Hanging out the shingle

HR professionals ponder challenges of going independent
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/12/2004


or a year and a half, Tammy has been grappling with a tough decision.

Behind her is a quarter of a century working in a Toronto organization, in various human resources capacities, which she feels she’s good at.

Before her is a vision of herself as a human resource consultant — a vision she finds appealing for the variety it offers, the opportunities to try out her knowledge in different settings and different industries, and above all, the ability to stay true to her values.

But Tammy, who has asked to use a pseudonym, doesn’t know if she has what it takes. And she isn’t sure how she should go about starting a consulting business. “I’ve talked to people who are out there as consultants, I’ve talked to career transition people that I know,” says Tammy. “A big part of this is a level of confidence, a level of self-esteem, how they feel about putting themselves forward.”

She knows of others like her who have struggled with the same questions. Going into consulting work, on the surface, looks like a natural career transition for seasoned HR practitioners. After all, HR professionals often consider themselves as consultants to in-house clients.

But it’s not always an easy transition to make. From where Tammy is standing, there are a thousand and one questions to sort out first. How does she determine which area to go into? Should she specialize or keep herself flexible and take opportunities as they come? How does she price herself? And how much time does she even have to make these decisions before her skills and experience go stale?

After reaching the top of the HR hierarchy — a vice-president of human resources position at National Trust Scotiabank — Tim O’Shea felt the timing was right to break out on his own.

“Being relatively senior, you have a fair degree of flexibility in how you do your day-to-day job, but nevertheless you’re constrained by the people to whom you report. You’re focused in one line of business generally,” says O’Shea. “So there was an opportunity to break out of that mould — terrifying as it was — and broaden my horizon a little bit.”

He felt he was confident with his technical know-how, and “fortunately, being an executive, I had a decent severance package, so I had the comfort of knowing there was some cash flow while I went about setting down the trap line, if you like, of contacts.”

He dove into his pile of business cards going back seven or eight years and made contact with everyone all over again. He sent out a letter updating people on what he was doing, and invited them to visit his Web site, attracting a lot of new visitors with a top 10 list of tips, which he updates regularly. “I can’t say I get direct business from it, but it keeps me plugged into a network of new people.”

And as a one-man show, he sells himself on his ability to roll up his sleeves and dig in. “The clients that value me are the ones who say, ‘Bring me a solution that I can work with, not something I’m going to file in a desk drawer. And bring me something you can do yourself instead of arriving with an army of consultants. I can afford just one.’”

Ezra Rosen, a Toronto-based consultant, says having a specialty is important, because organizations aren’t going to look outside for a generalist. The corollary of having a specialty is knowing when to turn down projects that are outside one’s field.

“I’ve had clients who say, ‘We like working with you. Could you help us with this?’ And if I don’t feel I can contribute, I won’t do it, even though it’s tempting.” A consultant puts his reputation on the line if he accepts a project that’s over his head or too large for him to handle alone, he said.

Gail Aller-Stead made the leap five years ago, after spending about 25 years working in various industries. “I was hitting a significant birthday. I was turning 50 in a couple of years, and I knew there was, and still is, an agism barrier. It’s a very subtle discrimination against older women.” If she was ever going to strike out on her own, now was the time. “I just wanted to make sure that if it didn’t work out, then I could come back and squeeze under the psychological age-50 barrier.”

What helped her was a master’s program in organizational development that she had completed in her mid-30s. The program taught her how to be a consultant, both internal and external, and in her practice since, she says, “I have always viewed myself as an internal consultant. I always followed Peter Block’s consultant model, which covers scouting and entry, contracting, data collection, feedback, implementation, evaluation and follow through.”

She found out quickly that while she might have been effective in HR, she had very little training in marketing, in pricing, in positioning herself. And what was even harder to learn for Aller-Stead was how to take rejection.

“If I bid on a proposal and don’t get the bid, it would be very easy for me to lose my self-confidence, as opposed to saying, ‘I currently have a challenge at work.’ When you’re selling a proposal to clients, they’re evaluating you on a number of things. They’re assessing you as to whether you can click with them, whether you have the chemistry, as well as whether you’ve got the technical expertise,” says Aller-Stead.

“So they’re viewing you as a person. Your personality comes into play there. Yet at the same time, it’s so important for you as a business owner to not let your self-image suffer as a result.”

To overcome the hurdles, Aller-Stead reached out. She became active with the Association for Creative Change in Organizational Development, a network of organizational development specialists.

She also joined up with a group of consultants in the United States and Canada who’ve teamed up — virtually — under a banner. Called the Centre for Strategic Management, this group shares such things as a common marketing strategy, common methodological tools and approaches, and an administrative office in San Diego. Members retain, however, the ability to determine their areas of expertise, their clients, their pricing structure, and so forth.

To Aller-Stead, equally important as the shared marketing and the shared office support is the shared training resources that she needs to stay “at least 10 minutes ahead of her clients,” she says.

“You have to make sure you’re constantly developing. You’re out there, you’re aware of what’s going on. You’re tapped into the right sources for knowledge about the products, knowledge about what’s happening in business, knowledge about what business leaders are reading. That’s a real challenge, and it took me about nine months to realize I needed to be part of a network.”

The most difficult aspect of entering this collaborative alliance, says Aller-Stead, was “having to change again my self-image. It was almost like I was going back inside an organization. It took a while for me to get used to that.”

In Calgary, consultant Catherine Shepherd also finds it easier to work in a loose partnership with fellow consultants. Shepherd, who has always been a consultant, whether at a firm or on her own, says networking is one of the most important skills in the business.

“If you don’t network, you won’t survive. You need to have people around you, other consultants whom you can talk with about what you’re doing. You need somebody there to talk assignments through and who can stimulate some thinking.”

Shepherd says she never views other independent consultants as competition. “I’ll compete with the big consulting firms, but if I know an independent consultant is bidding on something, I won’t bid on it. I would rather partner with them on it,” she added.

“If I know two other consultants just like me and we all want this one project and we’re all worried about how we’ll get it done anyway, then we might develop a relationship where I take a small share of this project and in the next one I might take a big share,” says Shepherd.

The arrangement helps ensure that she would rarely end up with a bigger project than she can handle, and clients have the comfort of knowing that there’s always a back-up person in case of emergencies.

“And it works really well that way, as long as you really know your partners. And I do.”

Like others interviewed for this article, Shepherd is confident the market for consulting work is only growing, as organizations continue to trim the fat and outsource HR functions. And as boomers near retirement age, many of them may choose to stick around as consultants, particularly as organizations find themselves in dire straits for experienced people who can mentor and transfer knowledge, says Shepherd.

Still, she adds, “I don’t see it as a competition. There’s a lot of work out there.”

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