How To Find Your Consulting Work "Sweet Spot"
I have worked with plenty of freelance consultants over the last couple decades, and it is fair to say that perhaps the majority of them started out working for someone else.
For example, most of the training consultants I work with (my target market) served as training staff in medium to larger companies before going out on their own. They drew on the skills they developed and the knowledge they acquired working for someone else to develop products and services for their own freelance businesses.
That often meant that their consulting work was more or less a reincarnation of their previous work. Oh, certainly, running their own business was very different in many ways, but they tended to work with the same kinds of people or businesses, to do the same kinds of work, as they did before going solo.
Often, after a few years in business, they became dissatisfied with their new lives. Consulting just wasn't as much fun as they expected. The smartest of these figured out what was wrong, and made adjustments, and now they are reaping the full benefit of having the courage and ability to set up their own consulting businesses. (Others, unfortunately, either grind along and live an unsatisfying business life, or give up on running their own businesses.)
What was wrong, usually, was that they took the easy path, doing what they knew in environments they were familiar with, and then measured their success only by their income. But even if you are making a good income, it is hard to keep doing work that doesn't make you feel good.
And it doesn't make you feel good because:
- you are working with people you don't like,
- performing tasks you don't enjoy,
- or under conditions that make you grumpy.
Looking explicitly at these factors and their contribution to your satisfaction with the consulting life is the first step in going after the kinds of projects and clients that you will enjoy.
If you are thinking of getting into consulting -- or if you are already a consultant, but are unhappy with your work -- you should sit down and take some time to examine what has worked for you in the past, and what has not. Taking inventory of your preferences, your style, and your experience on a regular basis allows you to manage your consulting business to fit you as a unique individual.
Let's explore the nature of this "sweet spot" of working on the right things with the right people the right way. We'll look at some questions to get you started on your exploration of the consulting life you'd like to have.
And then it will be up to you to make the time – and I'm talking about hours of careful thought, not a few minutes of working with a checklist – to take your own personal inventory and define a consulting business you can stick with, and enjoy, for many years.
Defining Your Own Sweet Spot
When you work for a large organization, when you are one of many employees in a corporation, you have little say about whom you work with, and the kind of personal interactions that make up the bulk of your work day. You probably don't have much to say about the type of tasks that demand your attention, or even about matters like your office set up or the amount of travel you might do.
Now, don't get delusional about the amount of control you're going to have over these things when you hang out your shingle as a freelance consultant. There are still a lot of practical constraints, and you will often find yourself dealing with people, processes, or personal situations that are not to your taste.
But you definitely have more control as a freelancer over all of these things. That's why thinking explicitly about the factors that impact your satisfaction with your work – a kind of thinking that may never even occur to you in a corporate setting – should be a regular activity for the freelance consultant.
While acceptance of corporate constraints may help you get through your daily slog in a large organization, perhaps a little less of a Zen approach is warranted when you are working as a freelance consultant on your own.
When you do your regular review of your business, and your satisfaction with it, if you discover that you spend a lot of time working with just the kind of people you'd rather avoid; that the bulk of your work each day is concentrated in tasks you never want to do again; that your travel, or your hours, or other personal issues are wearing you down, then acceptance is not the answer.
The answer is to make sure you have clearly defined your "sweet spot" of people, processes, and personal preferences so you can see where you are missing that target, and identify next steps to increase your satisfaction. Be accepting of your own efforts, rather than self-critical, but don't accept the outcomes. Strive to change them.
Perhaps you already do some consulting, so you have relevant experience to review.
But what if you are new to freelance consulting? Where do you get the information to determine the kinds of interactions you have with people, the kinds of processes and tasks, the kinds of personal preferences you want to define your daily work? After all, if you have been locked into a position with, say, a large company, you may not have experienced some of the options you would like to explore.
Any attempt, in any area of your life, business or personal, to get something done is a data point for your deliberations about your optimal consulting business.
Think about any situation in which you have to collaborate with another party to achieve a goal. You interact with other people all the time. Outside of work, you deal with family members, teachers and doctors and plumbers, public servants and business owners.
Chances are, if you explore that broader personal history, patterns will emerge. You will see that successful endeavors, regardless of how simple the objective was (e.g., unclog your sink drain), involve people with certain characteristics. And your most frustrating situations involve people you would describe differently.
In similar fashion, look at the tasks you tried to achieve. You have certainly tried to schedule activities or complete tasks with family and friends, club or team members. What parts of those activities do you hate to do, what parts do you eagerly volunteer for?
Any attempt, in any area of your life, business or personal, to get something done is a data point for your deliberations about your optimal consulting business. Look well beyond your past work experience, and even your consulting experience, to take advantage of any information that can help you more clearly define a framework for a satisfying life as a freelance consultant.
Now let's look at each of the three components of the sweet spot, people, processes, and personal preferences, a little more closely. We will consider just a few questions to help jumpstart your own thinking in each area, but you'll want to add many of your own.
