Looking back, it was not the most positive reason for leaving paid employment. Luckily for me, I had already done my thinking about what sort of a match it was with my career essentials (and got a tick on all elements) and the timing was merely coincidental (see Career Management: Not Happy at Work Without Knowing Why). In fact, so happy am I as a consultant that I now often say that I am unemployable.
In my early years, I had a very low opinion of my ability to actually be a successful consultant, which took me many years to get over. I would set up lots of coffee meetings with fellow consultants, to pick their brains, hoping some of their supposed magic would rub off on me.
I can still remember my shock, back then, when I read a BRW article stating that the average consultant earned about $30,000 a year i.e. they had a very high hourly charge out rate but not much paid work. That galvanised me into much more vigorous sales activity, I can tell you! I was determined not to be one of THOSE types of consultants.
Since I started as a Career Transition specialist, I have met many people who have decided, after losing their job, to take their package and start life as a consultant. I jokingly say that my role is to take them out for a coffee and try to scare the living daylights out of them and then, if that doesn’t work, switch to providing them with support to maximise the likelihood of it all working.
More seriously, over that time, there are two key lessons that I have learned:
1. Specialise, specialise, specialise
2. If you want to succeed you need to be prepared to DRIVE your consulting practice as a BUSINESS
When I started my consulting life, I was a generalist HR operator. I was no better or no worse than many other consultants, which meant that my success directly correlated with my SALES ability. A prospective client sitting opposite me would have many others to choose from. So why would they choose me?
And they generally didn’t because I wasn’t very good at direct selling and because there were plenty of other people out there more charming, more persistent, better at maintaining those sorts of relationships than I was.
After I accidently fell into the careers area, life became easier. I worked on a diverse range of projects early on, from a large voluntary redundancy project in downtown Port Augusta to huge factory shut-downs at Black & Decker and Mattel in Malaysia. (Anyone who visits our office will notice the Barbie dolls scattered around.)
As a specialist, I was able to deepen my knowledge and expertise and more easily differentiate myself from other consultants. It doesn’t mean that I don’t stretch myself if a client asks me to undertake related work, but I do not sell that message to the general market place.
So, I repeat and stress, find a technical niche to hang your hat on and don’t stray too far from it.
View yourself as the CEO of your practice
In the early days of most practices, you often pick up work from current contacts/former employers. This generally lasts 18 months at the most and then you will likely be like the rest of us: you will need to prospect for more work.
As a sole practitioner, you will be performing all the roles initially, from buying stationery to setting the vision for your practice. What we are talking about is a mixture of getting the practicalities down pat, having a skilled, active and ongoing marketing/selling campaign,and working ON the business as well as in the business.
There’s also the key issue of power. If you were a Line Manager in your former life, it can be quite disconcerting to realise that you have no power as a Consultant, only influence. Yes, I know that current leaders are supposed to achieve through influencing others, but there still is a key difference. I love the collegiate atmosphere of the consulting world but you need to carefully assess whether it’s for you.
So if you think that you will get a GREAT deal of satisfaction forging your own pathway in life and endlessly striving and driving and planning and scheming (in the good sense of the word), then do it. Otherwise, stick with being an employee – you might even be happier.
aBOUT THE AUTHOR
Catherine Cunningham is Adelaide's leading career expert. She appears regularly in The Weekend Australian Careers section, in The Advertiser's CareerOne, as well as in online publications such as news.com.au, thenewdaily.com.au and womensagenda.com.au