Making the leap from employment to consulting is exciting and rewarding. But to make a success of it, you’ll need to shed a few habits that served you well as an employee but are now redundant as a consultant.
Habit 1: Being laissez-faire about deadlines
We all know about deadlines when working in the public sector. With the best intention in the world, often the most certainty you can have about them is they are likely to blow out. This is not a criticism, more an acknowledgment that in that complex environment, nothing is static; demands shift and change, and today a new crisis may emerge that pushes other priorities aside. It’s just the nature of the beast. But it does make your relationship with a deadline less than ideal because the expectation is that deadlines will inevitably shift.
But all this changes once you become a consultant. You’re contracted to deliver within specified timeframes, and now, a deadline is most definitely a deadline. So you need to change your mindset about this and get serious about meeting every milestone and every deadline you’ve agreed to. It’s one of the key things your reputation will be built on, so don’t let yourself down.
Habit 2: Writing like a bureaucrat
There is so much writing involved in being a consultant. The obvious is consultancy reports, but there is a myriad of other types of written communication that you will regularly need to prepare – proposals, issues papers, stakeholder consultation briefing information, content for your website, promotional material, your LinkedIn profile, the list goes on.
Of course, excellent written communication skills would have been essential in your previous roles, but it’s your writing style that will have to change now you are a consultant. You’ll need to let go of old habits.
If you’ve come from the public sector it’s likely you’ll be used to a particular style of writing –often rather unkindly referred to as bureauspeak. The document ‘currency’ of most Government departments is a ‘brief’, and communication and decision-making about everything tend to occur through the series of briefs that are prepared concerning any issue. Again, this is not a criticism, but if you’ve spent the last few years writing briefs, then you need to take a good hard look at your writing style and make some changes. Now that you are a consultant this style of writing is not your friend, and you need to break this habit and learn to write succinctly and using plain English. The good news is that this is actually liberating.
Habit 3: Communicating like an employee
Your client is not your manager, or your direct report, or even your colleague – at least not in the way you’ve been used to. The consultant/client relationship is unique, and if you’re new to it, you will have to work at settling into it and shake off your communication habits of old. As a consultant, you are an outsider – that’s actually an essential part of what makes your role so valuable. Because you bring some independence, you don’t have a vested interest, and you don’t have existing relationships to navigate. In my book, the key is to communicate with a mixture of authority and humility. You need to step up to the role of ‘trusted advisor’ and be prepared to provide ‘frank and fearless advice’. This means you need to communicate with confidence you may not actually feel in some situations [and this is true even for very experienced consultants]. But you also need to show you are there to draw out the wisdom of others, to learn what is important from their perspective, to gain insight from the experience and views of others. It’s a unique communication style that you will develop over time to become an expert consultant.
Habit 4: Thinking ‘too’ strategically
I once collaborated with a consultant who just didn’t have the kind of boundaries around scope that I think is critical to being a good consultant. Here’s what I mean…. One of the privileges we have as consultants which we didn’t have as employees, is to allow ourselves to have blinkered vision. We are contracted to focus deeply and thoroughly on one particular problem. Unlike when we were a senior manager or a senior bureaucrat, we don’t have to worry about all the other organisational issues that arise; we don’t have to respond to new issues, emerging crises, staffing issues, ministerials, or customer complaints. We have one project to focus on. Yes, we need to take an organisational and strategic approach; we need to bring our best thinking; we need to go above and beyond to present the best solution we can. But it’s one project, one set of problems or issues, one set of findings to develop, one set of recommendations to deliver. Honestly, this is one of the many aspects of consulting that I just love – the permission to delve deep and look at one problem from multiple angles, without the distraction of the myriad of things that employees face. But when you’re new to consulting it can be hard to let go of the need to look beyond the scope of your current project and think you have to solve a whole lot of other problems as well. This is what I found with the consulting colleague I mentioned earlier. He got distracted by too many broader issues that were outside of our scope, with the result that the problem we were contracted to work on didn’t get the attention it deserved. So, it’s a habit you need to break. And trust me, this is another one of those liberating aspects of no longer being an employee.
Habit 5: Relying on others
Relying on others is an integral feature of working in an organisation and being a team member. It manifests in many, many ways. As an employee, you rely on your manager, your direct reports, your colleagues, the IT help desk, the HR department, the payroll department, your admin assistant, the legal department, the PR department. The list goes on. This is what makes an effective organisation – all the many parts working together and relying on each other to get the bigger job done.
Now, you’re a solo consultant. And you’re running a small business. You need to ditch the habit of relying on others and instead build your own capacity to manage what you need to. This isn’t about doing everything yourself; on the contrary, I encourage you to think about how you can use freelancers to support your business. But the buck now stops with you. Self-reliance needs to become your new habit.
Personally, I’ve learned to love this aspect of consulting. I love the challenge, and I love the sense of satisfaction it brings. But relying on others was definitely a habit I had to work at letting go of.
Changing the habits of a lifetime is hard, but many of the habits that have served you well as an employee will potentially be your downfall as a consultant.