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    The Difference Between Generalist and Expert Roles at Top Management Consulting Firms

    Top consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG, and Bain are increasingly hiring specialized consultants who have experience in a specific industry or function. This is most common in the spaces of Risk, Digital, Data Science, Design, Climate and Sustainability, FinTech, Life Sciences, Product development, Blockchain, etc. which are all industries or functions where expert knowledge is required to have client impact.

    This trend is driven by three things. One driver is an increasing client demand for tailor-made solutions. It’s not enough anymore for top firms to staff jack-of-all-trade consultants and deliver one-size-fits-all solutions. Another driver is that the Top 3 consulting firms are getting bigger and therefore getting involved deeper into their clients’ organizations, sometimes in areas that require a deeper technical understanding. Finally, top consulting firms need expert profiles to set up and grow new capabilities in fast-growing areas.

    This is good news for those looking to make a move into consulting who have strong experience in a specific industry or area. If you’re one of these people, this article provides details on the types of work you’ll likely be doing, your potential career progression, and the nuances of the recruiting process.

    Key takeaways

    • Top consulting firms are hiring more and more specialized consultants to assist clients with tailor-made solutions in more technical areas of their business and to grow new capabilities in fast-growing areas

    • Experts at top consulting firms either follow an expert career track or work as a generalist, primarily on projects in their area of expertise
    • While experts have performance expectations similar to generalists, more emphasis is given to knowledge and expertise, and career growth to partner level is not as common
    • Experienced hires trying to break into consulting as specialists will need to demonstrate similar skills to generalist consultants in their interviews and will need to prepare accordingly

    An expert’s type of work

    If you’re hired as an expert, you typically follow one of two paths. You’re either hired as a specialized consultant who’s on a specific expert career track or you can be hired as a generalist consultant who is affiliated with a specific practice area.

    In the first option, your staffing (the projects you’re assigned to) is likely to be directed by the leading Partner in your specialism or a dedicated staffing manager in that area.

    In the second option, the projects you’re assigned to and the management of your career is led by the office you’ve joined in the same way a generalist consultant’s projects are assigned.

    In either option, you will be assigned to projects that are aligned with your expertise throughout your time at the consulting firm. You will niche down in your specialism by doing the work you know the most about. This could mean you’re a Turnaround specialist in lots of different industries, or it could mean you’re an Oil and Gas specialist working on multiple types of problems within that industry.

    Some people will find this repetitive, but others will love working in their zone of genius while further developing their expertise.

    Being an expert is good if you’re very interested in your specific area and want to continue to build your skills up even more. However, it should be noted, that it’s not so good if you’re looking to use consulting as a stepping stone to broaden or switch your career.

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    An expert’s career progression

    If you’re an expert who’s on the generalist career track but is affiliated with a practice area, your career progression and performance review criteria will be the same as other generalist consultants.

    However, there are some nuances for those who are specialized consultants on the expert career track. McKinsey and BCG both have dedicated career tracks for expert consultants.

    Experts are assessed slightly differently from generalists. Their knowledge and expertise naturally play a larger role in their review and ultimately their success. Their ability to build and spread knowledge within the practice area for others to use is another important part of their work.

    Promotions are run slightly differently for experts whereby there is a much less strict “up or out” policy used. Expertise takes time to develop and expert consultants often take more time to progress through the ranks than generalist consultants. 

    It’s also worth noting that being an expert rarely leads to becoming a Partner because as a partner you have to own client relationships and be useful to clients across a number of functions. This requirement is not hugely compatible with being a deep expert. To address this issue, firms like McKinsey and BCG have developed expert partnership tracks. Such tracks provide experts with the opportunity to reach the top echelons of the firms, but may not come with the same compensation potential and fast-paced progression as the traditional partnership track. 

    However, if you’re interested and have the right expertise, being a specialized consultant at a top firm is a great platform. It’s generally easier to succeed as an expert than as a generalist because you don’t have to learn everything from scratch with every project and you can rely on your expertise to add value right from the beginning.

    An expert’s recruitment process

    As top consulting firms are increasingly looking for specialists, they are consistently on the lookout for those with relevant expertise. 

    The good news is that being an expert can make it easier to get into top consulting firms because when these firms have pressing needs for specific people there is usually only a very small number of candidates who tick the box who also want to move into consulting and can pass the case interviews. 

    Despite the high demand for specialists, candidates still have to pass the same case interviews as generalist candidates and must still meet some very high standards to receive an offer. They still need to invest in their own preparation.

    If you’re considering applying to McKinsey, BCG, or Bain as an expert and want to give yourself the best chance of landing an offer, make sure to check out our Interview Prep Course to help you prepare for your interviews in the most effective and fast way possible.

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