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Why Now Is the Time to Embrace the Consultant Mindset

By Ken Chen

Running EM Marketing, we often meet people who have a lot of excitement about becoming independent consultants — until they hit some obstacles. Maybe they lose out on a couple of proposals, or they go through a dry spell. Fear sets in and they pull back and look for full time employment because they perceive it to be a safer bet. Even some people who have been consulting for a while are always playing both sides. They think, "I’ve got to keep all avenues open. I’ve got to look for the next best opportunity." 

I’m not saying that’s not legitimate. I get it. I’ve been there and done that. But in my experience, that’s not a recipe for success as an independent consultant.

The Road Less Traveled

This is not an easy path, if for no other reason than that it is the road less travelled. There’s just way more opportunity for full-time work, and for a long time, I felt like I had to explain why I was a consultant. I sensed that people thought of consultants as people who couldn’t find full-time work, and I constantly had well-meaning friends and business connections pointing me towards full time opportunities. 

When I started trying to find work for consultants, I constantly came up against the butts-in-seats mentality — the belief that roles need to be filled by someone who can be in the office from nine to five every day and perform to a particular job title. I think that is an outdated way of thinking that limits opportunities both for workers and for companies.

Will the coronavirus crisis change that thinking?

My guess is that the majority of people will rush back to the status quo as quickly as they can. But for some people, this will be a defining moment that will lead to new ways of thinking — and new opportunities.

Marketing headcount will be cut, but there will still be marketing work, and that is an opportunity for independent consultants. Based on my own experience transitioning from FTE to consultant, and on my experience running EM, I have come to believe that the best way to succeed as a consultant — now and in the future — is to close the door on becoming an FTE and embrace the consultant mindset. Here’s how I came to that conclusion, and what I see as the core elements of it.

The Weak Moment

I started consulting because I was looking for better work life balance following a health scare. I wasn’t planning to stick with it forever, because I hated the idea of having to look for work all the time. But, I really liked what I was doing so I figured out how to do networking my way and built a steady business.

Then, after I had been consulting for almost three years, I took a full-time job at a startup. Not quite intentionally. My conversations with the hiring manager were all about hiring me as a consultant. We had gone pretty far down this path, and I was excited about working with them when they told me, “We want to hire you, but you have to be a full-time employee."

Instead of walking away, I signed on. It was a weak moment. I didn't have a lot of work. My wife and I had just had our first child, and we agreed it would be good if we had the security of healthcare, and that is how I got pulled back in. After all, I thought, it shouldn’t really matter what the legal structure of the arrangement is.

The Trick That Didn’t Work

I tried to do the mental trick of operating the same way I had as a consultant, but soon I found myself falling back into old norms. I took on stress about the performance of the company. I constantly felt like I should be doing more. I found myself getting entangled in politics because I could see how they were going to have an impact on. I felt myself getting emotionally attached to decisions instead of just letting them go.

It was a small organization and they only had one product, and about three months in I felt like I had learned everything about the product and the business that I needed to do a good job. I remember thinking, "Oh, man, I'm not going to be learning anything else new here." 

Then there was the expectation of face time. In theory, I could work two days a week from home. But, when people can't find you in the office when they want you, you start to feel the pressure to be there. I began commuting two hours daily, which was a constant reminder of how inefficiently my time was being used. About five months in, I got shingles, which can be stress induced, but is much more common in older people. I was only in my 30s. It was another wakeup call, my body giving me clues.

I was disappointed in myself. I had made a decision to do consulting and it was working for me. There were some slow periods, but I always found work. I had traded what I loved and wanted for security and comfort.

The company’s product launch didn’t go well, and I got laid off, with about a month’s severance. So much for security and comfort. It had been 11 months of not seeing my son, and I knew I never wanted to go back. At that point, I decided, "This is going to be all in." That is the foundation of the consultant mindset — going all in. Here’s the rest of it:

  • Taking the long view

Dry spells will happen in your career, whether you’re a consultant or an FTE. Learn to be okay with it. Keep a list of the things you want to do when things get slow, and you may even learn to embrace slowdowns as a time to learn and recharge.

We meet people all the time who want to know, "How long are your consulting gigs?" I think what they want to hear is that we can keep them employed forever. That’s not something any company can promise you, under any circumstances. When I say, "Well, they can be very short," with some people you can see the fear on their face. Others say, "Sure, I'll do that. It's a new client, and that may lead to more work down the road." That’s the consultant mindset.

