HR Consultants Can ‘Generalize’ or ‘Specialize’

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Aug 15, 2008
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HR consultants have a wide range of focus areas from which to choose, such as benefits management, training and development, hiring, coaching, HR strategy, relocation, performance evaluation and risk management, to list a few. For new HR consultants, the decision of whether to specialize—and if so, in which area—is an important question, and as with many such conundrums, the answer might be “it depends,” says Todd Dewett, associate professor of management at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and the author of Leadership Redefined (TVA, Inc., 2008).

The reason for such a wishy-washy answer is because in order for HR consultants to find success as either a generalist or a specialist will depend on the quality of both the consultant’s HR-related skills and of the consultant’s interpersonal—or soft—skills, Dewett says.

Self-assessment is critical in determining where a HR consultant’s background and experience might best find a fit. Opinions on which route to take vary in direction and intensity, therefore finding the right answer requires careful consideration by each HR consultant of their goals and objectives, areas of expertise, potential client base and personal preferences. HR consultants who have specialized in a particular area—benefits administration for instance—may have a clear choice. Conversely, generalists will need to consider the market demands for various service areas, and what opportunities can be created based on skills and preferences.

Nan Andrews Amish, a HR and management consultant with the California-based Big Picture Perspective Services, says from a marketing perspective, specialists get a reputation faster. Clients will seek out a particular HR consultant because the consultant is known for being proficient in an area of expertise, she says. However, if the specialty area filled is a small niche, there might be problems with having enough clients to ensure a steady stream of work, she adds.

However, HR generalists can increase a new firm’s chances of success if the consultant already has a solid relationship with a potential client—possibly the consultant’s immediate former employer—who can hire the HR professional as a consultant once the former employee has gone freelance.

Blended Approach

Ann Latham, president of Uncommon Clarity, Inc., a consulting firm in Westhampton, Mass., says she has worked as both as a consultant and employee, and her experience shows that of HR specialists or generalists, “special-generalists are the best.” HR specialists are usually subject matter experts (SME), she says. SMEs provide answers, but many organizations really need help asking the right questions, she says. Finding out the right questions that a specific company needs to ask, is “the bailiwick of a process consultant—a special generalist—and involves an entirely different set of skills,” Latham says. “A process consultant who specializes in human resources could easily develop the knowledge to provide answers as well, but an SME may not have the talent, skill or perspective to do process consulting,” Latham says.

That blended approach resonates with other consultants as well.

Jamie Showkeir is a workplace expert who co-wrote, with his wife Maren Showkeir, Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment (Berrett-Koehler, 2008). The Showkeirs are partners in Henning-Showkeir & Associates, a business consultancy with offices in Arizona and New Jersey that specializes in workplace culture. In the consultancy, the Showkeirs take the approach of being business people with HR expertise, rather than promoting themselves as either HR generalists or specialists. The difference is semantic, according to the Showkeirs. “We have framed the question of HR generalist versus HR specialist in a different way,” Jamie Showkeir says. Henning-Showkeir & Associates’ consultants talk to clients about the consultancy’s expertise and how the firm can collaborate with the client to solve real business challenges that affect their quality, profitability, speed and customer service, he says. “In this way, we can focus the conversation on their business needs and not limit ourselves by using labels,” he adds. “Effective HR consultants are able to understand client business situations through the clients’ eyes,” Showkeir says. “They are able to talk about the clients’ business in their language. The right conversations will help HR consultants determine the relevance of their expertise, whether it falls under the category of generalist or specialist,” he says. There are challenges that arise for HR consultants regardless of which position they take, he says. The challenges are:

When practicing as a HR specialist, clients only call when specialized services are needed.

When practicing as a HR specialist, consultants tend to analyze client situations through the lens of specialization.

When practicing as a HR generalist, consultants must be willing to engage expertise they lack in order to meet specific client needs.

When practicing as a HR generalist, clients may not perceive a consultant as relevant because of a lack of specialization.

In any HR consulting practice, the key is to specifically identify and assess the marketplace needs of a target audience and then determine how a HR consultant’s skills and background can be most relevant to meet those needs. In addition, understanding the competition can help a consultant determine what his or her specialties are, what knowledge and skills are needed and how to talk to potential clients about the expertise available, Showkeir says.

Dewett adds that when clients select a consultancy—just as when a business selects a candidate for an internal job—a HR consultant’s soft skills often have more impact than many consultants like to believe. “Many professionals might not like this reality, but there are generalists who lose out to specialists for particular jobs and vice versa, often depending on a soft skills base,” he says. One of the best predictors is “liking,” or how good others feel about a relationship with a particular consultant, he adds. Because even HR specialists have to sell themselves to sell their services, all HR consultants need to focus on three areas that will help the consultant sell themselves and the services. Those areas are:

Building the strongest skills possible, whether choosing to generalize or specialize.

Selling the most tangible, metrics-based results that can be delivered.

Turning their consultants’ lens on themselves and determining the best way to take their skills to the next level.

As with many of the eternal debates that plague business people in any industry, the answer to the question of whether to generalize or specialize really comes down to a two-word answer, “it depends.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002).

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