By Elaine Cercado
Like other professions, being an independent consultant is one great roller coaster ride, with its many highs, lows, twists and turns. Every project and stakeholder offers unique experiences. Some projects may end up exceeding expectations, while some may disappoint. In my case, many projects and people I’ve worked with have become sources of challenge, learning, inspiration and wisdom.
If you have been wishing to be your own boss and have wanted to pursue your passion, being an independent consultant may be the path for you. There are other key aspects to consider though, aside from having the passion for it, the talent or mastery, or the state of financial independence. In this article, the focus will be the non-monetary considerations of this profession since those may vary by country, industry or company.
Context for Common Understanding
In this article, I use the term independent consultant to mean someone who is self-employed. The term may also refer to someone who may be in partnership with other consultants, who individually or collectively pursue or work on initiatives and projects within areas of specialization. He/she may be associated with an agency or a big company that provides the administration, marketing, R&D, implementation and other possible support.
Independent consultants may be called differently by different generations. Millennials self-describe as freelancers, while Gen-Xers and Boomers are more inclined to call themselves self-employed, business owners or entrepreneurs. In some countries, their clients may sign them up as independent contractors.
The engagement with an independent consultant may be on project basis, which is based on set of deliverables or outputs agreed within the focus area of the consultant. It may also be based on a schedule (i.e. retainer agreement) with specific responsibilities or tasks to be performed and delivered.
I shifted into consulting and training in 2008, and focused on strategic planning, organizational development, leadership & management development, sales performance, and interpersonal effectiveness. Recently, I’ve also gone into executive and life coaching. Driven by my mission and passion – and with the encouragement and support of my family – I shifted after 20 fruitful years in the corporate world.
Here are some of the advantages I enjoyed based on my 8-year experience working independently on projects.
- Continuous challenge, learning, growth. If you are like me, who enjoys the process as much as the outcome, then every project is a fulfilling experience. There are distinctive challenges and learnings, diverse inputs and perspectives, and lots of reflections and take-aways.
- Enhanced or expanded set of skills. Practice makes perfect. Every consulting work or project is an opportunity to practice. Practice is key to mastery – and mastery or specialization is key to steady flow of consulting work. I’ve also acquired new skills, such as when I started to design and develop courseware after gaining certification.
- Exposure and access to new technologies. If you land a project with a multinational company that invests in the latest or emerging technologies and tools, then you get the chance to explore and immerse yourself in new exciting worlds. One such memorable experience for me was as L&D consultant for a large IT MNC where I co-designed and developed e-learning contents using my client’s platform.
- Flexibility and control. This is one of the best parts – flexibility and control over your project choices, schedules and activities. However, if you have been used to a structured environment, this may require a big personal shift. Also, such flexibility and control go hand in hand with project accountability to stakeholders, as you will read below.
- Specialist or expert status. This status serves as your source of power and influence. That’s why mastery in your field is very important. What’s also important is an excellent track record, evidenced by concrete and measured results, and by testimonials from your client base.
- Opportunity to work with great leaders & teams. Working with and learning from great and diverse leaders and teams is one of the big blessings I’m always grateful for. Plus a larger professional and personal network is another one of the best parts of being an independent consultant.
- Accountability to project stakeholders. The various key stakeholders, people who have interests in the success of the project, are regarded as your bosses. Your stakeholder relationship-building and -management skills, plus effective change and project management and tracking process, are key success factors. This aspect is a “pro” if you have these skills and processes, and enjoy doing them.
Some of the disadvantages or challenges I’ve outlined below may turn out favorable for you. I’ll use myself as an example, as I’ve learned to appreciate every aspect of my chosen path positively. Different strokes for different folks, as they say.
- Different remuneration scheme. As independent consultants are not employees of the client, the pay and benefit package is different. While the more experienced and successful ones may be able to command their fees and other perks, such might not be the case for all. Be prepared to read the fine prints of your agreement and to negotiate if needed.
- Limited access. If you are the type who wishes to be in the loop of everything, then this profession might not work out for you. As independent consultants, you are seen as outsourced expertise/resource. You will be given access for the relevant systems, and in most cases, you can request for access as and when needed.
- Perception as “outsider“. While the consultant may be allocated a space in the office and given some access, there are well-defined limitations that differentiate you from full-time employees. More importantly, since you maybe perceived as an “outsider”, opening up to you or warming up might take a longer time. Integrating into the company culture might take more effort than usual.
- Self-reliance for career advancement. Your career advancement is your responsibility. If you have been “retained” by a company for quite some time, then it’ll be your responsibility to demonstrate performance, progress and growth in your consulting work. Hence, it’s always advisable to track project progress and the ROI to the company.
- Seasonality of work. Expect seasonality especially when you are still starting up, and have not established a steady flow of business or clients. You have to adapt to the slow and busy periods. Slow times have to be maximized by spending them for personal learning and business development. While busy times can really be stressful. Two months ago, I worked on 3 projects simultaneously, which required personal sacrifices. During times like these, support and understanding from family are critical.
- Project risks & impacts on stakeholder relationships. Most consulting works go hand in hand with change and project management. If one task has somehow been missed or delayed; or the project has overshot budget and schedule; or worst of all, has been abandoned or considered failure, stakeholder relationships might be impacted.
- Continuous investment. You have to be prepared to invest time, money and energy on a continuous basis – be it for your professional training and growth, for new tools and methods, or for business development and marketing. Whether you do your own accounts or outsource them, you have to spend precious time on some administrative work. As in any business entrepreneurship, it’s a 24/7 undertaking.
Whether you are still discerning to be an independent consultant, or are already into it, I hope the pros and cons have provided helpful insights or have affirmed you in this chosen path.
At the end of the day, you are the only one who can and will define what success looks like for you as an independent consultant. That may mean choosing projects that provide meaning, impact and balance. Or working on multiple projects at the same time that puts you in an environment of constant challenges, contributions, and learnings. Different strokes for different folks, indeed!