10 things you must know about how to become a consultant

By Neil Patrick

My mailbox is a constant source of inspiration for this blog. And this morning was no exception.

I received a LinkedIn invitation to connect with a chap I knew at university. I was delighted to reconnect after so long, accepted immediately and messaged him to ask what he was up to.

In his message back to me he told me that he would be leaving his employer in a few weeks’ time where he’s been the Managing Director and intended to become a self-employed consultant.

This isn’t an unusual aspiration for senior professionals. After all those years’ experience and rising through the ranks on merit, it’s tempting to think we are well equipped to take on such a career pivot.

I know. I have done it myself. And I learned the hard way that very little of the experience we acquire in a management career actually counts for much when we switch from being an employed executive to a self-employed gun for hire.

But this communication prompted me to think about the things I learned in the process. If you are or are considering becoming a freelance business consultant, these are the 10 things I think matter and which you must address in your plans:

No-one cares what we have achieved in the past. They only care about what we can achieve for them in the future.

Rebranding ourselves as a freelance version of what we were before is a non-starter. Clients don’t value us because of the breadth of our experience and previous seniority. They want one thing (at least initially) and they want an expert at it.

Simply changing our Linkedin profile to show us as a consultant will not get us any attention. We must have a personal media strategy which enables us to be found when people are looking for the skills we have.

What we did five or ten years ago is mostly irrelevant. If we’ve not done exactly what people need in the last few years, that experience is considered pretty much  redundant.

We may think we have transferable skills, but clients do not. Most clients or prospects I have encountered believe that relevant experience of their sector is vital. They may or may not be correct, but few will be persuaded otherwise and they call the shots. So sector specialism is a very wise choice.

We must specialise despite our wide experience. When we have wide business experience, it’s tempting to market ourselves as a jack of all trades. This is fatal – we will be perceived as master of none.

We must be able to solve a problem that is hurting our clients every day. Not a problem we think they have, or the type of work we most want to do; a problem that they know is stopping them achieve their aspirations.

A wide and appropriate network which has goodwill towards us is an essential prerequisite. Just having a website is not enough if no-one ever goes there. The explosion of online content in recent years means that we will never be found by search engines unless we have invested in online content and built social media networks which enable us to be found online. Moreover, the social web and its peer to peer nature means we are judged not so much by what we say about ourselves as by what others have to say about us.

The internet isn’t as clever as we might think. It’s a paradox for sure, but the internet is not yet very good at perceiving fine nuances about people. It’s powered by big data and algorithms. These are good at counting but not so good at interpreting subtle qualitative information. If you or I have 500 LinkedIn connections with really great people who have active goodwill (i.e. they will voluntarily help us) towards us, that’s powerful. If we have 5,000 who couldn’t care less, it’s actually a liability.

We need to have a funnel strategy. Actors and sales people know this well. They accept that one positive result is the normal outcome of perhaps 50 or even 100 auditions or sales calls.

So transitioning from senior executive to consultant is a conundrum. Such a pivot is possible, but it takes time and an effective strategy. Who we were previously and our experience is usually much less valuable than we’d like to think.

I know a ton of other consultants. Some are doing well usually because they have managed to transition from a ‘normal’ job to a freelance/contractor version of the same job. This is not real freelancing in my view – it’s actually a degraded job contract more than anything else.

This isn’t really what I am talking about here. I am talking about those of us who want to create our own true consulting businesses from scratch. Hunting and securing our clients and earning our living based on the success of our work for them.

The harsh reality is that most other consultants I know are finding it extremely difficult to secure good clients, good rates of pay and assignments which last more than a few weeks. The labour on demand model which is becoming the new normal, is making freelancing a very precarious career choice.

Success as a freelance consultant has very little in reality to do with our previous career experience. It has everything to do with our ability to network effectively, build awareness, acquire goodwill. And critically being able to solve a problem that our clients cannot solve themselves. Recognise this and develop a strategy that creates these things and we are half way there.

