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It's been 18 years since I took the leap into solo consultancy, but I still remember the anxieties I had back then. They very nearly held me back from making the move – a move that’s been professionally, personally and financially rewarding. In this article, I focus on five common anxieties that new consultants face and provide my tips and advice about how to push through them rather than have them hold you back.
Freelancer Anxiety #1 - Do I have what it takes?
At one time or another throughout our careers most of us have rubbed shoulders with imposter syndrome. Despite evidence of our success, it has us doubting that we have what it takes. And it especially turns up when we are considering bold career moves. For me, one of those times was eighteen years ago, when a highly respected consultant asked me “Have you thought about consulting?” While I was very drawn to the idea, my immediate thought was “Who me? No way”. As I mulled it over, my negative self-talk was pretty loud – identifying all the reasons why I couldn’t possibly do it. “You’re not experienced enough.” “You’re not senior enough.” “You’re not old enough.” “It’s way too risky”. “ No one will hire you.” This self-talk was all about questioning whether I had what it takes. It turns out that I most definitely did, but I very nearly didn't make the move. So, if you're stuck in that place, I get it. But don't let imposter syndrome get the better of you. Instead, conduct a ‘self-audit’ to help decide whether consulting is for you or not. Here are some good questions to ask yourself. Do I have a breadth of experience in my sector’s operating environment? Have you moved around enough, experienced your sector from multiple perspectives. Do I have the necessary credibility? Do you have a solid career behind you – have you earned the kind of credibility you’ll need to be in demand as a consultant? Am I good at operating outside my comfort zone? Operating as a consultant is a bit like starting a new job every few months, but without the orientation or lead in time. Some of us thrive in this, some of us don’t. Where do you sit? Am I a procrastinator? As a consultant, you need to be self-motivated and disciplined. If left to your own devices you tend towards procrastination, then this might cause some problems. If you have that area covered, excellent. What’s my relationship to a deadline? You need to be able to deliver on deadlines, consistently, on every project. How are you with a deadline? Am I OK with a bit of uncertainty? There’s no getting away from it, consulting brings a degree of uncertainty compared to life as an employee. There are also huge advantages, but how do you think you’ll handle the uncertainty? Can I operate effectively without support systems? Going from being part of an organisation to operating solo means you are your own support system now. I happen to love this – in fact, thrive in it. How do you think you would cope? Focus your self-audit not only on your experience and capacity, but also on your personal traits and style.
Freelancer Anxiety #2 - Will I win enough business to stay afloat?
This is a question that keeps every new consultant up at night. In my view, overcoming this hurdle depends on two things – getting your name out there and onto the radar of potential clients, and mastering the skill of preparing great consultancy proposals. Here are my top tips about both.
Getting onto the radar of potential clients
If you’re a member of Expert360 you’re already on the right track. You also need to leverage your existing network and market yourself. If you've come from employment, it can be a bit uncomfortable to ‘sell' yourself in this way [especially if you’re still dealing with imposter syndrome!], but you have to take a deep breath and launch yourself out there. Once you've decided to branch out as a consultant, reach out to colleagues and senior people in your network and let them know about your new business. Prepare a Capability Statement that spells out exactly what services you offer and get it out there. And encourage your network to pass on the information to others so you can extend the reach of people who have you on their radar.
Master the skill of consultancy proposals
Once you have an opportunity to bid for a project, winning that bid will depend on the quality of your consultancy proposal. Over the years I’ve seen so many new consultants falter at this stage just because their proposals were poor quality. Here are the key sections I think you need in a proposal.
- Understanding of the brief – Make sure you take steps to really understand the client’s requirements. Don’t just rely on the written brief, which will only tell part of the story.
- Methodology – Provide an outline of how you will undertake the project. The most effective way is to provide a basic project plan.
- Breakdown of tasks and timeframes - Based on your project plan, outline the major consulting tasks, the number of days required for each and the dates for delivery/completion.
- Issues related to scope – Most people new to consulting miss this out, but it's critical to identify any assumptions that underpin your proposal [e.g. tasks or costs you assume the client will take care of] and flag any potential areas of scope creep you are aware of.
- Budget – More about quoting later.
- Compliance – a simple statement that lets the client know you’re compliant with business, taxation and insurance requirements.
- About you – A couple of paragraphs about your capacity to undertake the project.
Freelancer Anxiety #3 - Can I really charge that much?
Deciding on your daily rate can lead to an uncomfortable conversation with yourself. As employees, we rarely talk about our worth in dollar terms, and once our salary terms are agreed we just get on with the job and tend not to mention it again. As a consultant, you now have to set a daily rate [hard enough in itself], and [even worse] declare it openly. And deciding that daily rate often causes new consultants anxiety. When I first started out, my $900 a day price tag seemed ridiculously high. How could I possibly live up to that in terms of delivering value? But my mentor was very firm with me – she walked me through the market range for consultants doing similar work in my sector, and told me to set my rate somewhere within that - but not too high and not too low. So if you’re starting out and wondering what to charge, I advise you to do the same. Research the going rates in your market and set your rate towards the lower end but not the lowest. Although you bring a wealth of experience, you are still new to consulting and without runs on the board, you can’t charge premium prices just yet. But set your rate too low, and prospective clients may question your capacity to do the job. So start somewhere toward the lower end, and over time, increase your rate as you get some runs on the board. It might still feel like a lot of money per day, but you’ll quickly get comfortable with it.
Freelancer Anxiety #4 - How on earth do I quote accurately?
While we’re talking money, this is another area that causes anxiety for new consultants. The most common mistake I see is under quoting. Accurate quoting is an essential consulting skill and here is my a 5-step quick guide to get started on the right track.
Step 1: Break the project down into phases
Every consultancy project can be broken down into four or five key phases. For example, planning, information gathering, analysis, report preparation.
Step 2: Identify all the major consultancy tasks involved in each phase
Examples are administering an online survey, conducting stakeholder consultations, drafting the report.
Step 3: Map out each major task in more detail to figure out all the process steps that will be required
To figure out how much time you’re going to need for those major tasks, drill down further and figure out what I call the process steps, which are the steps that will take you from A to B to C.
Step 4: Estimate a realistic time frame for each process step
Because the process steps are more detailed, it’s now feasible to figure out with a degree of accuracy how long it will take you to complete each of those steps.
Step 5: Add up process steps to estimate time for each major task and add to the proposal
Now you can easily add up the time you’ve allocated to each process step to reach an accurate estimate of the time it will take to undertake the major task.
Freelancer Anxiety #5 - What if I fail?
Starting your own consultancy business is a bold move, and it is potentially exposing to put yourself out there. Fear of failure is common, but don't let this hold you back. Instead, do the following:
- Remind yourself how successful you’ve been throughout your career. You’ve made big career moves before that no doubt brought up fear of failure. Get in front of a whiteboard and map out your career journey to remind yourself how far you’ve come.
- Actively manage your self-talk. Don’t just let your brain do its own thing – be mindful of negative self-talk and replace those messages with positive alternatives.
- Remember that our fears are rarely rational or objective. So don't confuse your fear with actual risk. You know you can do this.
- Name the worst case scenario. So maybe you will discover that consulting isn't for you. But what's the worst thing that could happen if that comes to pass? It's probably simply returning to the workplace; finding your next dream job. Not too shabby at all.
Making a move to consultancy is daring and brave. It has the potential to change your life and bring so many positive rewards. Don’t let your anxieties stop you testing the waters.
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