In 2004, I made a bold, albeit hasty move. I left my corporate role, steady income, and a company I’d worked at for 13 years to go out on my own. I had a skill set, but not much of a plan. I had a strong work ethic, but no experience in external consulting. I didn’t have a very big network or reputation in the field. But I did have a strong sense of purpose and desire to make this work.
In spite of the naysayers, it has worked, and worked quite beautifully. Without a doubt, it was the best career move I’ve made. That’s not to say there were not missteps and mistakes, frustrations and disappointments.
When I stepped away from the perceived security of regular employment, I would have told you that I wanted to do more of the work I loved. And that, indeed, was my compelling reason. Yet, over time, I’ve realized many more reasons that independent consulting is perfect for me (and may be for you as well). Here are my top six, although if pressed, I could come up with more!
1. ControlTaking ownership of your career, work, income, and outcomes is empowering—although sometimes scary. The results I achieve are a direct result of what I do or don’t do. I decide what type work I do, how much I do, what type clients I want to work with, where I want to do my work, and how I want to deliver it. I either make good decisions or not, and directly feel the results. If I want to do a certain type work, I develop those skills and sell the work; and if the market shifts, I adjust.
I am no longer waiting for the right job to open up or for a certain person to retire to vacate a seat. I’m not at the whims of a corporate selection committee or another causality in the latest corporate restructuring. I don’t spend valuable time in a role I’m ill-suited for because it is a pre-requisite for the role I really want.
As with all things in life, one is never totally in control. Downturns happen in the economy and demand for your skills can shift. But over time, I’ve learned that I can adjust as well, be it by finding a new client or learning a new skill to get through tough patches.
2. FlexibilityAs a working mother, I always gravitated toward those jobs that offered me flexibility to tend to both work and family. With flexibility, I could juggle duties, fit tasks in, and get most of it done. Without flexibility, I was continually forced into tradeoffs that compromised the level of care I wanted to provide to my family and the quality of work I wanted to offer my employer.
Even my most flexible jobs as an employee pale in comparison to the flexibility I’ve experienced as an independent consultant. There are times I can double down on my business—and other times I can lighten up. I’ve been able to take considerable time to care for my parents in their final years, help my daughter and son-in-law with their newborn twin boys, take long vacations, and take time for discernment and reflection.
That doesn’t mean I have total flexibility. Client days are sacrosanct. I’ve been away from home for months on end. I’ve traveled to client sites early and stayed late. I’ve worked 14-hour days and seven-day work weeks.
But when I choose to, I can adjust my calendar to take care of what is most important—soemtimes it’s my commitment to clients, and other times, it’s my commitment loved ones.
3. Fewer Office PoliticsDrama seems to be a part of every organization. There are the complainers. Those who step on or over you on their quest for the next position. There is maneuvering. Hurt feelings. Competition. And of course, the office gossip who keeps all this turmoil churning.
It is not that consulting engagements don’t have their own drama. Typically, you are there because of unresolved problems or unrealized opportunities. Yet, there is an interesting dynamic that happens when you are on the outside as a consultant, rather than on the inside as an employee. You get perspective. You can see it without getting sucked into it. You can deal with messy projects and the office politics that come as a part of your engagement, yet at the end of the day, can walk away with a clear mind.
And when I’m at my best as a change agent, I can not only have a perspective, but can bring that to the teams I’m work with. I can say the hard truths that need to be said. I can acknowledge the dysfunction and provide guidance on how to get through it. And so perhaps, it is not fewer office politics, but that the office politics are less personal, less controlling of my opportunities, and not getting in the way of my career.
4. Ability to Make More MoneyMy quip as I left full-time employment was that I planned to work half as much and make just as much income. Turns out, that was a false prediction. I find that at times I work many more hours than I had put in as a corporate employee. Other times, far less. And yes, my income fluctuates as a result.
The thing I know now, but didn’t at the beginning, is that my income potential as an independent consultant far exceeds what I could have expected to earn in my corporate role. Hard to know exactly what I’d be earning had I stayed, but with tight budgets, stingy raises, and flattened organizational structures, it is fair to say that I may have eked out a 2 percent increase per year over the last decade.
I do know that I’ve been able to earn a six-figure income, year in and year out, and have experienced good times and hard times since 2004. What’s more, my hourly rate, which started at $82.50 for my first engagement as a sub-contractor, has increased by a multiple of three to five times, depending on the work involved.
That increase was possible due to experience, but also due to focused effort on my part to increase my skills to that level. I’ve gotten certifications. I’ve provided thought leadership. I’ve grown my offerings and the value I can offer. I have stellar client testimonials and referrals. And I’ve gotten a huge ROI on all those actions.
5. Choose the Work I DoOver time and with a variety of experiences, I’ve gotten clarity about the work that I’m good at, which also happens to be the work that I derive the most satisfaction from. I’m good at ideation; terrible at maintaining. I’m talented at strategy and big-picture thinking; I’m not so great at detail. I love to research and then to create; I’m not so excited about repeating the same things over and over.
And my deepest fulfillment comes when I can use my strengths to help others get to a better place. To help individuals lead better, to help teams work together more effectively, to enable an organization to make a positive shift.
As an employee, some jobs were better aligned to my strengths and values. Others were terribly misaligned. And even in those jobs that were a decent fit, a significant amount of my time was spent in work that just needed to get done—and I could and did get it done. I suspect another 40 to 60 percent of my time was spent in meetings—update meetings, planning meetings, seemingly endless meetings. And every once in a while (key point), I would get a juicy assignment or task that made my heart sing.
To get started in consulting, I took on work that I could do, but didn’t love, like technical writing, project management, and process documentation. But over time, I’ve been able to shape my work so that 80 percent of the time I’m doing work that I’m good at and enjoy. And of course, there is the unavoidable 20 percent. I still need to take care of finances, pay the bills, sit through meetings, and at times write proposals that go nowhere. But all these are in service of the greater 80 percent. And how grand to spend most of my time doing work that adds true value and also fills me up!
6. Choose Who I Work WithAs I looked back over my first 20 years as an employee, a clear pattern emerged. Every three years, just like clockwork, I made a big change. In fact, over the course of 24 years, I had a total of 15 different positions and three major career changes.
And the same holds true with my consulting career. I can shape and reshape the work I do (some call these pivots). I started in change management and training. I moved into cultural transformation. Then into leadership skills needed for the 21st century (think creativity, collaboration, and innovation). I’ve gone from 75 percent travel to 5 percent travel and now back to about 20 percent travel. I’ve done work that required me to be on-site with clients to work that is close to 80 percent virtual.
The wonderful thing is that it is a much more fluid and easy process with your own consulting practice. The more I shape it, the more it fits me. None of these changes happened overnight, but with focus and steadiness over time, my practice has changed shape several times. All the renditions were perfect in their time, but then it was time to do something different. So, I did
The Good News: It Worked!It’s hard to believe that my bold, hasty move, 15 years ago, would have turned out so well. I do work that I love. I make a good income. I have great flexibility. I work with great clients and peers. I love what I do and can’t imagine doing anything else. Funny how the twists and turns our careers take can lead up to a perfect place!
If you liked this blog, you’ll want to download a free chapter from my book Owning It: Take Control of Your Life, Work and Career. The chapter is called “Why Professionals Choose Independence,” and it provides more thoughts on this topic.
And if you have a consulting practice and want to take it to the next level, join me October 31 for the webcast, How to Determine Your Income Potential as an Independent Consultant.