But half way will not pay the bills. And in my experience this transition takes years not weeks or months. Today I have long standing regular clients that I love working with. They are happy and I am happy. But in almost every case, the initial contact took 3-6 months to evolve into an arrangement whereby the commercials were finalised and the work was underway.

It’s a hard path to follow, but the satisfaction I get from seeing my clients succeed as a result of my involvement makes it more rewarding than anything I have done before.

Better still, because my clients are happy, they recommend me to others and so finding new assignments is never a problem for me.

And I indulge myself in a way I could never do when I had a normal job. Today if I don’t like a prospective client for any reason, I don’t work with them. Period. And that was a luxury of choice I never had before.

I just wish I had known what I know now when I started out.

P.S. Guardian Careers have published some further comments on the subject here. (Although I hope my views are a bit more actionable and insightful!)

Computers are learning to read our minds and why this changes everything

By Neil Patrick

In the digital age everything is reduced to numbers. Big data counts everything that can be counted.

But big data conceals as much as it reveals. Big data scientists argue that their algorithms enable fine judgements to be made across billions of pieces of data. Yet there is idiocy embedded within many algorithms.

Many of us find ourselves enraged by the clumsy ways simplistic counting algorithms determine who gets noticed online and who doesn’t.

This quantitative analysis is the strength of big data and currently its main weakness. But most algorithms cannot count the things that are often most important, i.e. the qualitative aspects. Like value, trust, goodwill, personality.

But this is about to change…

IBM Watson has already built artificial intelligence that does exactly this. It’s called Personality Insights. Follow this link and you can try it out. Just load a thousand or so words of a blog post or something you have written and the programme will analyse and quantify your personality.

I put it to the test with one of my own blog posts. This is what it said about me:

You are inner-directed and skeptical.

You are empathetic: you feel what others feel and are compassionate towards them. You are philosophical: you are open to and intrigued by new ideas and love to explore them. And you are calm-seeking: you prefer activities that are quiet, calm, and safe.

You are relatively unconcerned with tradition: you care more about making your own path than following what others have done. You consider independence to guide a large part of what you do: you like to set your own goals to decide how to best achieve them.

I could pick faults with this analysis maybe. But broadly speaking, I was impressed by how well it managed to interpret who I am and how I think.

The Personality Insights programme isn’t the end of the road. It’s the start of it. AI is going to become perfectly capable very soon of understanding the very essence of who we are, how we think and what motivates us.

Imagine the implications of how when sooner rather than later, software such as this is incorporated into social media platforms, into blog platforms, into LinkedIn?

The currently clumsy counts of likes, followers, shares etc could be supplemented by rich data which permits far more nuanced metrics about us.

The way will be open for platforms to group, sort and rank us in ways that they have never been able to do before.

And the gamers who exploit the clumsy metrics will be put in their rightful place.

But only if the platform owners recognize and seek to rectify the simplistic and unhelpful ways they use big data to judge who is important and who isn't.

We have to hope they use this power for our good and not just theirs.

Why Linkedin best practices are a myth

By Neil Patrick

There’s no universal social media best practice, so stop looking for one

Last weekend over coffee, Gary Sharpe of Blue Dog Scientific and I were discussing LinkedIn Pulse. I think it is fair to say Gary has established himself as something of a renegade authority on LinkedIn.

He is an agent provocateur, evangelist, firestarter. He’s also a champion of fairness, a scientist and a driven man. He has an uncanny knack of spotting elephants in rooms that only when he points them out, do the rest of us recognise them.

Dr. Gary Sharpe of Blue Dog Scientific

Gary and I have shared values and core beliefs about things like authenticity, trust, collaboration, transparency.

We have also independently evolved entirely different ideas about how we use social media platforms in our day to day businesses.

It’s not that we disagree about much, but rather that we have totally different manifestations of our online presences.

Gary’s online presence mirrors who he is, what he cares about and what he wants to achieve. And so does mine. Neither of us copied any best practice or more prominent thought leader. We each figured out our own strategy that was right for us.

So who is right and who is wrong?

The answer is that we are both right. Because there is no such thing as a one size fits all solution.

