A few times a month, we hear from someone considering independent consulting, wanting to know (1) what they should expect, (2) if it might be the right fit for them, and (3) how they should go about it. This is our effort to distill our thought process into a resource that we can direct folks to. We answer the first question in this post. We’ll get to questions 2 and 3 in later posts. So here it is, our very first listicle “Education consulting in 9 (mostly true) sentences” :
- Consulting can be a lot of fun.
You get to work on interesting projects related to topics that you care deeply about. You learn a ton. You meet and work with lots of people and expand your network. You get to see the inner workings of many different organizations doing important work. You have flexibility of time and place.
2. It can also be a drag.
You sometimes work on projects that you care very little about so you can pay the bills. You spend hours on tedious tasks like transcribing notes, planning meeting agendas and accounting. There are weeks when you meet barely anyone. You realize that even the shiniest of organizations show signs of strain. And for every Tuesday afternoon that you take off to play tennis, there will be a Saturday evening where you’ll be working furiously to complete a deliverable that’s due first thing Monday morning.
3. Mostly, it’s a roller coaster.
The first couple of years are usually full of uncertainty. You’ll rarely have the luxury of knowing what your next six months at work will look like. Veteran consultants also often talk about the feast-or-famine phenomenon. On some days, you’ll be burning the candle at both ends. On other days, you’ll be refreshing your inbox for the nth time, wondering why no one has emailed you yet. Be prepared – and use the downtime to work on your business and yourself (write a blog post, take an online course, file away those expense receipts).
4. Getting clients is often harder than you expect.
Plan to spend a third of your time on business development. The actual process of drumming up work can look different depending on the consultant: some write proposals, others network at events or build their reputations as thought leaders. Figure out the hustle that comes most naturally to you and embrace the fact that you will be spending significant amounts of (non-billable) time getting clients.
5. You’ll get rejected. A lot.
This can be incredibly hard for most new consultants. You’ll write proposals and never hear back. You’ll have detailed and enthusiastic conversations with prospective clients about super interesting projects – that never take off. Don’t take it personally. Sometimes when you’re rejected, it’s a sign that you need to get better at what you do. And sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw. When something doesn’t work out the way you think it should, dust off, ask for feedback, look for patterns, and act when you must.
6. It can get lonely.
Working as an independent consultant can be isolating. Even self-sufficient professionals can find it difficult to sustain their energy and perspective when removed from the give-and-take of team relationships. Many consultants will talk about the breakthrough moment when they realized that being independent did not have to mean being alone. Reach out to other consultants. Build your own posse – folks who can help when you need advice or feedback or a sympathetic ear when you need to vent.
7. Handing over can be hard.
The hardest part of being a consultant can sometimes be at the very end of a project, when it’s time to hand over a project that you’ve lived and breathed for several months. There’s always the fear that once you’re no longer around to move the project along, it will stall and your presentation/plan/report will gather dust on a shelf. Identify steps you can take before you move on – like identifying an internal project champion, developing a clear plan with next steps and ensuring key team members have the information and skills they need to carry on the work – but then, cultivate a spirit of zen and just let go.
8. Impact can be squishy to define.
When you’ve worked on 8 different projects with 7 different clients in less than 12 months, it can start to feel disorienting. Unlike a full-time role, where you’re usually building towards a goal, consulting projects can feel like a lot of scattered efforts – and you can end up questioning whether your work is adding up to anything. For some consultants, the answer lies in focusing their work on one or two high-need areas, so that over a period of time they are building a body of work. For others, it lies in focusing on an intermediate outcome – such as a happy client, a more capable team, a refocused organization. Either way, over a period of time, the dots start to connect and a pattern of impact emerges.
9. It gets better.
If #1 is the reason that people get into consulting, #9 is the reason they end up staying. If you stick around long enough and do the right things (more on this later), you’ll slowly start getting projects. Your proposals and work products will start looking better and better. You’ll develop new relationships: with clients who vouch for you and consultants who reach out to you asking if you want to partner with them on projects. You’ll realize that you’ve learned so much – about your domain of expertise, about working with clients, about yourself. Slowly, the projects that you crave to work on start coming to you –projects where you can leverage your best skills to have a real impact on kids.
———————– Why “mostly true”? Because while most of these sentences will hold true for most consultants, it is unlikely that all will hold true for all consultants.
What’s been your experience with consulting? Share your thoughts in the comments below.