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“Why success in business does not automatically lead to success as an Independent Consultant…”

Posted by Clive on August 20, 2014

Many Independent Consultants have transitioned into their role following a successful career in business. Some spend time with a consultancy firm first, as I did. Those that do this will probably be very competent consultants and will be enjoying great rewards as an Independent. I am finding, however, that more and more people are transitioning directly from business into Independent Consulting and are just not equipped for success. Many have false expectations and end up disappointed, frustrated and even struggling to make ends meet.

Now don’t get me wrong here; business competence, experience, and acumen are key ingredients to the Independent Consultant’s role. After all, you will be dealing with business owners or managers every day and will need to speak the same language and have credibility. But working on a business is not the same as working in a business. To be successful, Independent Consultants must learn how to transition from doing business to transforming business – they need to do things differently.

Let me explain why…

Independent Consulting throws up many new challenges that you just don’t experience as a business employee. Here are my top five:

How to deliver against a new set of client expectations: Expectations of Independent Consultants are different from what clients require from their employees.  Clients are looking to Independent Consultants for knowledge, guidance and support to achieve results that they wouldn’t have been able to get themselves. They want a new perspective, objectivity and challenge. They desire an injection of pace and increased momentum. Independent Consultants are expected to add value fast and deliver a return, either perceived or real, on the client’s investment. The business employees’ toolkit is unlikely to be relevant or sufficient to deliver a successful outcome.

The need to manage resistance: It is quite normal for Independent Consultants to encounter resistance or even hostility. There will be questions as to why employees can’t do the work and why an external consultant is needed at all. Early on in an engagement there will be a lack of understanding of the value you can add. Some resistance may even continue throughout a project. It’s vital for Independent Consultants to be able to identify this resistance and know how to manage it.

Having to generate your own profits: As an Independent Consultant your time is not spent solely on delivering great results for your clients. You are also business owner, director and full-time employee of your own company. You are responsible for generating income from your clients, managing your costs and creating the profits from which you can pay yourself. An Independent Consultant has to learn how to manage the many roles and responsibilities that are required to run a small business.

Finding the next contract yourself: I carried out a survey of Independent Consultants recently and one of the biggest concerns raised was gaps between contracts. Gaps mean no earnings, could lead to the financial struggle I mentioned earlier, can reflect badly on your CV and will likely cause stress. So securing the next assignment is always going to be top of mind when working in one’s current project. This can be distracting and time consuming.

Developing a new business network: When in a business role, one’s network is predominantly people from your current company or from previous employers. Now these contacts may be helpful to an Independent Consultant in providing references or testimonials to future clients. But this network will only be really useful if anyone within it is staffing up a project or knows someone else who is. As an Independent the likelihood is that a new network is required. For example, other Independent Consultants, consulting firms who deploy associates on projects, Independent Consulting Associations and relevant LinkedIn groups.

So, five challenges that face the new Independent Consultant who has transitioned from a business career. Overcome these and you are on the path to success…but how best to do this?

Well to me the only way is to learn a new skillset, a range of relevant capabilities that is unlikely to have been developed during one’s career in business management – let’s call them consulting capabilities. I like to split these into two categories.

Firstly, there are core consulting capabilities that can be leveraged in any project at whatever phase of the business transformation or change process. Examples could be stakeholder management, problem solving techniques, meeting management, facilitation skills, process mapping, giving and receiving feedback, effective team working and project management.

Then there are delivery consulting capabilities that are more appropriate to a specific phase of a transformational journey. These include visioning, strategy development, opportunity identification, business case development, defining new ways of working, implementation planning, implementation, benefits tracking and sustaining change.

Strong consulting capabilities will furnish an Independent Consultant with the relevant tools and techniques to deliver against the expectations that clients have of them; they will also help to identify and manage resistance on projects and engage the organisation. Effective consulting will lead to higher daily rates, longer contracts and more profit in your business; this in turn will enable you to outsource some of the tasks required to run the business, freeing up time. A track record of great client delivery through consulting excellence will help get extensions to existing assignments or will make finding the next contract easier, minimising those gaps. And you can leverage success with clients and consulting expertise to make building your new network that much easier.

Unfortunately, I have come across so many individuals in recent years who have transitioned from a business career straight into the independent sector, are put up for roles on projects and assume success will come. They think it’s OK to continue working as they did when they were employed. They do not realise the importance of learning how to consult, are neither project ready or client ready and therefore do not get selected for the best Independent Consulting roles.

Click here to find out more about consulting capabilities and how to develop them.