But as friends and collaborators, we thought it would be interesting writing some content for each other. Gary has posted about our shared ideas and beliefs here. If you want to get some really authoritative insights into Linkedin, then you'll find much of interest on Gary's blog.

Why it is good that we are different

Gary has a great deal more courage than I in how he has taken on his mission to improve everyone’s user experience of LinkedIn. He ribs me that I am risk averse. I rib him that he plays with fire too much.

The fact is that we are each being true to our own personalities and backgrounds. If I tried to be Gary, I would inevitably be at best a weak impersonation and at worst, come over as a complete fraud. And vice versa.

Why I don’t post on LinkedIn Pulse

I write a lot of blog posts – there are around 400 on this blog alone, not to mention a ton of others scattered all over the web. But you won’t find me posting on LinkedIn Pulse. Gary on the other hand posts on Pulse almost daily. Often with biting critiques of the very platform he is publishing on.

My rationale for not posting on Pulse is this; I believe that LinkedIn like any corporation serves its shareholders first. Second it serves its customers. At best, its members (that’s us) come a very lowly third.

And as Gary has consistently reported, we users are getting an increasingly poor deal as LinkedIn continues in its quest to drive up revenues and profits. Worse, when we publish on Pulse we are providing our labours to LinkedIn for peanuts.

They acquire our content by the bucket load every day. We get an increasingly paltry compensation for our hours of toil. Our work may bring us a few comments and plaudits from our friends. We may trigger the odd new contact who likes what we have said. But this is a very poor ROI in my view.

My mantra is this:

Don’t build your house on rented land. Especially when the landowner has absolutely no vested interest in retaining your goodwill.

How I connect with people without using LinkedIn

We all want to find and build worthwhile professional relationships. This makes LinkedIn the natural platform choice for most of us. And just as Gary has built his following and network through his blog, LinkedIn and Google plus, I have built mine through my blog and Twitter.

I consider LinkedIn “high stakes” social media. The most senior people are rarely on the platform. They are too busy being successful. And most other people don’t want to be pestered by strangers. Either to connect or to read our latest musings, however profound or insightful they may be. People want choice and they want control. I get that. And I respect it.

Send out too many invitations to connect with people you don’t already know and you’ll potentially be classed by LI as a spammer, especially if you trigger a few IDKs (that’s when an invitee responds with the “I don’t know this person” button).

So I never invite connections from someone on LinkedIn I don’t already know from somewhere else. And the result is that I may have a smaller LI network than some, but it’s with people I like and who hopefully like me. This is the foundation for relationships which are meaningful and valuable.

Twitter on the other hand is low stakes. Every day I gain about 30 or 40 new Twitter followers. Most are what I call ‘randoms’ – people whom have absolutely no reason to follow me, because we have nothing in common. Yet within those 30 or 40 will always be 3 or 4 people I do want to get to know better. Many of these people subsequently request to connect with me on LinkedIn because I am nice to them on Twitter – I comment and interact with them. I share and favourite their posts that I like. Everyone is happy.

Why LinkedIn is still immensely valuable to me

A few weeks ago, the CEO of a business in my locality posted on LinkedIn he was looking for a board level marketing consultant. He wasn’t a first degree connection of mine, so despite this being exactly the sort of work I specialize in, I never saw his post. The first I knew about it was when people I was connected to started recommending me.

Within a few hours, four people who knew me well had all put my name forward. And sure enough this led to a meeting and the start of a valuable business relationship.

None of this happened because I had posted on Pulse. It happened because people in my network thought enough of me to put me forward. For all sorts of reasons, they had goodwill towards me.

We win goodwill not by brilliance, but by caring about others

The thing that each of the four people who recommended me for this gig had in common was that in different ways, I had helped every one of them previously with their work. In some cases, it had been advice, or I had previously worked with them. In others, it had been simple friendship and encouragement.

This was no clever strategy on my part. It was no brilliant post which established my authority. It was just people being nice to me, because in the past I had been nice to them.

My approach to social media works for me because it reflects who I am and what I want to accomplish. Not because I have copied anyone else’s strategy. And Gary does the same thing. So we are entirely different but also entirely the same.

Vive la difference!