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When the job market gets gloomy we ponder about other options to keep ourselves gainfully engaged. To those who have been out-placed (with or without due compensations) one of the thoughts that quickly occur is ‘Why not consult until I find the next right job?’ It is an exciting option provided we are absolutely prepared and clear about what we are getting into. There are always the not-so-obvious points to consider before plunging in. This article will discuss the concept of assignment-based partnering – that is, offering to collaborate and form teams with other consultants or consulting organizations on short and mid term assignments.

In most nations the process to register as an independent consultant has become simplified and the investment to setup a website and publicize your services in the age of Blogging, Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook are not insurmountable. It hence motivates one who isn’t satisfied with his/her career as part of a corporate or is affected by a downturn to consider independent consulting quite seriously.
 

Consulting

Lets look at how these deliver value and function amidst the world of multi-billion $ consulting giants. While large and multi-national corporate organizations prefer to work with established consulting firms possessing brand equity, a large talent pool, extended geographical presence and the ability to scale when needed, at times they also seek expertise in certain subject matters which may correspond to an independent consultant’s core competence. Thus engagements occur. Also, these large consulting firms hire short-term expertise through independent consultants to fill in time or capability gaps in their internal resources. Hence becoming an independent consultant could indeed be an attractive proposition for executives with specific industry expertise or expansive management experience.

Tasting some success and gaining confidence when one treads this path is important in making independent consulting a serious venture - the operating model may get more complex by undertaking assignment-based partnering (short/medium-term) with other consultants or larger firms to match complementary skills or to gain scale. Here is where pitfalls that are aplenty may start to surface & thus the need to be wary arises. While small service providers pay much attention to ‘getting the business’, the act of ‘executing’ the assignments with aligned thoughts and absolute congruence of views within teams that have been quickly established is a constantly evolving and substantial task. Let’s look at and learn from a few cases.

Culture and attitudes matter
Early last year, together with short-term partners which included a consulting major, a team embarked on a mid-sized international project which was expected to run for 6 months. With the aggressive schedule and quote, they had to be careful not to lose even a day despite the hectic international travel requirements. Flight disruptions/cancellations came in the way but were smartly passed through. However, what impaired the project’s well-being was something else. While the members from the consulting major were from an authoritarian culture, the rest did not appreciate that style and hence cracks seemed to appear within weeks of commencement. In addition, the formers’ superior feeling led to deteriorating respect for other members which resulted in losing invaluable talent midway. By providence the client withstood the instability within the consulting team but the damage as a result affected overall performance, leaving the client with only partial satisfaction at the closure.

Most crashes begin during take-off
A more recent case was when a small team of experts in complementary areas were constituted to pitch for a project for a leader in the electronics space. While this team stood a great chance to win the contract due to a strong match with the client’s technical and soft-skill requirements, after the first meeting with the client, one of the members grabbed an old pending (but lucrative) executive job opportunity and hence decided to opt out. Given the short period before the assignment commenced, the team was unable to replace the skills of the departing senior executive and thus lost the opportunity.

As one of executive consultants remarked, it was beneficial the departing member exited before the project began as otherwise it would have been impossible to continue and would have left a large black mark on their reputation.

Gaps in employment

In another instance a consultant from one geography was invited by a team from another, to collaborate on a long term and lucrative project in a fast rising industry. With the whole proposition looking very positive and with their proven relationships from the past, this individual took the chance of handing off a bunch of shorter assignments to a counterpart and readied to move into the newly emerged one.

With bags packed and tickets on hand he was shocked to receive a last minute communication that due to unforeseen circumstances internal to the client’s Organization, the project was being deferred by at least a Quarter. There was no way he could get back what he willingly handed off to his network too and was therefore left with no substantial income for a significant period of time.

Never assume
The same consultant above, once took an emergency request to replace a departing executive with a former client. The client was in trouble, and the consultant assumed his rate would be the same as previous contracts. However, after a month of working, he handed his first invoice only to find out the client never planned to, nor could afford, the consultant’s usual rate. Undertaking the assignment led the consultant in question to have turned down other offers, and created a gap in employment as he searched for a new assignment that compensated him correctly.

What do we learn?

  • Chemistry between team members – though short term partners – is the lifeline; checking individual egos at the door before walking into assignments is a must.
  • While relationships are important; contracts are equally if not more important. Contracts help shed emotions and ensure sustained professional successes.
  • It is crucial to get clarity on project requirements, scope, rates, etc upfront and never assume things based on past experiences, however urgent the requirement for help is or if it is from known circles or previous clients.
  • Prior knowledge and clarity on risk factors in winning a bid (or not) is mandatory to avoid mutual blames between partners for having missed the boat.
  • Even as the world advances at an increasingly fast pace, delivery of value will always be centered upon human relationships (as in the consulting world) - trust, open-mindedness, alignment of views, and maturity in handling situations will never be replaced; they matter perennially.

In conclusion, independent consulting and assignment-based partnering is a great option either as a gap-filler in the careers of experienced executives or as a testing ground to plunge deeper into entrepreneurship in the consulting arena. However it is wise to learn from others mistakes, as shared above, in order not to fall into similar traps and regret the whole move.

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BlueSteps Executive Guest Writer

Kalyan VKalyan Vaidya is a global-minded international executive with Asia-wide, multi-industry experience - Computers, Healthcare, Auto-electrics, Aircraft engines, Chemicals, Pharmaceuticals, Trading - in various facets of business value chain.

He has led projects in Japan, China, South Korea, ASEAN countries, India, Australia, Europe and the USA, and applies his international experience to his writing and management consultancy. Connect with Kalyan on LinkedIn or email him directly at kalyan.vaidya@gmail.com.

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