  • Creating your own security

Many longtime consultants will tell you there’s actually more job security being a consultant — if you diversify. Early on, I had been a captive of one company, but if that ended, I would be just as dead in the water as a laid off FTE, only without the severance package. I tried to make sure I always had two or three clients, and that no one client took up more than 50 percent of my time.

Keep an eye on your pipeline, paying attention to project end dates and changes to budget and personnel so you have a sense of what might come to an end, what might ramp up, and what gaps you’ll need to fill.

Consider developing another income stream. For me, that was finding work for other consultants. For some consultants, it’s a book, a product, or paid speaking in their area of expertise. For some, it’s a side hustle. Keep your expenses lean and your financial house in order to give yourself flexibility. Experiment and figure out what’s right for you.

  • Living to prove yourself and earn the work

I've always had a chip on my shoulder from growing up as an Asian kid in Michigan. I felt like I had to prove myself all the time, mostly on the sports field. That shaped my attitude toward consulting, which was always, "I don't have a title here. I don't have a reputation here. I have to prove myself every day.”

That’s different from how you function as an FTE. It's not necessarily a meritocracy inside a corporation. When you're an employee, you get an annual performance review, usually under the assumption that you're going to stay there. It’s often based on how well they like you and how well you play politics more than on the quality of your work.

As a consultant, there's no such assumption. You can’t ignore politics entirely, but you can remain neutral. You’re evaluated on the project because that’s how they hire you. I think you work a little harder under those circumstances. People with the consultant mindset like that, because they want to be evaluated on their work. And if you do good work, you earn more work. That’s your meritocracy.

  • Not looking at the scoreboard

If your goal in life is to have a big title or hit a certain salary figure, consulting is probably not for you. I’m not saying it’s not important to make a good living or to play a leadership role. Just that if titles and salary are how you measure yourself, and if you’re taking a job because it’s a rung on a ladder rather than a challenge opportunity, that’s more of an FTE mindset.

As a consultant, you might play a role similar to director or VP level role, but you're not going to get the title, and you have to be okay with that. In fact, people who have the consultant mindset don’t even think about what "level" a project is. They think about how they can add the most value.

Forget about the ladder. It's less about climbing and more about assembling a network and a portfolio of skills that are aligned with where the market is moving. If you really need a title, proclaim yourself CEO of your own consulting business.

  • Creating your own community

I’m a team person, and the chance for team camaraderie played a role in luring me back to being an FTE. Being an FTE provides an instant community, but only a few of those people will probably be people you want to work with again, let alone see again. Instead, assemble your own community of people you like and want to work with.

Once I recommitted to consulting, I made my business development efforts more multifaceted. I continued meeting with hiring managers, but I also began connecting with a lot of people who were already on this journey and putting together flexible partnerships and project-based proposals.

I didn’t know it at the time but that was the beginning of the EM community. Over time these partnerships have grown and led to all kinds of new connections and opportunities as community members move in and out of different projects and companies.

  • Leading with hope

Projects end. We've all lost clients and experienced disappointment, but then you get back up and you find a new one and often a better one. People with an FTE mindset focus on that as a negative too great to overcome. People with a consultant mindset also see it as an opportunity to grow and change as a person. Over the long run, you get to deal with so many different companies and personalities, you become very adaptable. On a personal level, that’s a pretty fulfilling journey. Professionally, I think it makes you a better consultant, and more valuable in the marketplace.

Lessons Learned

What I learned from my detour from consulting was that it’s not the legal structure of the work arrangement so much as the mindset and the expectations. Being an independent consultant is a different way of being in the world. You're making a bet on yourself, that you are good enough as a marketer and as a consultant to make this journey a rewarding one not only financially but to you as a person. You're taking your destiny into your own hands. You either dig that or you don't.

I'm one of those people that believes that if you put your intention somewhere, you need to focus all of your efforts in that direction. It just doesn't work in either direction if you don’t commit to one or the other. Over the years, I’ve seen that fear and uncertainty are the biggest obstacles to people creating the consulting career they want. I’ve experienced it myself.

Being an independent consultant requires you to be able to deal with fear and economic uncertainty on a daily basis. The coronavirus is now requiring everyone in the world to do the same, which is why I believe that if you aspire to be a consultant, now is the best time to embrace the consulting mindset. And if you’ve already embraced it and are on that path, you will be able to find opportunity in any market.

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About Ken Chen

Ken Chen is San Francisco-based online marketing consultant and owner of EM Marketing. EM Marketing specializes in marketing strategy, product launches, customer acquisition, and mobile & social marketing.

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