August 6, 2020

Thinking of becoming a consultant? Here’s what to think about . . .

First published by Jennifer Woollford on Linkedin on 26 August 2020

I’m having an increasing number of conversations with people interested in working as consultants, and seeing many more people on LinkedIn launching their own consultancy set-up.  This year is a time of transition and change for many, prompted for some by personal re-evaluations of how they want to be living and working, for others by redundancies, which leads to the same questions and often a period of financial freedom to try something different.  

The draw of consultancy is clear – working when, where and on what you choose whilst leveraging your valuable experience.  I worked independently as a marketing consultant for 3 years before founding NEON Leaders, a collective of senior marketing leaders working outside of corporate roles for a period of time whilst continuing to deliver, develop and advance in their careers. 

NEON Leaders was born from the following insights of what’s needed to be successful as a consultant. Not only financial success, but a valuable, enjoyable and progressive stage of your overall career path. 
So if you’re thinking of becoming a consultant, or have just started on your consultancy journey, here’s what you should be thinking about. . .

Building your Professional Identity

Corporate brands and job titles are extremely useful as a short-cut to your level of achievement, accomplishment and value. They are attractive to head-hunters and future employers and open doors for industry opportunities such as speaking or judging panels.  ‘Consultant’ or ‘Founder’ is a generic term, used by many, and even with an added specialism they are self-imposed and as such hold little value.  You need to express and build your professional identity in a way you never needed to before.  Thought leadership is an important part of this – determine what you want to be known for and position yourself as an expert in this area.   

Finding where you can belong

Working for a company provides a sense of purpose and team.  Once it’s just you it can be a lonely place, particularly for those of us who are extroverts and thrive on the stimulation of others.  Even working for the best clients, you aren’t a part of the team in the same way you are as an employee.  You need to find your tribe – the people you can share a purpose with, have fun with, ask for help and learn from.  This community might not be readily available to suit your needs, particularly in the non-virtual world and with social distancing restrictions, so be prepared to build your own if you can’t find one that works for you.

Planning your learning and development

As an employee, you may have benefitted from structured access to learning opportunities and conversations about how to be more effective in your role and develop for your next move.  Most likely you were also learning simply through your doing your job.  Consultants tend to start work deploying their existing knowledge and skills, as such learning and development requires a strategy and a plan.  Think about learning through the lens of 70% learning by doing, 20% learning from others and 10% formal learning.  It’s easy to over-invest on the 10% as that’s what is readily available (articles, podcasts, books, learning platforms and professional training).  Seek project opportunities that can help you learn by doing – working alongside someone else, in a different industry, or doing for a reduced rate so it’s a mutual arrangement.  Find a mentor or a coach to have someone to review and reflect with and learn from. 

Being realistic about what it takes to find work

It’s been said time and again, ‘the hustle is real’. I was lucky when I first started that opportunities found me, which may not be uncommon when you first tell people who know you well what you are doing.  Beyond that, you need to put effort in and be clear what you offer so when a need arises your name is top of mind.  For professional growth, the opportunities you want to find are probably not in your immediate network and you’ll need to connect and build relationships with those people that don’t yet know you, as well as those that do.  If that’s not for you, you may be enticed by the growing number of talent platforms that bring the work to you.  Be mindful that most platforms utilise around 10% of their subscribed workforce, and at best around 30% at any given time.  There is no silver bullet.  Finding work, takes work.

Embracing a mindset shift

Linear careers will in time become a thing of past. Future of work experts agree people will have up to four ‘different’ careers throughout their lives.  Yet there remains a prevailing perception that a traditional linear sequence of roles is preferable, and other paths are less valuable.  This needs to, and will change, but it will take time.  It’s imperative to be confident in the choice you have made and not cast doubt on your own path and what you could be doing instead in those moments when it feels hard.  Focus on how you build your experience, expertise and identity to help ensure you are well placed for future opportunities for career number three or four!