Going it alone as an HR consultant

Leaving an in-house HR role to go it alone can seem an attractive career move, but how can you make sure it is the right one? We look at the experiences of an independent consultant and the founder of a boutique consultancy, and at the option of joining a consultancy as an associate.

Paul Kearns, director of measurement and evaluation specialists PWL, has worked in HR since 1978, and became a consultant in 1991. He says that the key to success lies in differentiating your proposition.

“You need to think in terms bigger than just offering transactional support,” he says. “I became interested in measurement because I didn’t know anyone in HR who was any good at it.”

For Kearns, who started as a sole trader before operating as a limited company, it is crucial to examine your motivations before you leave the safety net of corporate life. “The question to ask yourself is ‘do you want to join a large consultancy, or set up as an independent consultant and make your own decisions?'”, he says.

He has always enjoyed working independently because he believes it allows him to engage personally with the project and see  it through to completion.

Top tips on consulting

  • Stick to what you are good at.
  • Specialise in an area of HR where there is market demand.
  • If you plan to work alone, line up at least six months’ work before you start.
  • Be organised and resilient. 
  • Prepare to network in order to find new leads.
  • Keep skills and knowledge up to date.

Like Kearns, Mark Childs has carved out a business within a specialist area of HR. Childs, director of Total Reward Solutions, had 20 years of in-house HR experience, starting as a generalist, when he set up his consultancy and moved into global compensation and reward.

“I assessed the market and found there were no medium-sized reward consultants,” he says. “No-one was operating in that space, so I thought I’d try to fill it.”

Since Childs set up the business in 2005 he has recruited 15 people.

Childs believes that the right timing plays a crucial part in branching out. “I was young enough to build a business and I’d got to a stage in life where I wanted to be entrepreneurial,” he says. Successful consultants realise that it is not all about what you know (although specialist knowledge makes differentiation easier), equally important is who you know, and how your business is pitched in terms of expertise and price.

“I knew I had a network that was second to none, and that it could draw business in the future,” says Childs. “I was confident that I could set up a business to deliver a high-quality service. As a boutique consultancy we don’t carry the overheads of a large city firm, and that does allow us to price ourselves competitively.”

Another option for those looking at consultancy is to join an established brand as an associate, which means that the consultant retains self-employed status, but benefits from exposure to major projects.

Such a pattern is set by Phil Merrell who is director of consulting at Penna. He assigns associates to projects such as consulting on change, performance and organisational development. He looks for credible, experienced people.

“We look for associates who are subject matter experts, and who understand what the line manager is going through, even though they are commissioned by HR,” he says. “It is important that they are not coming from an ivory tower.”

He also expects associates to be savvy, exhibit enthusiasm and be sensitive to office dynamics.

“They need to be hungry to learn, keen to soak up knowledge and bring value, but also able to understand the unwritten rules of an organisation, and how to get things done there.”

The personal development benefits of working within a consultancy are the similar to those derived from being in-house. “You have a community of interest around you”, says Merrell, “and you learn and develop with your colleagues.”

In contrast, working solo can make information sharing difficult. “The client expects you to be current”, says Childs, “so make sure that you subscribe to the right services and stay up to date with the profession.”
Networking at events such as the CIPD’s group meetings is invaluable, says Kearns. “One of the biggest problems when working alone is to market yourself,” he says.


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