John Pope outlines everything you need to consider before taking the plunge into consultancy work.
During the recession, you may be frustrated at the resistance to your ideas for change; you may be upset at the way management has failed to take your advice or has ignored your warnings. You may envy the consultants you have seen and the way they get the attention of the board for changes you have been pushing for in vain. You might even be fed up with being an employee and like the idea of independence, especially since your current employer might have a bit of work where you could help for a fee.
Many consultants start that way. Some do it for a time and are attracted back into regular employment, having seen a bit of the business world they would otherwise not have seen. Others get a taste for freedom and remain freelancers.
You know something about consultancy
In the course of your employment you have probably met some consultants; they may have been invited in to review and resolve problems, provide special expertise, manage some project, or be an extra pair of hands. They will have been more expensive to employ than you; they will have had more attention and respect from the management than you get. Almost certainly they will have picked your brains and recommended solutions, some of which you had already put forward, but which had been rejected. They will probably have been charging their time at about three times your daily employment cost, if not more.
You may agree with the definition of a consultant: "He borrows your watch to tell you the time, charges you a big fee, and then walks off with your watch." In some ways that is true. The consultant helps management understand the size and urgency of a problem and helps resolve it. Management take more notice of expensive advice and the consultant should learn something new from each project.
It doesn’t sound fair, and sometimes it isn’t, but if your own management has not got the job done, then using experienced external consultants can be a worthwhile investment.
So, have you got what it takes to be a consultant? Could your skills and expertise be better used and valued if you were a consultant? Would management take more notice of you if they had to pay more for you?
What does it take to be a consultant?
You will certainly want a combination of expertise, an effective attitude and good powers of persuasion. You will also need to be able to sell your services.
You may already have a great deal of the expertise and knowledge needed to be a consultant – most consultants specialise in a particular aspect of management when they start out. They expand their area of knowledge by working with different clients’ organisations and applying new techniques. Sometimes they have to rely on common sense, and sometimes they have to gain that knowledge while on the job.
They certainly have to keep their body of knowledge up-to-date, even if they are working on a project which does not need it at the time. Could you acquire that knowledge?
However, expertise and knowledge is not enough. Consultants have to be able to diagnose the client’s real problems from the symptoms which the client’s business shows, and the often confused statements of the problems which the client and management make. Consultants need some framework against which they can match the organisation they see and, in discussion with the client, identify important issues where their help will make a significant improvement worth their cost.
Since the client’s management is often inadequate and incapable of implementing the consultant’s recommendations without guidance, most consultants need high skills of management so that they can manage without formal authority – meaning a high degree of leadership. And since client’s problems usually come in droves, and they have to be resolved while the business runs, consultants need to be able to advise on managing complex projects and usually have to do more than just advise.
Could you do all this?
Those who have been managers for some time and have had enough experience of different organisations and jobs have a much better start, especially if they start on small projects at middle level and then move up the ‘food chain’ as they gain experience.
You need to keep yourself well informed, and read widely in your chosen field of work to learn how much more senior managers think. You will be in a position where you are working at a much higher level. Demanding, but not impossible.
Could you get enough work?
In practice, it is generally difficult to do more than 110 chargeable days a year at a proper fee rate. I know there are consultants who do a lot more, but they tend to be doing long-term projects for a single client and are rather more like specialist sub-contractors, and can be treated like expensive employees rather than consultants. They also find it difficult to spend enough time making new contacts and getting new work. As a result they can shift from feast to famine very quickly. They can also find it difficult to move to higher-level, higher-value work at higher fee rates.
You need to spend enough time to develop yourself. You need time to manage your consultancy practice, including doing your accounts and administration; you need time to market and sell your services, including making sales visits, developing your circle of contacts and prospective clients. You will need to do this systematically and put a lot of effort into it. It might take up as much as 30% of your time and effort. You also need time for your family and yourself – an over-worked, tired consultant with family problems is no use to any client. It’s a balancing act.
You can choose the way you want to work; what you want to do; how you want to be seen as a consultant. You can remodel your life. I chose an approach which has given me a lot more freedom and time to develop many other interests which I would not have had as an employee. It also allows me to have stimulating work way past retirement age – an enjoyable health benefit.