Are Bain, BCG and McKinsey still producing general athletes?

by Jody Bischoff
Senior Practice Leader at Charles Aris Inc.

I recently had a career discussion with a consultant at one of the Big Three strategy consulting firms about his future track within the firm. He had a decision to make, given the growing trend in which consultants can choose among multiple paths as they develop and move up in their firms. As top consultancies adapt to meet the changing needs of their clients, they are shifting their models – which, in turn, offers a wider range of career paths for their consultants.

Historically, most strategy consulting firms had what we would call a generalist model, whereby consultants were purposely staffed on projects in a variety of industries and functional areas to develop a “general management” or “general athlete” skill set. This skill set would enable their consultants to drop into any situation or industry and rely on their strategy toolkit to deliver results for the client.

Some consulting firms, however, are adapting their service offerings to meet the changing demands of their clients. When organizations hire the top consultancies, they frequently expect a team of consultants – or, at minimum, one or two consultants with an expertise in the functional area the client is bringing them in to address. Those areas can vary: pricing, turnaround, implementation, technology and sales / marketing, to name just a few. Or clients may expect to benefit from consulting knowledge specific to their industry, such as retail / CPG, agriculture, technology or healthcare. There can even be subcategories of specialization on hot topics such as population health, big data and cybersecurity.

At Charles Aris Inc., we have seen many consulting firms shift their models to meet these growing needs. Some have chosen to create specific practice areas which consultants can align with right out of the gates. Other firms still believe in bringing consultants into a general management model at first, but then – as consultants develop – offering ways in which those consultants can specialize their skills in a variety of functions or industries. While it’s true that as consultants get closer to Partner they typically develop a specialization, with this trend we are seeing it happen earlier in their professional development.

Clearly this trend is giving consultants more opportunities, earlier in their careers, to grow and expand their knowledge base in a wide range of areas if or when they are ready to specialize their skill set. For those who are not quite sure what they want to do after consulting, however, we still recommend staying on the general athlete track so as not to limit their options if or when they leave their firms.

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