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Maintaining Resilience as an External Consultant

Consider the case of Susan, an external learning and performance consultant. She started her consulting practice several years ago and was immediately successful in terms of client satisfaction and revenue. Although the global economic downturn and recession has caused her to lose some business, she has a strong core of primary clients she continues to work with. Despite these cancellations, Susan has taken the newly found time to work on a book, reconnect with former colleagues and clients, and revisit her marketing niche. The extra time has also given her more opportunities to exercise, work on art projects, and volunteer.

Contrast Susan with another external consultant, Phillip. Starting his business about the same time as Susan, he was also successful early on. However, the recession has thrown him for a loop. Many of his clients have canceled their learning projects, which has had a substantially negative impact on his earnings. He doesnt sleep well at night, waking up in panic mode about the viability of his financial future. While he attempts to market himself, he lacks follow-through and laments the loss of several key clients. Phillip has become more isolated and frustrated with prospective clients, who either wont make a decision or choose other consultants. Phillip is strongly considering leaving his practice to get a real job back in an organization.

Recognize yourself in either vignette? Truth be told, both people represent myself in different phases of my 11 years being self-employed.

Challenges we face as externals

Conventional wisdom suggests that many people who start their own business do not survive. The economic downturn of the past several years has underscored this as a reality, particularly for learning and performance consultants. Based on a nonscientific poll of independent colleagues, many external consultants have been challenged with

  • clients who have canceled training and development projects
  • delayed decisions on new projects as organizations become more cautious about investing in development efforts
  • greater pressure to decrease professional fees given an influx of new consultants in the field who were downsized from their professional roles
  • greater competition for fewer client projects.

Many external consultants have been negatively affected by the global recession over the past several years. Yet despite this downturn, the recession has proven to have a silver lining for some externals. Those who are resilient have been able to effectively adapt to this evolving context and maintain their viability as externals.
Key principles of resilience

More than the technical knowledge of our field, the ability to effectively cope with and adapt to adversity is a key determinant of success as an independent practitioner. Resilience consists of a psychological state or quality, as well as a complex process for rebounding from adversity. The concept has been used in the field of psychology since the 1950s, but took off dramatically with the establishment of the positive psychology movement in the past decade. As a result, an increasing number of organizations are identifying resilience as one of their core leadership competencies, including the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which has identified resilience as one of the key competencies for senior executives.

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Our knowledge of how people build and sustain resilience has been influenced by a number of research domains. For example, we know that our capacity to maintain our resilience is a by-product of internal resources, such as optimism or hardiness, as well as social resources from people who care about us. Emotional intelligence and self-regulation play an important role in maintaining our ability to sustain our resilience. Groundbreaking research on emotions has taught us that resilient people use positive emotions to maintain their resilience. Researchers also have concluded that drawing meaning from adverse situations is instrumental in growing from our challenges. Self-determination theory helps us understand how we can maintain our motivation despite challenges.

Given this growing body of research, let us now focus on strategies that self-employed consultants can use to build and maintain their resilience.

Resilience-building strategies

There are a number of strategies that can be used before, during, and after a significant challenge that might be faced by sole practitioners, such as economic downturns. These strategies are based on my experience as a 10-year independent practitioner, my work coaching individuals who have been downsized, and research I conducted on thriving during the Hurricane Katrina crisis.

Anticipatory strategies for maintaining resilience help inoculate us against future challenges we might face.

