Going it alone: the diary of a freelance HR consultant

Day one

Day one in my life as a freelance HR and training consultant and it feels like a million miles from the world I was operating in this time last week.

That world was HR in local government – a safe and secure environment, in which I learned the fundamental principles of people management and HR practice. But I was always yearning for the edgy, fast pace of my previous life in the commercial sector.

If I’m honest, I had always felt a little like a round peg in a square hole in the public sector. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its benefits. I received unrivalled training and support, had exposure to all manner of complex cases, dealt with trade unions and learned a lot from a highly experienced and clever head of HR.

But ultimately it wasn’t for me and I needed to satisfy my yearning. So after months of procrastination, watching endless episodes of Dragons’ Den and a thorough read of Getting Started in Consulting, I decided the time was ripe for the birth of my limited company consultancy Turner HR, established to support smaller organisations (SMEs) with all aspects of people management.

The time felt right as, since I was confident in my professional knowledge and experience, I was motivated by the challenge of running my own business and felt disciplined enough to manage myself. However, conceiving the business was simply the first step, it would be a different step altogether to sell it and make a success of it.

Prior to taking the plunge, I had made contact with some local business people who confirmed there would come a time when they would need my services. So my first task for day one was to make contact with those people and sell my business.

The first business was a property firm involved in surveying, auctioneering and estate agency. I’d had previous conversations with the partnership secretary who had identified a need to train some of their regional managers to handle day-to-day employee issues.

I called them to speak about it, we discussed the training needs and a date was agreed to run a workshop for their managers. I was so excited at the prospect and my mind went into overdrive thinking about how I’d structure the day, exercises we could use, what I’d include in the delegate packs, then, as I gathered my thoughts I felt a slight pang of loneliness. The reality sunk in that I was in this completely on my own, I had no colleague to share my enthusiasm with or bounce my ideas off. Even so, the thought of the running the workshop to add tangible HR value to a business, as a result of my services, was enough to motivate me to start writing the course programmes.

My second potential client was an IT service and support company. I had met the managing director at a charity do before Christmas who suggested he may have a need for some HR advice and support. I spoke with him and arranged to meet up in a week for an initial discussion.

So by the end of day one, two appointments were in the diary. This had got the momentum going. Reflecting on the day, in the silence of my home office, I realised now I really was going it alone. The success or failure of Turner HR was down to me.

My first week

I spent the remainder of the first week brainstorming the training workshop and getting to grips with running a small business. I had to understand the legal, financial and administrative aspects of the business. I needed to establish business processes.

What would a client work specification look like? How would I record work undertaken? How would I invoice clients? Business administration is certainly not my forte, but I forced myself to sit down and work through all these elements of the business. This work wouldn’t directly generate new business, but it all needed to be in place if I was to stand any chance of being organised.

I also had to work through the accounts and determine how to manage my revenue and expenses. It was time to recognise my shortcomings and call on the professional expertise of my accountant, so I called him and arranged to meet. I also called in a favour from an old friend, now a commercial litigation lawyer, to take a look at my terms and conditions and harassed my brother to help me with my website. It started to feel like the infrastructure of Turner HR was coming together and I could concentrate again on my client relationships.

My first month

During the course of the next month, I met the managing director of the IT services and support business. This in itself had been a logistical challenge as I no longer had the luxury resource of meeting rooms that I could book and I was confident he wouldn’t want to meet in my spare room, so a coffee shop in Exeter had to suffice. We discussed his business – a start-up, with plans to recruit a team over the next twelve months. He was refreshing to speak to – pro-HR, recognised the value of good people management and ‘wanted to get the HR bit right’.

I advised him on the issues to consider, the specific HR work needed over the next 12 months and that he’d benefit from a people management strategy to underpin his business plan. The meeting concluded and it was then up to me to come up with a proposal, including my fees, for all the work we had talked about.

My mind was racing as I drove home, structuring the proposal in my head. I worked on it that night, e-mailed it the next morning and waited in anticipation for a response. Later that morning he rang. The proposal was fine, but he wanted to negotiate fees. After a lengthy debate we arrived at an agreement for a 12 month retainer. Pleased with his commitment I realised I had taken for guaranteed monthly income as an employee, but nothing rivalled the satisfaction of closing the deal with a client.

My first project

The day for the training workshop arrived. The previous day was spent preparing and neurotically checking delegate packs and materials. I checked once more for good measure and hit the sack at just past midnight.

I arrived at the venue early the next morning to set up the technology before the training session started. The 11 delegates gradually filtered in. They helped themselves to coffee, sat down and stared at me, all on my own at the front of the room about to launch into the first Turner HR client workshop.

The adrenaline started to flow. I had rehearsed the slides and was more than familiar with the content, so before I knew it, we were stuck in and heading for the first case study on questioning techniques. The delegates had warmed up and questions were flowing, discussions prompted and debates ensued. The day passed so quickly and by the end of it I was buzzing, yet exhausted. The day had gone better than I had hoped and the degree to which the delegates had participated and challenged me had made it all worthwhile.

Six weeks in…

It’s six weeks into life as a freelance consultant and last week I received my first referral from the managing director of the IT business, which I took as a professional compliment. The company (a property maintenance business) needs support in tackling lots of historical HR issues. It’s booked me for a day next week to wade through its records and policies to ascertain what HR practices are necessary to shape the business. Who knows what I might find?

So far it has been an interesting journey coupled with hard work and determination. The highs have been fantastic and the far outweigh the lows of occasional loneliness – no guarantee of income and a lack of camaraderie. But some of those lows will keep me focused. And by developing good client relationships, I can source camaraderie from them and in terms of no guaranteed income, that only motivates me to pursue every lead and deliver an exceptional HR service. I don’t know what the future of going it alone holds, but one thing’s for sure, it’s down to me to make a success of it.

Turner’s CV

After graduating in 1998, Lucy Turner worked in sales, followed by three years as a recruitment consultant in the South West and London.

She then made the transition into HR and worked as a personnel officer on a job evaluation team, then as an employee relations adviser, and most recently as a senior HR officer (policy) in local government.

Lucy is a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and has an MA in Human Resources Management. She  started life as freelance HR consultant for Turner HR Ltd in January 2008.

E-mail [email protected], or visit the website.

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