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How to Be a Consultant

Updated: Sep 2, 2022

For me, it’s always makes me feel really old when people look to me for guidance. Nevertheless, most enquiries I get from my website and LinkedIn (if not spam) are from college students or young professionals who want to consult, and are writing to me for advice. When I meet clients, often someone in the organization (maybe someone junior having a bad day in the office) will take me aside and say “I want to do what you do, tell me how”. So I am writing my top ten tips on how to be a freelance consultant.

I have to say, I love freelance consulting – it’s worked really well for me as a way to learn a lot; see the world; meet new people and achieve a huge portfolio of work. I like working in a very focused way, and consulting lets me do that because tasks are usually discrete and we define it well before we embark. I thought I’d put together my top ten tips for how to consult – for junior professionals who are having a bad day at the office.

1. A good foundation

You need to work in the best interests of your client at all times, and to do that it’s important to understand your client.

This is advice for those at their beginning of their career – or at least those with some room to move: get a few years’ good experience in organizations of the type you for which you would like to consult. For example, UN organizations work very differently from technical assistance agencies which work differently from grassroots NGOs, which work differently from the development banks. Understanding their priorities and needs (which often remain unarticulated) really helps deliver a useful product.

If potential clients see you have worked with organizations like theirs, they will know you understand how they work and also want your intel.

2. A network of established relationships

Build and maintain a network. Some people are uncomfortable with networking because they think it’s sleazy or sales-oriented, but for me, my network is everything. It is of course how I get work (I rarely “apply” for things unless I am requested to). Working through and with people I know or am connected to is a form of protection – it means people will not treat me poorly or be disrespectful. It also means I have an ongoing source of market information – I can do background research on clients before we work together so I understand them better. As so many assignments are short term, you need to establish a common understanding quickly and, of course, this is easier if you have some connection.

Importantly, in a consultancy you may have to deliver, or hear, uncomfortable truths (for example, clients expectations may be unreasonable, they may have misidentified the problem that needs to be solved, they may have issues with your work). Within a relationship of trust, it is possible to do that without being disruptive, while keeping the assignment on track.

3. Talk about your strengths

Get comfortable at talking about your work and your strengths. This can be hard and I sometimes miss-sell or under-sell myself – but there is no way around it. People need to know what you can and can’t do, and as you articulate this you are pitching your services. People talk about doing an ‘elevator pitch’ or describing your work ‘in 25 words or less’ – you need to be able to describe your work quickly – many decision makers are busy and used to making quick judgements.

4. Bargain hard on your day rate

Even if money is not the main thing that motivates you in life, try and maintain a high day rate. This means that your expectations of yourself remain high, clients’ expectations of you remain high, and it raises the bar on the quality of the work produced – and so benefits the sector all round. There are many things to consider here; the work you would like to do, the impact you would like to have; the fact that women typically undersell themselves and are underpaid; the fact that social sector work is typically undervalued even though it’s really important. If there are some tasks you would like to do with organizations that simply don’t have a high budget, do a deal for them through a “fixed deliverable contract”.

5. Set and manage expectations

When you first get a contract, spend time to clarify and set expectations, set out budgets and timelines and clarify key stakeholders in as much detail as possible. You need to set and manage expectations continuously, so there are no surprises. If there is a scope of work (or ‘terms of reference’) expand it with more detail as the conversations proceed. It’s often a good idea to draft an “inception report” within the first few days or week of a project to clarify the deliverables. If there is a change in direction for the task or assignment, make sure this is carefully documented and any implications for time or budget or quality of output should be explained clearly. Ambiguity or shifting agendas around a task – while sometimes necessary in a dynamic environment – eat up a lot of time and energy, and it sometimes adversely affects the quality of the deliverable.

6. Foster ownership of the work

Your engagement as a consultant will usually be short. For this reason, for your work to have any traction or impact, it needs to be “owned” by your client. As you work, you need to make sure the client is ready to take ownership of your outputs when you are done. This sometimes means that you make yourself invisible (don’t put your name on the report or make sure your client is a co-author), you are working in your client’s name, your work belongs to your client. Embracing this is really important, and very zen.

7. Prioritize face to face communication

Something I have learned from working in India is to always prioritize face to face communication with a client – don’t rely on Skype unless you know them well. It’s important for building and maintaining trust. If you have to drive from Delhi to Gurgaon or fly from Bangalore to Mumbai to meet a client, make the effort to do so (to the extent time and budget allows). Many people are not comfortable with Skype or phone calls, and you just can’t build the rapport required to discuss tasks frankly.

8. Be curious and keep learning

When you consult you typically work across a wide variety of areas, and you need to be able to pick up information quickly. Use plane travel time or time between assignments to keep reading, and up to date. Attend training programs, symposia and conferences (but select carefully, some are terrible).

In addition, make sure you give yourself time to process what you have learned. We all learn a lot from our work, but if we are moving fast, we may not even realize what those lessons are. I also personally also avoid the title “expert” because we must all keep learning, stay humble and be open to learning new things from varied sources. Calling yourself an “expert” closes off those opportunities.

9. Get a life coach

When you embark on being an independent consultant you give up colleagues, a workplace, an organizational identity and sustained peer learning. To compensate for some of these losses, I got a professional coach.

Seeing the success of nurse mentoring projects in Karnataka and in Bihar made me want to also engage a workplace coach. Reading Atul Gawande explore this in his work “Top Athletes Have a Coach: Should You?” inspired me further. My coach helps me finds strategies to always approach work in a fresh way. You can see details about my coach here:

10. Have your own escape route

In the same way many people see freelance consulting as an escape, consultants also sometimes need to escape! Have a good go-to “self-care” routine to look after yourself at the end of a challenging assignment – like a hike or a trip to the beach.

To make life easier for yourself, select assignments carefully. Sometimes it’s good to take a risk – with an unknown client, an unknown topic or an unknown geography – but do so mindfully (ie. this is a risk – if it doesn’t work out I will not be hard on myself). However, sometimes assignments are not workable for lots of reasons. Make sure there is an “out” clause in the contract.

PS: And here are some bonus practical tips: get a lounge pass so you can access lounges in airports; keep a dedicated packed toiletries bag just for work travel; make sure you ask your clients for a positive testimonial and referrals through linkedin; build up a store of cash to pay taxes and hold you over when work is scarce or payments are late.

Here is another good resource about consulting which I wish I had read when I was starting out:

Effective Consultancies in Development and Humanitarian Programmes

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