In which Jill sings the praises of experts (if she could sing!).
In my last job, I was a partner and co-founder of a management consulting firm, Baseline Consulting. Baseline specialized in launching enterprise analytics and data programs. But we often pitched other types of work.
For instance, we’d watch another consulting firm’s project falter and offer to take it over. Or we’d hire a clever consultant who had an adjacent skill and attempt to market it. Or one of our consultants would study up on a trend and suggest we market that. At various points, we offered services in IT modernization, business process optimization, technology architecture, organizational design, and strategic planning.
This was the business version of, “Hey, I can do that! Here, hold my beer…” And it confused the hell out of our customers.
So naturally, Bruce A.’s question brought back memories.
I have decided to become an independent consultant and could use your advice. Not to brag, but I’ve worked on a lot of different kinds of projects on both IT and business sides. I can code in several languages, I’m comfortable presenting to executives, and I have excellent references in the ERP, workforce analytics, and clinical healthcare spheres.
I would like to market myself as a jack-of-all-trades. In fact, I’ve even looked into naming my company JackBeNimble & Co., or some derivative. I’m pretty good at creative branding.
You have written a lot about company identity and culture. What do you think? Should I market myself as a specialist or a generalist? Should I stay independent, or form a corporation?
— Bruce A. in Chicagoland
Bruce A., I can see that you’re already pretty adept at self-promotion. Who else would add the first letter of their last name to sign off a letter to an advice column? You’ll go far, my friend.
But I have to discourage your jack-of-all-trades approach. At Baseline Consulting, only when we decided on our niche—analytics and data strategy—did we become profitable. We signed more clients, won a greater percentage of bids, and enjoyed more industry buzz. Who knew that narrowing down and not increasing our focus would be the key to our growth?
In my opinion, there are too many generalists out there already. Remember Chevy Chase on SNL hawking his New Shimmer Floor Wax as “a floor wax AND a dessert topping!” (“Tastes delicious…and look at that shine!”) It was ridiculous, which made it hilarious.
In his new book, The Death of Expertise, author Tom Nicols laments the gradual erosion of “the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas.” As a consultant, you want that knowledge of specific things. You carve out your specialty to set yourself apart from others, to be sought-after precisely because you can do things other people can’t. Indeed, Nicols confirms that “many of the obstacles to the working relationship between experts and their clients in society rest in basic human weaknesses…” You want people to need the work you do well. You want them to need YOU.
Moreover, you want them to take you seriously. Choose a niche and set a goal to become an acknowledged leader in it. Start as an independent. (Hire people as your credibility and revenues grow.) You can always shift or refine your niche if you don’t find the work fulfilling.
Congratulations on your new field, Bruce A., whatever that might be!