Should I Specialize?

Answer: Like most things these days the answer is both yes and no.

The “Yes” Part

Specializing means that you start by doing what you like best. In reviewing your expertise, projects, interests, and skills, what kinds of evaluation work excite you the most or give you the most satisfaction? Which of your projects have been the most outstanding or have drawn the most praise? The common themes across these projects pinpoint your starting place.

What are the emerging trends in evaluation? What best practices are gaining traction? What are colleagues talking about on Twitter and LinkedIn? What conference topics are attracting sell-out crowds? Are organizations in your area looking for these approaches? Questions like these should make your marketing antennae quiver but you need to find the nexus between what you like to do and what the market needs.

If there is a gap between your rock-solid evaluation skills and new and emerging trends, a drive for learning will ensure that you remain current. By reading, attending webinars, going to conferences, and talking to colleagues, new skills take shape. You may even find that collaborative opportunities appear. Each partner can help to build the other’s capacity by sharing expertise. It is often in this emergent space that adaptation and innovation arise.

The “No” Part

At the same time, as consultants, we are often surprised when we reflect on our career trajectory. The focus of our work now, compared to five years ago, may be quite different. How did this happen? It turns out that redirection is a constant factor in a consultant’s career. The balance between skills and opportunities is ever-changing and realignment becomes a way of doing business.

As work gets completed successfully, our confidence grows. It becomes okay to take on a little challenge and risk trying something new. One by one, projects tend to expand our skills until one day we find that we have moved beyond our comfort zone (i.e., specialty) into new territory. Maintaining that dynamic tension between skills and opportunities really means that specialization is not predetermined and fixed but is fluid and emergent.

So yes, you can go ahead and specialize, but don’t expect to stay there!

Gail Vallance Barrington

Originally published in the Independent Consulting TIG Newsletter. June 2019.

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