Ensuring Sustainability for Your HR Consultancy

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Apr 9, 2010
Companies whose images or reputations have been built around an individual—Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey are two prime examples—are notably at risk for losing it all if something happens to their principals. The same is true of independent HR consultants whose reputations are based on their names and their personal expertise. What risks are involved here and what can and should HR consultants be doing to ensure sustainability for their consultancies?

One of the first, obvious stumbling blocks to sustainability is the name of the firm. “If you currently have your personal name in your business, consider rebranding to something that will help your clients understand the value you can provide,” suggested Flip Brown of Burlington, Vt. “In my case, I chose Business Culture Consultants rather than Flip Brown and Associates for precisely that reason.”

That can, Brown admitted, be difficult to do. “You may want to examine to see if there are any hidden needs for personal validation in having your business so closely identified with you,” said Brown. “A good executive coach or business-savvy therapist can help you right-size your business if what’s needed is to downsize your ego,” he said.

“Remember, in the end it’s how people relate to you and your unique personal and professional gifts that is the heart of your business, not whose name is on the logo.”

Adam Higman agrees. Higman and his family run a clinical health care consulting firm that does HR consulting work—Soyring Consulting—named for Denice Soyring-Higman, R.N., based in St. Petersburg, Fla.“We recently hired and opened up a communications-related practice at our consultancy,” said Higman. In the process, he said, he was advised to “try to push the company brand independently from the principal.” This doesn’t mean that the two shouldn’t be connected, he noted, but rather that the principal’s role in the company’s brand is a part of the story, not the whole thing.

Plan for Your Financial Needs

HR consultants need to be concerned about financial security—for themselves and, potentially, for those who depend on them.

“If you have a spouse, partner, children or others who depend on your income make sure that you have adequate insurance for both personal and business needs and that the executor of your will has the sufficient acumen to either pick up the pieces of your business or hire someone who can,” suggested Brown.

For consultants who want their business to grow, and to outlive them, now is the time to begin building value that can contribute to a successful sale or transfer.

“Build the value of your business so that it can be sold, transferred or merged at greater value by having greater visibility through writing, speaking and presenting,” advised Brown.

With your financial future considered, it is time to consider how—and whether—your consultancy itself will live beyond you.

Not All Wish for Their Firm to Live On

Of course, not every HR consultant is concerned about sustainability. Some recognize that when they go, so goes their firm.

Greg Schinkel is one of these. Schinkel is president of Unique Training & Development, Inc., in Ontario. “As an independent consultant, the reality is that I am my brand,” said Schinkel.” “Over the years I have tried many different business models with associates, staff, salespeople [and] licensing of programs, and at one point sold shares in my business to another consultant. The reality is that it can be very difficult to scale the business. With overhead expenses, staff recruitment and development, it is easy for any extra earnings to be eaten up by expenses.”

Schinkel has found that by working on his own and subcontracting work to other consultants, he has achieved the right balance for his needs. “My income is higher, my frustrations are lower, and I get to do the work I love,” he said.

Still, he noted, it is important to think about and manage risk even if you are and plan to continue to be a sole proprietorship. He suggested:

  • Sign service contracts that provide steady cash flow and can be delivered by others now or when something happens to you.
  • Have a network of associates to whom you could refer work in the case of sickness, disability or death.
  • Develop information products—books, CDs, DVDs, forms, reports and the like—that can generate an alternate revenue stream and could be of value to someone else.
  • Build a business system that can allow someone else to run your business by necessity or by choice.
  • Generate surplus income, and invest it for emergencies.

For those who hope that their firm will continue to serve clients beyond their lifetimes or in their absence, there are some steps to take now to smooth the transition.

Plan for Succession

An important way to prepare for the continuation of a firm is to begin seeking out and cultivating talent.

Consultants need to cultivate strong leadership beyond their own, said Higman. If you wish your consultancy to live beyond you and you do not have any existing bench strength, it is time to consider bringing on some reputable and experienced leadership that can complement and fill in for you when you are unavailable, he said.

“One of my colleagues who is a gifted financial advisor suggested that I think about bringing in associates as I get closer to retirement who can pay me a reasonable monthly fee for the ongoing use of the business name, thereby providing some steady income as I begin to enjoy more skiing and playing more rock-n-roll in my seventies and eighties,” Higman said.

Kathleen Miller is with Miller Consultants, Inc., in Louisville, Ky., a firm she started 30 years ago. “Over the years I have recruited a group of 12 extremely competent younger colleagues who have worked with my company long term in a flexible, virtual relationship,” she said. “My commitment to them is to mentor them, invest in their development, work with them side by side [and] provide them with resources and opportunities while never impeding their professional options.” Miller said that, while she has always engaged in active mentoring, as she came within 10 years of retirement she began withdrawing gradually from the front line and began helping others on the team step up. She said she has three people in her group who are ready to take over.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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