The World of Consulting: It’s Not for Everyone

Photo by Jack Alterman

I teach Polarity Thinking for a living. Polarities are defined as interdependent pairs that may seem competing or even contradictory, when in fact, they are mutually reinforcing to achieve a higher level of performance. I’ve been doing this full-time for the past 11 years as a sole practitioner. With Polarity Thinking, I help leaders see themselves more completely so their strengths don’t turn into weaknesses as well as help them better manage complex chronic issues in their organizations.

With numerous speaking engagements and several national clients, people frequently tell me they want to emulate my approach.  They want to be their own “boss” with the glamor and excitement of travel across the country while working at a pace they alone determine.  The plain truth is that working for yourself as a consultant is great as long as you are prepared for a deep commitment to the job while in service to others.

The first decision I chose to make was what kind of consulting organization did I want to create?   It was both exhilarating and daunting to have the power and freedom to be in charge of your own destiny.

Decision Point #1: What Type of Organization Structure? Business or Sole Practice

I am drawn to owning and managing a Sole Practice.  It is just me, myself and I vs. do I want to be responsible for others? I like the idea of being in charge of myself and no one else. When things work out, I get to experience the joy of success.  And if not, there is nowhere to look but in the mirror for improvement. I have enough experience telling me not everyone holds the same level of discipline and 24/7 commitment that came so naturally to my self-driven personality type. When I was an employee for a large consulting business earlier in my career, I found that much “shop talk” centered on billable hours, not the mission of helping our clients achieve greatness.

As with any start-up, an eye to investment, cost control and profitability is important.  I seek a level of client engagement that a lone consultant can manage, with the discipline to know when my plate is full.

So, as a self-starter with a big streak of assertiveness, taking the risky path of becoming a sole practitioner was well-calculated.  With that direction set, I moved forward with setting up my Sole Practice…

Decision Point #2:  What Type of Work Environment?

I am a Raging Extrovert!! Yes, I LOVE to be around people. Now a sole practitioner, I work from a home office. I am devoid of workmates: neither supervisors, peers nor direct-reports. No longer are people asking for my ideas or advice throughout the day.   I realize being alone is a drain of my energy. To help compensate, my office choices include bright yellow walls proudly displaying lots of career-related photos, mementos and awards. Of course, my bookshelves are stocked with the latest and best publications in my field of Leadership and Organization Development. And I cultivated a large network of like-minded sole practitioners when the need for human interaction and support arises.

The new emphasis is on Discipline: The “doctor” is always “in.” With a husband devoting himself to running upscale hotels, there has been plenty of flexibility for me to do sales calls and provide client support just about any time, any day of the week. I make myself accessible to those who put the “food on our table;” viewing them with regard rather than people taking time from my private life. From this disciplined approach I am free to schedule time during the day to go to the gym. Being a firm believer in health and fitness, it serves both my personal life and the lives of my clients.

Decision Point #3: Who are my Potential Clients?

Many consultants like to brag about their Fortune 500 clients, and they probably should.  On the other hand, a sole practitioner doesn’t have the depth, or staying power, to take on a big client; my strategy is to go “below the radar screen” and seek smaller local and regional clients.  There are better opportunities for the “little guys” to get into smaller organizations that don’t attract the attention of the “big guys.”

When pursuing new clients, I rely heavily on contacting those within industries where I have direct experience through the many years of my career such as the electric utility industry, financial institutions, local government, and chambers of commerce.

As a national speaker for the last eight years, I find that trade conference seminars and statewide leadership programs are easy ways for me to gain broad exposure to those organizations wishing to go deeper in what I can bring to their tables.

Decision Results

Having built my sole practice on these key decisions honoring my personal preferences, then sticking to a few, yet vital areas of expertise where I am considered among the best has been a recipe for career success and personal fulfillment. Who could ask for more in this life?

Margaret Seidler is a Master Trainer and Consultant based in Charleston. She is the author of Power Surge: A Conduit for Enlightened Leadership, 2008, HRD Press. www.mypowersurge.com

First appeared in the Business Review section of The Post and Courier on Monday, July 31, 2012.

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