So you want to be a consultant?
Be prepared for a highly competitive world
Why do some of us decide to continue working after we reach the point of a willing or unwilling retirement? Many baby boomers have an altruistic sense of still needing to make a difference or make something happen. Other reasons: What am I going to do with all this free time, I didn’t save enough money for retirement, I need to have a purpose or goal in life, my identity is my job, etc.
Upon deciding to become a consultant, you have two paths to consider – your own private consultancy practice, the path I took, or employment in an existing consulting firm. Both paths have their pluses and minuses.
Choosing thecompany consulting path
In today’s highly competitive world of consulting your new firm will expect you to bring in new clients.
Here is how this process often unfolds. The consulting firm knows about your expertise and pedigree (e.g., 30+ years with a Fortune 50 company as a CSP or CIH) and thinks you are a great prospect (Translated: to make money for the firm) and surely you have hundreds of internal and external potential client contacts.
In fact, the likelihood you have a portfolio of potential “new” clients are nil. Most people in the EHS arena do not have jobs that provide exposure to potential clients with the authority to buy your expertise as a consultant.
Usually, the consulting firm will give you six to twelve months to deliver a certain dollar amount of business. Failing to meet or exceed your dollar goal will lead to either a little bit of leniency to deliver within the next six months or an unwilling retirement.
Working for a big consulting firm has its benefits: a large client base, considerably more resources to prepare proposals and accomplish the work, name recognition and reputation, geographical reach, and typically a broad professional stable of technical expertise.
But large consulting firms often consist of highly competitive internal working environments afflicted with back-stabbing and client stealing. As Phil LaDuke notes, consultancies are designed to make ever increasing sums of money for the partners who will pay you what the market will bear unless, of course, you rise to become one of those coveted partners.
Having worked for some big consulting firms myself and soliciting several colleagues who work for or have worked for big firms, there is some agreement that many top-shelf consulting firms view the job of consultants not as solving customers’ problems, but as landing the next consulting gig.
If you have been coasting toward the end of your career at your prior company, don’t join a consulting firm. You will coast yourself right into unemployment. You must keep your company, your customers, and all stakeholders happy, and this can be quite daunting.
Choosing the private consulting path
This path is not for the faint of heart -- a low percentage of individuals who establish a private consultancy are still in business three years after they start.
The rewards of private consulting are priceless, in my opinion. Although you can pick and choose who you will do work for and when, more often than not you will take the work regardless. You decide when you are going to start work in the morning and when you are going to stop in the evening. You have total control of your business life.
Here are a couple critical steps you should take: 1) make sure your spouse and family understand the associated time constraints; 2) establish an LLC or become incorporated; 3) purchase errors and omissions insurance; 4) learn the in’s and out’s of a Schedule C tax form before you start doing your taxes, especially as it relates to record keeping; 5) build a cadre of technical specialists you can reach out to; 6) learn how to manage the client versus the client managing you; and 7) NEVER agree to do out-of-scope work without a contract modification in place.
Visiting with a few of my close private consulting colleagues, here are reasons they went into practice along with some sage advice to consider.
Deb Grubbe of Operations and Safety Solutions, LLC started her private practice because she wanted to continue working following her corporate experiences and have more discretionary time in her work life. She desired a healthier life style. Deb attributes her success to a great set of job experiences, a very good network, finding that first “anchor client,” expanding her value proposition into multiple arenas versus one, along with lecturing and authoring articles, books and chapters, which fosters remaining current in her knowledge areas.
Margaret Walker of MLRW Group, LLC characterizes her success to the “magic” that occurs when the timing of an opportunity, the openness of the organization to change, and her skill-sets match. Difficulties surface when she fails to clearly define “HOW” she and the client will work together to develop and deliver the solutions/outcomes for the agreed to “WHAT.” “HOW” agreements involve such issues as access to information, communication formats and timing, raising critical issues, and resolving conflicts. Says Maggie: Be willing to walk away from a consulting engagement when agreement cannot be reached around the “WHAT” outcomes and “HOW” you and the client will work together.
Several years ago I needed a statistician, so Deb Grubbe introduced me to Dr. Ron Snee, of Snee Associates, LLC. Ron is a recipient of the W.J. Dixon Statistical Consulting Excellence Award awarded by the American Statistical Association. His personal success comes in the form of continually adding, even after 40 years, capabilities that make him unique and useful to his clients. Characteristics he pays particular attention to with clients are those with unrealistic expectations given the available time and resources and those clients who are not really serious about solving the problem under discussion or do not have the authority/capability to implement the solution.
Parting thoughts on success
As you approach a potential client, seek to understand what the client needs, not necessarily what you have to offer. There is old saying in this business -- a consultant can do ANYTHING, so don’t tie your hands and legs up with just offering your expertise. Virtually every consulting job I landed was because the client trusted me and knew they could count on getting solutions to their problems.