Through all of the school- and job-related decisions I have made in my life, one question always comes to the forefront: Must I choose a specialty? It started when I had to select a college major. Then my first job. Then a master's dissertation topic. And so on.

I've been blessed with both broad interests and competence in many types of skills. Yet I've always felt some envy for what I call the dentist types. They didn't have to choose between art, dance, philosophy, or communication--they knew they wanted to be dentists, they were destined to become dentists, they had a very specific path charted for them and that was that! Why couldn't I just know the one area on which I wanted to focus, at which I was good, and that made me happy? I had the mixed blessing of too many choices.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), the same holds true today. This year, I have been busily building my entrepreneurial business after dreaming about it for over 12 years from various internal performance consultant roles. People have asked me the dreaded question repeatedly: Do you have a niche? Do you specialize?

Niche and Specialty, Different Reference Points for Zooming In

Both for internal and external consultants, there are different ways to narrow our focus. A niche refers to "who we serve," which can be the geographic area or demographic population section of our target clients. A specialty is "what we do," referring to our services. Perhaps you've always worked in the health care or financial services industry, but have served in many different capacities and can take on a broad array of projects and services. So you have an industry niche. Or, you may be an expert in intercultural communications, but provide learning services to many organizations in all industries and locations to help them communicate more effectively across cultures. In that case, you have a topical specialty.

Should Consultants Narrowly Specialize?

According to Kathy Reiffenstein, founder and CEO of And Now Presenting! in Gaithersburg, Maryland, "When I started my first business 16 years ago, I felt I had a broad range of skills and expertise and therefore offered prospective clients a laundry list of services. The result was that they were confused " my offerings seemed too broad. It begged the question, 'Can she really be competent in all those things?' The old adage, Jack of all trades, master of none, rang true." Kathy has since decided to narrow her service offerings, focusing on presentation skills as her area of expertise.

"[Specializing] allows me to carve out a niche and really become an expert in my field of presentation skills training and coaching. It is very easy to communicate what I do, which gives prospective clients a clear idea of where I can help them. It is also an effective way to differentiate myself in a crowded marketplace, which makes my marketing efforts more successful."

Ross Van Horn, a partner with the Palomar Consulting Group in Washington, D.C., agrees. "Fundamentally...we simply don't have enough resources available to administer projects in every and all types of OD/Training. I consider myself a specialist...[because] I want to be very good at what I do and provide value for money."

Are There Situations Where It's Appropriate to Stay Broad? And Are There Any Downsides to Specializing?

Yes, and yes. One of the times when generalizing is a good thing is when just beginning to build a private practice. There are so many new experiences and such a steep learning curve in an entrepreneurial start-up, that if choosing a niche becomes a hurdle and causes undue anxiety, it may be a decision that can be delayed until the training wheels come off and you've established yourself with your first few clients and projects.

In addition, being a generalist may be great if you want to keep all your options open and can't bear the thought of narrowing your focus. Ultimately, it's important to enjoy your work and feel passionate about the process and outcomes. If variety is your life's spice, then let it remain!

Finally, one of the ways that your practice can offer a diverse array of services or serve a wider clientele is by hiring or partnering with experts in those areas.

In terms of a downside to specializing or working with a niche target market, Reiffenstein says, "It's possible to miss out on opportunities because you're not seen as having skills beyond your specialty. However, effective networking and building good client relationships will afford the opportunity to showcase additional expertise beyond the areas you've chosen to specialize in."

Lessons Learned

In my journey of building a consulting practice from the ground up, I've talked to scores of peers and poured over dozens of books and articles on the subject. Resoundingly, the advice has been: to niche (or specialize) is the answer!

I am still straddling the line about how much further to narrow my focus in my marketing, I've already added the words Leadership and Communication Skills to my bio and elevator speech to emphasize those areas in which I have the most skill and passion. But I plan to continue to refine my specialization or niche market, because, intellectually, I have become convinced that it's the right path to pursue.

Now if only the variety-nut in me could stop begrudging this decision so much!

2006 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.