Interactions With People
As I mentioned, if you are new to the freelance life, you may be used to having whom you work with determined by your boss in a larger company. You may not realize that while you do not have absolute control over the people you interact with as a consultant, you can certainly seek the types of projects and clients that better suit your tastes.
Looking back at your experience, what kinds of people do you like (or not like) to work with:
- Technical people (programmers, clinicians, engineers)?
- Sales and marketing staff?
- Executives, middle management, or front-line employees?
- Blunt, tell-it-like-it-is or more diplomatic?
Are you more, or less, comfortable:
- Coaching in one-on-one interactions?
- Resolving conflicts among a few people or departments?
- Talking to a roomful of people?
- Working remotely through a conference call or webinar?
How is your tolerance for conflict and confrontation? Your tolerance for ambiguity?
Again, these are just a few hints to get you started. If you thoroughly review your past experience in working with others to get things done, you should be able to paint a pretty good description of the kinds of interpersonal interactions you will seek, and those you will avoid.
Truly knowing the kind of people you like, and the kind that drive you crazy, can be important in qualifying prospects for your consulting services. This knowledge will trigger those little internal warning signals when you first meet your prospects. And that can lead to a decision to walk away, or one to charge higher rates for the hassles you know you are going to encounter.
Some of the interpersonal interactions we just looked at above also overlap with this category, such as whether you coach individuals or facilitate groups. But "processes" deal more with the "how" and "what" you do than with the "who" of your projects.
Naturally, the first questions are about the general type of work you want to do, what set you on the consulting path in the first place. That could be training, or technical support, or graphic design or writing, and so on.
But you also need to figure out whether you like:
- Identifying the need or problem?
- Designing the solution?
- Delivering the solution?
- Teaching the client to deliver the solution?
- Reacting on the fly to issues, thinking on your feet?
For example, in the training field I know consultants who design courses and create the material, but never step into the classroom. And others love facilitating a workshop, but want someone else to prepare all the materials.
You might also ask yourself:
- Do you like dealing with details, or prefer to work with broad concepts?
- How much variety do you need in your work? Are you more comfortable working with people and tasks that are very similar from project to project, or do you absolutely have to have a variety of subject matter and problems to solve?
One of the main reasons for going freelance is to get more control over lifestyle, really, the things that go beyond your consulting tasks to have a huge impact on how you feel about your work. Some examples of these issues might include:
- Travel: If you don't like traveling much of the time, think about your target market, and about how much face time you will need with your clients in that market to be effective.
- Isolation: Are you more solitary, or do you need people around you? There are many ways to fill in the social aspect, with client interactions or with peers and networking, but going from a pod of cubicles to a home office is a shock for some, and worth preparing for.
- Pressure and Deadlines: Are you good at working under tight time constraints? Or does that kind of pressure really get to you?
- Hours: Are you comfortable grinding away intensely at a project, or do you need things spread out a little better? Do the people you work with need you to be on site a lot, and perhaps at odd hours? (Example: perky morning people probably don't want to spend a lot of time working with the night shift.)
- Writing: There are few types of consulting that don't require some kind of written communication, from proposals to reports to materials needed to implement solutions. Do you dread writing and constantly put it off?
- Business Matters: How are you about accounting, taxes, ordering supplies, maintaining technology, managing travel arrangements? Do these get done only when you can't avoid them a moment longer?
Keep in mind that for the last couple of items, the important thing is to figure out whether you like to do them and whether you are good at them. If you say "no" to either question, remember that these are things you can hire others to do for you.
My Sweet Spot, and Yours
Nobody lives and works in the sweet spot of freelance consulting all of the time. We all have to accept compromises in the clients we work with and the projects we take on.
But we can get closer. My sweet spot? I work in the training field, focused on creating content for other consultants. I like identifying the problem and designing the solution, but I'd prefer that someone else deliver the training or presentation. I'm very comfortable with a solitary approach, by myself most of the time, although I enjoy interacting with clients, especially one-on-one. I like having to think on my feet, providing valuable advice on the spot. I rarely travel. My clients work more with broad concepts than with technical detail.
A lot of that has shifted from when I first started out, when I delivered more training, worked with lots of committees in big corporations, traveled more. But as I have grown my understanding of what I like and do not like in my consulting work, I have been able to move closer to my sweet spot.
Too many consultants find themselves disappointed in the freelance life, without knowing why. They soldier on, waiting to find that satisfaction with their lifestyle and work that they envisioned when they set up their consulting businesses.
They just cannot put a finger on what's wrong, why their work is so frustrating.
Take the time to do an explicit review of the people, processes, and personal preferences that define that satisfaction on a regular basis. Life in the sweet spot is good, not perfect, but very good.
But you can't find it if you don't make a deliberate effort to look for it, so you can put your energies into pursuing the clients and projects that will deliver much more satisfaction in your consulting work.