As part of EM Marketing's COVID-19 initiatives to help their consulting community, I had the opportunity to provide career coaching to about 45 consultants over the course of 70-something sessions. Some were new at consulting, and some have been doing it for a long time and are already very successful. Taken together, this was an interesting view into what people typically struggle with as they build their consulting practice, and what consistently leads to success. Based on this work, I've compiled six best practices for landing your next gig and staying continually employed as a consultant.
1. Be unforgettable.
When you are employed, make yourself invaluable. Think of ways you can make things better for those around you. I'm not suggesting you exceed your scope, but without being obnoxious, look for ways to make yourself irreplaceable. Tune into what would really be helpful and approach it from a place of service and not self-promotion. To ensure your efforts don't go unnoticed, send an email update every Friday to whom you are reporting to of your accomplishments for the week. Keep it brief and also open-ended so that they can provide feedback too.
One consultant in particular I'm thinking of who seemed to always have work had a great formula for staying employed. First of all, she knows her content area very well and that inspires confidence. She has a stellar work ethic and finds ways to over-deliver on assignments. She can work as a sole contributor or step in and lead as needed. She's high EQ, a team player, but also humbly makes her accomplishments known. When you have that kind of experience, dependability, and flexibility, it makes the client want to renew the contract. They don't want to let you go.
2. Think about the next gig.
When you land a new consulting job, the temptation is to relax. Do that for a hot minute, and then immediately update your resume and your LinkedIn profile. You should look at your resume as a work in progress, adding new information as you land and work on new projects. Remember that email I suggested sending every Friday afternoon (see number one)? After sending that out, take an extra 15 minutes to review your accomplishments and see if anything needs to be added to your resume or LinkedIn profile.
And, if you know your contract is ending or you're wrapping up a project, always ask for recommendations on LinkedIn prior to your departure while you still have the day-to-day relationship. People are less likely to forget to do this when they're talking to you every day. So, strike while the iron is hot. Building up those recommendations on LinkedIn gives future employers added confidence that you're good at what you do, and people enjoy working with you. Employers don't want to take any risks, and right now they don't have to. Having a lot of recommendations can set you apart and make you feel like the safer choice.
3. Create a marketing portfolio.
The more senior people with a long track record of consulting had either a website or deck showcasing their work - or both. A couple of the folks I spoke to were certain that these tools made the difference in securing new roles. Having a stand-out deck to send over as a follow up provides an opportunity to be memorable (see number one). Trying to show your marketing expertise with a visually stunning resume is going to backfire. Instead, put a link to your website in your resume and online applications. There are roughly 90 automated applicant tracking systems out there of different ages and capabilities, and some of them are completely overwhelmed with the incoming volume right now. The professional association I belong to is recommending that candidates submit text-only resumes to ensure they make it through those systems. If you've got a resume with design elements or graphics, it may not even get through the system, but the link to your website will.
4. Know your strengths.
People in the same field tend to share a lot of the same strengths. The challenge is to find what is really unique about the way you do things. I get at this through exercises on superpowers and value propositions. You have to go beyond skill set to get at your particular genius - what would an organization get if they hired you, as opposed to all the other people with your same expertise?
You can do this yourself through StrengthsFinder, or the HIGH5 test, which is free. These assessments are a good starting place but to get at your unique specialty you can hire a coach. If that's not in the budget one of the things I ask people to do is ask the people who really know them - close friends or family members - what their superpowers are. Just getting that feedback can be a confidence booster. Then you compile it and work on messaging those themes on your resume, your LinkedIn profile and your marketing materials.
5. Network every day.
I swiped this idea from "You Are a Badass" by Jen Sincero. In it, she says to do one scary thing a day for your career. For a lot of people, that scary thing is networking. Again, from a psychological standpoint that is easier to do when you're working, but it is also easier to let it slide when you're working. Don't. Take a few minutes every day to connect with someone in your network. Networking is your most effective way to get work, with a success rate of over 80 percent, as opposed to 30 percent for online applications. LinkedIn and other forms of online platforms can make networking more palatable, especially for introverts.
6. When out of work, walk the line between persistent and annoying.
Many times in my career I have worked with people who are too persistent, and convey too much need, to the point of desperation. That's a turnoff. People don't want to help you when you're being too pushy.
What is too pushy? Asking for favors, introductions or recommendations from someone that you really don't know all that well. Asking people for too much time, or to bend over backwards for you in some way. Requesting an informational interview and then trying to turn it into a foot in the door. That leaves a bad taste in people's mouth and isn't really what you want people to feel after interacting with you. But at the same time, you don't want to be the person who's too timid or not willing to put yourself out there a little bit because it is going to be uncomfortable.
My normal gig as a career coach is mostly to help people find full time jobs, but the experience working with EM consultants confirmed for me what I've learned in that capacity: That number one, being unforgettable, is the most important of all. In speaking to the consultants who were never without work, even if they weren't doing things such as getting their resume up to date or asking for recommendations on LinkedIn, it was clear they were doing number one so well that they didn't have to.
If you're employed right now, great! Focus on being unforgettable and try to find time to work on your LinkedIn profile, resume, your portfolio and your branding to take yourself to the next level. If you're not, give yourself six months of breathing room to take the panic out of it, and therefore some of the neediness. You have to relax your way into doing this stuff, even while you're trying to land work. And don't lose hope; Just this week I've had four people contact me (and two of them through EM) that they have secured work. Tough times don't last forever, and the work you do during this time will help you be more successful as a consultant in the future.