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Article No.: 13-5, May 1, 2013

Article Title: Is Consulting the Right Profession for Me?

Author: Linda Gravett, Ph.D., SPHR, CEQC

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When I was 40, I took what would be considered by many to be a huge risk.  I left an executive-level position to start and build a consulting practice in the field of organizational development.  If you’re preparing to take a similar risk, you’ll want to know the problems, challenges and issues any entrepreneur faces before you take the leap. 
 
If you’ve been thinking about starting a consulting practice, you’re not alone.  Between 6 and 7 percent of the U.S. population is in the process of starting a business at any given time. 
 
Perhaps you’re not yet sure whether the consulting field is for you.   If so, this article may help you make this important decision.  For me, a consultant going into my 23rd year, consulting has been a calling that just felt right after I engaged in some research.  In this article, I’ll share some information that is designed to help you decide whether consulting is the right path for you.  You can find additional information about entrepreneurship in my 2011 book co-authored by Terri Bonar-Stewart, Just a Couple of Women Talkin’:  The Real Story of Being a Woman Entrepreneur.
 
I’m certainly not alone in my desire for flexibility and business ownership.  Let me share some Bureau of Census statistics that are pertinent to the discussion.  If you’re a woman, you might be interested to learn that in 2006, nearly 10.4 million firms were owned by women.  These firms employ more than 12.8 million and generate $1.9 trillion in sales.  Between 1997 – 2006, the growth in the number of women-owned firms nationally was nearly two times the rate for all U.S. privately-held firms:  42.3%% vs. 23.8%.  Of the nearly 26 million firms in the U.S., most are very small:  97.5% have few than 20 employees.  Yet cumulatively, these firms account for half of our country’s non-farm real gross domestic product and they have generated 60 to 80% of the net new jobs over the past decade.
 
The primary reasons for failure of most start-up operations are:  lack of sufficient capital; lack of focus; meager marketing; poor execution; and failure to recognize when “good enough” is “good enough” for the marketplace.
 
Having said all this, let’s get down to business….the consulting business.  Is it for you?  The first question to consider, I believe, is “What is consulting?”  According to Webster’s dictionary, a consultant is “a person giving expert or professional advice.”  Before a person can give expert advice, he or she must have experience and knowledge in their field.  This is a fundamental and critical concept that I often see overlooked.  If you don’t have substantive experience in an area, your credibility will take a nose dive once that fact is discovered by a client.
 
I’ve probably talked more people out of going into consulting than the reverse by telling them what consulting isn’t.  Consulting is not:

  • A sure fire way to get rich…..quick.
  • An easy way to make a living.
  • Considered by one and all as a prestigious role in society.
  • The best way to earn a living while in transition between jobs.

Established consultants have built a reputation within the community based on their extensive knowledge and experience in a given area.  Additionally, they share their knowledge in a clear, understandable way, through training, teaching or one-on-one coaching sessions.  Building a consulting business takes time, patience and capital.  It is not throwing together some letterhead and business cards and waiting for people to call.  There’s a high level of competition for the services consultants offer, and if a person simply “hangs out a shingle” and waits, it could be a long wait.
 
You may be wondering, “Do I have the ‘right stuff’ to be a consultant?”  Consultants are a diverse group; however, I have observed a pattern across all successful consultants I’ve encountered.  The common characteristics include:

  • The willingness and ability to take calculated risks.
  • Self-efficacy.
  • Drive to pursue continuing education.
  • Self-discipline.
  • Marketing and sales skills.
  • Strategic and planning ability.
  • Trend spotting acumen.
  • Comfort level with working alone.
  • Empathy.

Let me comment about a couple of these characteristics that I’ve found to be especially critical:  self-discipline and sales and marketing ability.  Self-discipline is important because there is potential boundary-less freedom in working for yourself.  When I began my consulting practice, I knew that I could sleep until noon and putter around all day in my pajamas in my home office…if I didn’t want to make any money.  So I set an in-office schedule, time for marketing and time for visiting clients or potential clients.  That self-discipline has served me well, for I know I’ve been productive when I’m able to invoice clients AND have made measurable contributions to my client organizations.
 
The most successful consultants I know are not simply technically proficient.  They also possess the ability and willingness to market their services.  I’m not talking about mass mailings to a list of names off a directory.  I’m referring to creating and seizing opportunities.  Creative consultants use a variety of marketing techniques such as networking at conferences; speaking engagements; writing; volunteer activities; creating a web presence; and teaching at the university level.  All of these activities ensure that the consultant maintains a high level of positive visibility.
 
Still not sure about whether consulting is for you?  Reflect on this short yet important list of reflection questions.

  1.  What expertise do I have that organizations might be willing to pay for?
  2. Do I possess most of the characteristics mentioned above?
  3. Am I willing to give up a predictable, steady income while I grow my business?
  4. Would I prefer to be independent and run all aspects of a business, or would I rather join an established consulting firm?
  5. Am I comfortable working on my own, with little interaction on a regular basis?
  6. Am I willing to travel to develop my business?
    What do I want from consulting that’s missing in my position as an employee?
  7.  Am I disciplined enough to stay focused on my work and my mission?

Consulting is a challenging, interesting and fast-paced career that can be extremely rewarding.  I hope this article has helped you focus your thinking so you can make this important decision for yourself.  Good luck!

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