  • Build reserves of resources, including emergency savings as well as investments in professional networks. One of the most awkward times to build professional connections is when we are down-and-out. Highly resilient entrepreneurs build and maintain strong support networks long before they need anything.
  • Diversify our client base so that if we lose a client, our financial livelihoods are not threatened. In my own practice, Ive experienced the horror of inaccurately assuming that one big client would always be there until some unforeseen circumstance shattered that assumption.
  • Anticipate what-if scenarios associated with the viability of our existing clients and industry sectors to surface unrealistic assumptions you may be making about our existing clients. Use these scenarios to prompt you to take action in terms of building a more diverse client base.
  • Create a compelling vision for your life and professional practice to build and sustain hope. Ideally, this vision should be anchored in our own personal values that define what makes us unique. Not only does a compelling vision drive us toward action, it is a critical tool for helping us get back on track if we hit a downturn.
  • Give away business as a means for building strong peer relationships. Many times I am presented with opportunities to do work that are not a good fit for my skills or interests. I delight in giving this work awaynot only does it feel good but it builds strong support relationships.
  • Recognize that what goes up must come down. Economies and clients rise and fall. This is an inherent risk we take when we start a business. Rather than look at economic downturns as exceptions, resilient entrepreneurs accept the fact that this is how the economy works and prepare for them.
  • Create a rich, balanced life. Optimists are particularly skilled at drawing meaning from various domains in their lives. The do not put all their eggs in the vocational basket. As a result, when trouble emerges in their professional roles, they are able to keep it in perspective because of the fulfillment they gain from other domains including family, volunteer time, and spiritual activities.

If you are in the midst of adversity and struggling, consider the following strategies for reclaiming your sense of resilience:

  • Identify and draw upon your social supports. Many of my clients forget the supports they have when in crisis. I often ask them to make a list of 10 supporters they could call for help. In addition, learning to ask for help is an essential skill for self-employed people.
  • Reframe downturns as opportunities to grow and learn. Perhaps the downturn you are experiencing is a great chance to learn more about marketing or prompt you to learn how to sell yourself. For myself, I had talked incessantly for months about working on a book or blog without taking action. The gift of the economic downturn over the past couple years has been a huge investment Ive made in writing, blogging, speaking, and working on a book proposal.
  • Revisit your vision. Experiencing a downturn is the perfect time to keep the vision alive as a means for inspiring hope and taking action. I started and continue the practice of reading a one-page vision I posted to the first page of my day planner every morning.
  • Disengage and gain perspective. Sometimes it is very helpful to unplug from the adversity you might be facing to help gain insights. Exercise, see a movie dance, pray, create artwhatever it takes for you to unplug. My experience has been that running daily and making pottery provide very useful strategies for helping me gain perspective on my professional practice. This strategy also has the added benefit of triggering positive emotions, which have been demonstrated empirically to help people maintain their resilience.
  • Reflect upon past adversities you have conquered. Nothing like gaining insights on the current challenge you face by reflecting on past hardships youve faced and transcended. With the most recent economic downturn, more than once I reflected on the most intense challenge I faced several years backwriting a dissertation. This helped me reframe the current challenges and make them appear more surmountable.

And finally, after an economic downturn in your professional practice, consider the following strategies to help you build your resilience for future challenges:

  • Identify and reflect on key lessons learned. Research clearly suggests that when people make meaning from their adversity, they are more apt to grow and be transformed by it.
  • Share lessons learned. Building upon the prior strategy, consider strengthening your social supports by sharing your lessons learned as well as your gratitude for their help in your journey through adversity.
  • Celebrate your transition through adversity. Marvel in the insights and creativity you brought to the process of adapting to your challenge.

Viktor Frankl, in his book Mans Search for Meaning, argued that everything can be taken from us except our ability to choose our attitude in any given circumstance. The global economic downturn challenged and continues to challenge many of us who started our practices with the dream of self-employment. Despite the challenges created in an economic downturn for self-employed consultants, we can make conscious choices about our relationship with adversity.

About the Author
Kevin Nourse is a research-based executive coach with more than 20 years of progressive coaching and leadership development experience in both for-profit and governmental organizations. He focuses his practice on building resilient leaders and teams. Kevin has a PhD from Fielding Graduate University, where he conducted research on resilience among middle managers during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In addition, he has an MA in human resource development and a BS in information science. Kevin is on the faculty of the Georgetown University Leadership Coaching Certificate Program.
KG
About the Author
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