed by a fit interview or, in McKinsey’s case, a Personal Experience Interview (PEI).

In their case interviews, candidates for expert roles might be given cases that focus on their area of expertise. However, this is by no means guaranteed, and it’s advisable for these candidates to practice a wide range of cases as part of their interview preparation. They might be asked to answer technical questions or discuss their technical expertise outside of the case.

What are the pros and cons of choosing the expert track?

For candidates who have deep expertise in a specific area and want to build their skills further, the expert track at McKinsey, BCG or Bain could be an excellent choice. However, for those who intend to use their time in consulting to broaden their expertise and then move on to another profession, the generalist track is likely to have more to offer.

For some, having such an intense focus on a specific function or industry could feel repetitive or tedious, while others will love working in their area of mastery and continuing to hone their expertise.

While all candidates are expected to have the same high standard of application and interview performance, there is undeniably more demand at top-3 firms for specialized consultants. This means there is greater opportunity for the small number of candidates who have the required depth of skills and expertise.

One potential drawback of the expert track is that consultants have less chance of becoming fully-fledged Partners at McKinsey, BCG and Bain. That said, it’s generally easier for these individuals to succeed because they come to every project with a high level of existing knowledge, and they can add value to projects from the very beginning of their career.

Ultimately, the question of whether a candidate should join a top consulting firm as an expert or a generalist will depend greatly on their expertise, interests and aspirations.

If a career in management consulting sounds like it might be right for you, you can learn more in our complete guide to the management consulting industry. And if you’re preparing to apply to a top consulting firm, the templates and specialized advice in our Free Resume Course will help you get your application in great shape.

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