The economy is in chaos and the number of people who are unemployed is at its highest level since 1994. Surely this is the best time to keep your head down in a secure role, rather than take a high-risk move into consultancy? Not necessarily. According to some HR professionals who have made the leap into consulting, offering more flexibility to employers can make you a valuable commodity in an uncertain market.
Angela O'Connor, formerly chief people officer at the National Police Improvement Agency (NPIA) and HR director of the Crown Prosecution Service, has found that the economic conditions have proved favourable since she made the leap into consultancy this summer. "Organisations are thinking carefully about where they spend their money," she explains. "They need a relationship with someone they can trust and who will deliver the outcome they want. Hiring someone flexibly means they can manage their budget."
O'Connor had been thinking about a move into consultancy when, back in July 2010, the NPIA announced that it would be winding down its operations in 2012. "I knew I didn't want another big corporate job. All my roles had been high profile and I'd really enjoyed them, but I didn't want to do more of the same. This was an opportunity to do something different," she says.
Emotionally and financially daunting
Whether it has been something you have been planning for a long time or a situation you find yourself in because you have been made redundant, striking out on your own can prove emotionally and financially daunting. You will have been used to working around people, bouncing ideas off each other. On the practical side, unless you work as a consultant for a larger organisation, you won't qualify for paid holiday, a pension or any sickness benefits. You may find yourself working longer hours than you are used to as you build up business in the initial months and years, so it pays to be prepared.
According to Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, your circumstances on entering this new phase of your career will affect how you deal with these issues. "If you are choosing to go it alone then it will be easier for you, you'll feel more in control. But if you've been made redundant, your self-confidence will be affected," he says.
Professor Cooper advises new consultants to network as much as possible, "not just to win business, but to overcome the isolation you'll feel". He also suggests considering a partnership arrangement with someone already established in a consultant role, who will be able to open doors to new clients and broaden your areas of expertise.
O'Connor set up her consultancy business, The HR Lounge, with just this sort of partnership arrangement in mind. She has around 30 HR professionals on her roster with different skill sets and specialisms, and ensures that they meet on a regular basis to share ideas. "I really wanted a community - we're very much a group of people. Sometimes when you work as an interim, for example, you don't see anyone."
Andy Swarbrick, former HR director for supply chain at Cadbury, joined up with a friend who runs a consultancy firm, Jungle HR. He is now one of up to 12 associates who pitch for business. He believes that some new consultants steer clear of the partnership model because they worry they will end up competing with fellow associates for work. However, there are plenty of advantages, he advises: "Don't be afraid of this model. You can expand your network and pick up work that you might not have got on your own. You may not have the expertise that a client is looking for, but someone in your group will."
Scott McArthur, an HR transformation specialist, took the initial step of working for a consultancy firm before deciding to go it alone. He joined Atos KPMG (now Atos Origin) eight years ago after someone working on a project in his company suggested he consider it. "Consultants are a different breed," he says. "If you have an issue, you say 'this is the problem' and you will be inundated with responses [from your client]. They all have a vested interest in you doing a good job. And if you do a good job, it opens up opportunities for you too. Personally I find that very motivating, but it's not for everyone."
McArthur says that some HR professionals walk into consultancy naively expecting that they will be doing the same job as they were before, but with more freedom and flexibility. He adds: "Your technical capabilities are your commodity, but they're not necessarily what will make you successful." It is important to think about what you are selling, rather than just "you". Your experience may be valuable, but unless it fills a need in the market, you may simply not get the work.
On the practical side, it helps to build a pipeline of steady, retained work at the start of your consultancy career that will enable you to pitch for new clients without worrying about cashflow. Rob Chandler, an HR consultant specialising in search, says: "You need something to tide you over. My background was in recruitment so I started off working on search projects while I carried on building the HR consultancy side of my work in the background."
While physically getting out and networking is vital, social media can prove hugely effective in building your profile, but without having to spend money on advertising. Being active on sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter, connecting to people and exploiting their connections can put you in touch with a huge number of potential clients. Many consultants also blog about their experiences, including videos of presentations they have made or links to relevant reports they have found - all of which builds their brand.
Gareth Jones of BrubakerHR has set up a social networking group with the hashtag #connectingHR. He believes that all of his work has come through introductions or connections made through social media. "I have driven my business relationships through social media, it's delivered me my work," he says.
The key to successfully building up a consultancy business, especially in this economy, is to offer something tangible and deliver on it, concludes O'Connor. But you also need to be prepared for a different way of working. "I spent a lot of time researching this and understanding the realities of working for myself," she says. "You don't get any sick pay, holiday pay or pension. You have to work out the cost of those things and know you can support yourself through any changes. But it's the best thing I've ever done, and I often wonder why I didn't do it sooner."