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How to Keep Your Consulting Gig When Your Manager Leaves

By Lynn Bruno

Stick around consulting long enough, and it will happen: You’ve got a solid gig and you’re cranking out great work and then all of a sudden, your manager, the person who brought you on board, tells you they’re leaving the company.

Early in my career, when this happened I would get this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, wondering if that meant I’d soon be getting the boot. But eventually, I began to see it as a career opportunity.

What happened was that I often kept working for the new manager, building a new relationship and adding them to my network of hiring managers. On top of that, the departing manager would often ask me to join them at their new company. Of course it doesn’t always work out this way, but if you can manage to make it happen enough times, eventually you’ll build a network of hiring managers big enough to keep you as busy as you want to be. This is essentially how I grew my business.

I’m not the only one. On a recent consultant forum call, several EMers shared their tips for increasing the odds for landing butter side up when there is a change of regime:

Build Relationships

Colleen Atherton, Independent Marketing Consultant
Colleen Atherton, Independent Marketing Consultant

It's important to build strong relationships with your current team but also with anyone you’re working with cross-functionally. That way if the sponsor leaves and the new person comes in, the stakeholders can say, "She's really been an incredible partner and we need to keep her."

To build these kinds of relationships, I make sure I set clear expectations and maintain a high bar for my work so that I can meet or exceed these expectations. I also focus on bringing an outside or customer-centric perspective to deliver greater value. When people have worked within an organization for awhile, it’s easy to get caught up in institutional ways of thinking about how things are or have been, which blocks creativity and innovation. Use your role as a consultant to your advantage by sharing insights and offering an alternative point of view where it’s appropriate. This reinforces the unique value you bring to the organization. More than once, this has enabled me to survive an organizational or managerial change because my colleagues were willing to step up and speak to the ways that I brought unique value to the organization.

Expand Your Scope

Monica Brown, CEO and Principal, Align Strategy Group
Monica Brown, CEO and Principal, Align Strategy Group

One of the things that I've been able to do pretty successfully is find additional work from other managers within the company. That way if one contact leaves, I've got people in other departments that see the value I can bring into the organization. Sometimes it is easier to do this in small and medium companies than in larger organizations, where it can be more challenging to determine what projects and priorities are in process across other areas of the company, but the outreach is the same. If I’ve got bandwidth I’ll reach out to another marketing team or business unit and say, "Hey, I just heard from my sponsor that you guys are working on this project. I've got some extra time and would be happy to help. Here's the experience I have in this area and can bring to the team."

Attach Yourself to the Project

Ken Chen, Founder and President, EM Marketing
Ken Chen, Founder and President, EM Marketing

Attach yourself to the project, not to the manager. Of course you have some loyalty to the manager and you continue to maintain that relationship, but if you attach yourself to the project, even after the manager leaves, there’s a good chance you will continue with the project. I make sure that the company knows that, "Hey, I'm here to finish the project. The company brought me in for that purpose."

Sometimes I’ve had managers tell me their plans ahead of time. So I say, "How can we keep the project alive?" And sometimes they'll say, "Well, if I leave, this other person is going to become the sponsor." Then you build a relationship with that other person.

Sometimes, your time has come. Your client leaves and you leave. Do a very good job with transition. Document everything, and make sure everybody who is going to carry on has what they need. I've had it happen where I do a really good job with transition and two weeks later, they say, "Hey, we want to rehire you because we haven't figured out how to do this," or they say, "We really like how you handled that. Maybe we'll hire you in the future."

Reapply for the Job

Taran Soodan, Founder and CEO, Very Good Marketing
Taran Soodan, Founder and CEO, Very Good Marketing

Working at startups and small companies, I've actually been through this four times: the founder or the head of marketing — that's usually my point of contact — will end up leaving the company at some point as the company starts to grow. The first time it happened, I figured they’d bring in a new marketing person, and since they were hiring senior leadership, that person would probably bring in their own people. But, I reached out to the new head of marketing anyhow, and said, "Hey, I've been working with your predecessor. Here's all the work I did. I'd love to get on the phone and talk about how we can continue to work together." I’ve done that four times now and it’s worked every time, including one time when after working for the new person for a while, I ultimately decided I didn’t want the gig anymore because the expectations had changed.

Ask for a Warm Handoff... But There’s No Guarantee

Mark Harnett, Performance Marketing Consultant
Mark Harnett, Performance Marketing Consultant

I worked with one CMO who took a new job and he brought me in there as well. Then about three weeks later, he moved on to a new job. But he had given me a warm introduction to the people I’d be working with. I also came in and started doing stuff well and so it was a really nice handoff and a year later I was still working with both companies. Having the sponsor hand you off with a warm introduction is really helpful.

I've also had experiences where I've gone in and done a really good job, saving them hundreds of thousands of dollars per month on their ad spend. Then the marketing leadership changed, and I was thanked for the work I had done, and was gone shortly thereafter. I don't think there's anything I could have done. At another gig, my sponsor left the company, a new person came in, "cleaned house" and brought in a more expensive agency to do what I'd been doing. It's a mixed bag, but when those transitions happen, try to get out in front of it. See what you can do, who the different players are, and advocate for yourself to continue in your role.

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About Lynn Bruno

Lynn Bruno is a blog editor and independent digital marketing consultant.

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