Independent HR Consultants Face Downsides

By Lin Grensing-Pophal Oct 10, 2008

Jeff Graubard, owner of The Graubard Group, a public relations agency in New York City and other business owners have learned through the school of hard knocks and real world experience that part of being in business for themselves means dealing with the downsides while working to achieve the success that entrepreneurship can provide.

For HR professionals still in a corporate environment but contemplating the launch of their own independent consultancies, the words of wisdom of those who have gone before can help manage expectations.

Andrea Jaworski, an HR consultant who started Jaworski HR Advantage, LLC, an HR outsourcing business, says there are many positives to being out on her own, including a flexible schedule, the ability to work from her home or office, and independence when delivering services that reflect her personal style and structure. However, there is another side to independent consulting that requires real self-confidence, she says. “It takes courage to convince other professionals that you can supply an advantage that they cannot provide themselves.”

Abhay Padgaonkar, president of Innovative Solutions Consulting, Inc., says undertaking a project as a corporate employee and undertaking a project as an objective, independent, outside consultant are different things and require different skill sets. But getting rid of the corporate mindset is a lot easier said than done, he adds. “The risk-reward profile of a solo consultant is very different from that of a corporate employee,” he says. It is critical for independent HR consultants to have confidence in their abilities, yet it can be difficult for a consultant to articulate confidently the value that can be provided to a client, rather than the types of activities that can be performed, he says.

In addition, consultants who are new to running their own business can make mistakes, Padgaonkar says. Three of the costliest mistakes are:

Becoming complacent after a small number of large jobs.

Becoming too narrow in the area of expertise and the list of clients.

Ignoring HR consulting trends and advances.

Consultants who stop paying attention to what is going on, and just operate in their own sphere of narrow expertise, risk becoming useless to the clients, Padgaonkar adds.

Tenacity and Commitment

Edith Onderick-Harvey founded Change Dynamics Consulting in 1999 and has learned that successful HR consultants need to create “balance.” Not the kind of work/life balance that consultants might be familiar with from employment with a corporation, but the balance among administering the company, marketing or selling the services offered, and then delivering those services. When a consultant starts out, unless there is a fair amount of start-up money backing the enterprise, the consultant “will be president, salesperson, service provider and chief bottle washer,” she says. It is crucial for a consultant to be able to continue to sell even when delivery of current contracts has consumed the consultant’s schedule, she says.

Alan Weiss, president of Summit Consulting Group, Inc., says that when HR consultants strike out on their own, they generally focus on established contacts, often from the company they are leaving. Consultants need to remain cautious against relying on those initial contacts, he says. For HR consultants to be successful, they need to develop new business, he says.

Independent consultants need to stay focused and productive and look for ways to turn discouragement around. Tenacity and commitment are critical, says Andrew Miller, an independent management consultant and business advisor. Developing business and clients is a process, so consultants should not get discouraged if everything does not work out right away, and a consultant can turn discouragement into opportunity, he says. For example, a consultant who loses a project can learn from the experience by writing an article about what to do better next time, or if a client provides less work than previously expected, a consultant can counter by conducting a podcast on managing expectations, he says. Independent consultants need to stay focused and productive and look for ways to turn discouragement around, he adds.

Building Business

The most important point to convey to contemplative or newly independent HR consultants is that marketing and networking are the keys to success, say experienced independent consultants.

Erik Luhrs, CEO of Make Your Business BOOM!, Inc., says that “the trick to succeeding on your own as an HR consultant, or as a consultant in any field, is to remember that you are not a consultant, you are a marketer who markets consulting.” The mistake HR professionals make when they start a consultancy is to focus primarily on technical skill, he says. “It’s great to be the best at your niche of HR, but that doesn’t mean anyone will hire you,” he says. A consultant’s ability to market will determine how successful the business is, he adds.

Newly independent HR consultants need to tell everyone what they do, Miller says. “The first thing consultants [who are] on their own need to do is develop one or two sentences that describe what they can offer clients,” he says. Once a HR consultant has established what they do, they need to tell everyone because “the more people who know and understand your value, the more people will refer you business,” he says. “This is a referral business,” he adds.

As an independent HR consultant, selling is the primary job, HR is secondary, Onderick-Harvey says. A consultant’s network needs to include a wide variety of people who can introduce the consultant to a wide variety of potential clients.

Once they have contacts, independent HR consultants should cultivate those contacts at the right level of the organization, Weiss says. “Focus on being a peer of the executive,” he adds. HR consultants should not try to sell to the HR department, because the HR department is not the real buyer, he says.

Independent consultants who are not motivated to pick up the phone and work their networks, as well as to work constantly on increasing business, should reconsider striking out on their own.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002).


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