5 Suggestions for Would-Be Consultants

By J.J. Smith Dec 27, 2007

HR professionals should consider five suggestions before quitting full-time employment to enter into HR consulting, says Karen Storey, co-founder and president of Interactive Training in Linthicum, Md., which offers services to improve communication and leadership skills. Planning is important, and the five suggestions offered can help employees decide if and when they should make the jump to consulting, she said during a presentation titled “How to Be a Consultant in Training” held Nov. 7 by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Define Goals

It is important for those thinking of quitting a full-time job to decide what goals can be achieved by striking out on their own, said Storey, who has managed her own company since leaving a job in 1996. Once those goals have been determined, a potential independent consultant should share those goals with people who will support them, but not with people who will say, “You can’t do it,” she said.

Most people have two types of goals. “Give-up goals” are goals that people eventually abandon, Storey said. The opposite of those are “go-up goals,” which people work hard to achieve. While sharing all the goals with their supporters is important, it is also important to share them with individuals who are in a position to help the new consultant achieve them, she said.

Get a Coach

Once an HR professional decides to become a consultant and sets goals, it is important to get a coach, Storey said. But when asking someone to take on the role of coach, it is important they do so for more than a month or two. She originally met with her coach at least once a month for six months, and then once a quarter for a year. So for 18 months, they met for dinner, coffee or breakfast, and she paid for every meal, she added.

In addition, there is a difference between a coach and a mentor, she said. It is more likely that a coach will be forthcoming with criticism of a new consultant’s plans, and that is important, Storey said. An example of how a coach’s criticism can help a new consultant is when Storey produced a brochure for her consultancy that offered 32 programs. The brochure listed everything from hiring-and-firing training to performance evaluations. “I figured if a client wanted it, I would develop it,” she said.

But when her coach saw the brochure, he said, “It stinks,” because of the huge volume of programs offered. The coach pointed out that Storey could not have real expertise in all 32 programs. “Which of those are your area of expertise?” the coach asked. Following that meeting, Storey cut the number of programs her consultancy would offer to three areas she was “really good at.” The coach’s first suggestion helped Storey decide what she was good at, and it set the course of her business for more than 10 years.

Make Financial Plans

The U.S. Internal Revenue Service says the average business takes three years before it starts turning a profit, so a would-be consultant needs to develop a financial plan that anticipates “a solid year of no income,” Storey said. Before becoming an independent consultant, the hopeful needs to save money so he or she will not have to face bill collectors while trying to get the business running.

In addition, some financial quirks that are part of consulting must be prepared for, Storey said. For example, she gets little business from July 4through Labor Day, and new consultants should anticipate when their business will be slow, she said.

Don’t Ignore Family, Friends

Running a new business can “suck you in slowly” so that the consultant ignores the people who are important in his or her lives, Storey said. A consultant should not allow himself to get so caught up in the business that it costs time with family or friends. A new consultant may intend to give the business a maximum of 60 hours per week, but it is easy to start missing a child’s football game or a birthday, she said. Some consultants have used pencils for marking appointments with family and friends because those are the first appointments to be erased. “Don’t pencil in your family and friends,” she added.

Define Your Passion

A consultant who finds out what makes him or her “roar” will “never work a day in their lives,” Storey said. Once a consultant finds that passion, it will not be unusual to say, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid for doing this.”

J.J. Smith is manager of SHRM’s Consultants Focus Area.

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