Friday, September 10, 2010

From An Employee to a Consultant - A Story of Embracing Change

I have been working on designing and developing a training workshop on embracing change and transition. Perhaps, the timing was just right. I say this because I am just about ready to celebrate my one-year anniversary as an independent consultant and what a change it has been! I am writing this post as a way to reflect and capture my learning over the last one year specifically related to making this transition. Maybe this can help people who are contemplating the shift.

After many years of a successful and a very happy corporate life, last year I decided to make a change! Having worked for 10 years with a leading training company, I knew that no other company would seem good enough. Therefore, I decided to make a shift to independent consulting. There were some big changes and some small. Overall, I can say that I have performed well. I owe this to my ability to embrace the change and make healthy transitions and my good fortune to work with extremely wonderful clients who believed in my skills and gave me an opportunity to partner with them.

1) From a fixed monthly paycheck to an open opportunity to earn as much as I want - I guess this was a big change as it impacts both financially and emotionally. I never complained about my fixed pay :) but to get the opportunity to earn as much as my skills pay was a big change. I also realized the importance and value of my own skills. When you work with the same employer for 10 years, your skills are known and appreciated. However, when clients with whom I hadn’t worked with, started appreciating my skills and competencies it certainly felt nice. And when they paid well, it worked out quite well. I guess it is a choice. If a steady paycheck is your peace of mind, think about this carefully before you step on the other side. I believed in my skills and raised the bar for my own self. When my clients liked what they got, they automatically became referrals for my new clients.

Learning: If your skills are 'marketable' and you can provide 'value' to your clients, there is no limit on the pay cheque. You need to have confidence in your abilities to take this leap. If you believe in yourself, others will.

2) From coffee conversations to mostly tea...alone - This one was a tough change. I don’t think I was prepared for it enough. Truly speaking, I still miss being around people walking up to my desk asking me questions, sharing their experiences, and the general environment of working with other faces! I have since come a long way and can manage to work ‘by myself’. It wasn’t easy. I made an extra effort to participate in social forums, have had several coffee conversations online, written more blogs, connected with people in online meetings and webinars, and registered for face-to-face learning events. What all of this taught me - better communication skills, ability to work with ambiguity, and working across cultures, timelines, and instructional design styles.

Learning: If you want to stay in touch with humanity, there is no stopping you. Any and all communication makes a difference. You should be willing to take the first step to communicate.

3) From a hectic but stable work life to a more fluid life – Corporate life isn’t easy. And a 9 - 6 job never stops at 6. Over the last few years, I was spending far more time on office assignments and professional training (related to my work) at the cost of my personal life. After making the shift, I diligently stuck to 9 - 6 and have worked very few weekends. Yes, it is again at a cost. But I can deal with this cost! Now, I have more time for myself, my family, and networking – both social and professional. However, this also means moving from a fixed and stable schedule to a more flexible and sometimes an unreliable and unpredictable one. As an employee, there is always work for you. As a consultant, you need to create your own work. There can be downtimes but if you plan your moves correctly, you can completely avoid them.

Learning: You need to be able to deal with fluidity, ambiguity, and sometimes no work! In time, you will manage your schedule better to ‘guarantee’ work for a couple of months. If you acquire and build good relationships, you have a better work calendar! It all depends on you.

4) From a protected cocoon to the big world - In my corporate life, I felt safe, protected, and nicely surrounded by people and processes around me. There were risks I still took but guess they weren’t very big risks cause others were always reviewing and guiding. I had a system to fall back upon. But when I started on my own, it was like coming out of a cocoon. I was the one deciding everything – the process, product, and price! It was probably the right time for me because I was fortunate enough to be exposed to many different clients and situations in my 10-year career. But this can be very intimidating to folks who are new to this industry. And all these decisions were potential risks. Some worked and some didn’t. I learned along the way.

Learning: Trust your instincts and be willing to take risks. You may not think you have entrepreneurial skills. But when you need them, you will see them at play.

5) From reporting to a boss to ‘I am the boss’ I have always enjoyed working with my supervisors. I haven’t had bad bosses or perhaps I was a good employee! :) As much as I love being my own boss, I do, at times, miss being mentored by someone who is looking and evaluating my work closely. This also actually puts more pressure on me to create my own vision or plan and then evaluate my work against it. This is tough to do. It is tough to be a visionary and then be objective about your own performance. But if you are mature and believe in learning, you can do it. The ‘boss’ now is a metaphor for me to create my vision, to self-evaluate, to appraise, to point mistakes to myself, and to learn from them. I am my own boss means that I need to plan my own career and development.

Learning: Be your own boss means far more than you think. Being your boss means to first identify where you want to be and then help yourself get there. Keep evaluating and learning from your mistakes. Do an objective evaluation of your own performance because no one else is coming to do it for you!

To be where I am today, took many changes – some inflicted by circumstances and others by my own self. I also made conscious transitions towards managing these changes. I learned, unlearned, and (re)learned. I developed new skills and practiced skills that I hadn’t used for a while. I am certainly a better instructional designer now then I was a year ago. I am perhaps a better project manager now since I rely only on myself to multitask and switch between the roles of an instructional designer and a project manager. But there is one thing that hasn’t changed. I have always been self-motivated and passionate about all things learning and training and I love the product/service I offer. When I was an employee I loved it then. As a consultant, I am as passionate about it.

In these five learning points, I have tried to sum up my experience of the last one year. They only represent some of the changes and how I dealt with them. By no means do I want to romanticise independent consulting. It is not easy. And you can’t see everything in black or white. A more realistic view would be to understand the tones of grey and appreciate that just like many other working styles – independent consulting is a working style. It may suit some and may not suit others. You need to understand yourself, evaluate your skills and competencies, know the risks, and understand the potential rewards. You need to be self-motivated, self-driven, organized, and resilient, and most importantly, you need to define your own measure of success.

I summarize this with post with the following quote from Anita Roddick that captures my feelings completely:

“Success to me is not about money or status or fame, it’s about finding a livelihood that brings me joy and self-sufficiency and a sense of contributing to the world."