One subject is sure to divide consultants. In at least one area, they are likely to offer advice on what is best, based on their own experience and life choices: whether it is better to be a specialist or a generalist. While many believe that these harsh trading times call for consultants to be generalists, able to undertake a wide range of projects for a broad base of clients, others say that nowadays more than any other, business demands specialists. It need people who are knowledgeable and focussed in one key area of proficiency, people who know their subject inside out and can write, speak and advise with credibility and expertise. They argue in support of the adage that proclaims a generalist as a jack of all trades, and a master of none.
In writing this piece, I discovered that this well-known phrase goes back many centuries, to when jack was a general old English term for any man. Indeed, most cultures have their own, often quite similar, way of describing the same feeling. In 17th century Britain, it was considered complimentary, showing that someone could lend his or her hand to many jobs. Later the ‘master of none’ tail was added, to describe someone who dabbled but was not skilled in any area.
In business, an all-rounder is not always something good to be. You will get by but are unlikely to rise to the top. Increasingly, generalists are considered to spread themselves too thinly to be able to deliver the best to a business. As the workplace becomes more diversified and crowded with a new generation who seem to know a little about a lot but a lot about very little, there is a greater need for focus.
This is especially true of consultants. While they might feel that they can enjoy the variety of playing the field, taking their pick of the opportunities as they present themselves, it is likely that they are missing out on roles that call for someone who can act with confidence on a particular subject. More often than not, these specialist roles carry better pay cheques too. There is more chance to get snapped up if your personal brand is well defined. People want to know what they are buying.
To secure a commission, it is important to be seen as someone who can provide valuable and relevant insight on a subject or field. We should all aim to have something to offer, to have a grasp on a subject or be skilled in a particular area of value.
Sometimes it is not so easy to see your own specialism. I used to think that being able to mix and match my clients and turn my hand to most forms of communication and PR made me an ideal all-rounder. I was missing the point. In fact, I am quite specialist at what I do, and expert in a few key areas that businesses need. My expertise lies in what I can do for my clients, my own way of working. It is in the experience I have gained over two decades. It is in knowing immediately how to add value to a business and make that relationship productive for all involved.
Mine has been a career of variety but also one of focus. Indeed, despite a few unavoidable bumps in the road, the journey has been quite good so far. Rather than allowing my career to fishtail out of control, I have kept my hand on the wheel and steered it down a path I chose to take. Before striking out under my own steam, I worked for some of the World’s leading communications businesses, was trained at the shoulder of giants and directed major campaigns for big brands and even bigger personalities. In all of this, there has been a clear line of sight in the choices I have made.
Many agencies are proud of their generalist approach, their ability to work on any number of clients to equally high levels. This can be because they are so small that they cannot afford to turn away a potential lead or, with the bigger agencies, that they have specialist teams working away under the bonnet. One thing is likely to be the case, though: the more successful agencies will be staffed by overlapping teams of specialists responsible for taking care of their own business areas.
Whereas it might have been good in the past to be an all-rounder, now specialists are being appreciated for the knowledge that they have developed through experience. That is what clients are paying for. Nobody should want to be a jack of all trades. These days, when it seems that everyone has a little knowledge in a lot of areas, we are in danger of creating a world where people know a little about everything and a lot about nothing.
If we want to do better than average in our professional lives, we need to focus, be less oblique, and cut our own niche. Or, to put it another way: we need a Unique Selling Point. Do you know what yours is?