Today was one of those events. 20 years after unexpectedly setting up my own consultancy business, I found myself mentoring someone exactly 20 years younger than me in precisely the same boat. It came at a time when I have naturally been reflecting on the past two decades – as we all do when celebrating a birthday or anniversary. In many ways it felt like I was supporting my younger self. It was quite a moment.
My mentee had been spotted as a talent by an associate and invited to deliver a small consultancy project in their specialist area. And rightly so. I have every confidence they are the right person for the job. So it all sounds simple enough doesn’t it? But the issues presenting themselves were around getting the process right, confidence and communication, and value or worth.
For someone delivering their first piece of consultancy it can feel like a lonely place. It is common to have feelings of uncertainty and to take on the entire responsibility for the project. It can be quite daunting with lots of questions and doubts. Sometimes I think the common perception of a consultant is it’s an easy life. It may be once in a while, but not always. Experience helps, and that is what I was sharing in this mentoring session.
First, we needed to check the consultancy question, mission or ‘ask’ was clear, so we could be confident in describing what success looked like. That way, we knew what we were aiming for. That can save many sleepless nights. Consultants are often commissioned for their specialism, but more often for their time, objectivity and independence. It is a big investment for any organisation. One’s loneliness is supported by being boundaried. It may seem counter-intuitive but believe me drawing clear limits about your role is incredibly enabling and freeing for the consultant and client alike.
The best piece of advice I received when I started out was setting my daily rate. I had ideas of charging half of what I ended up billing for. It was a client who told me what to charge and he told me in no uncertain terms I was worth it. I thank him to this day for his advice and for his faith. And I am still getting advice from him now. Nothing gave me greater pleasure than to pass that advice on today.
A lack of confidence can lead to all sorts of compensatory behaviours that pass on that lack of confidence to the client. Before you know it, their trust in you will be damaged. Advice here was about being confident and not allowing self-doubt to break boundaries or result in you saying ‘yes’ when you mean ‘no’, over-delivering on tasks, or making a hash of your client communications. A risk here is you find it difficult to finish and sign-off a project as you never feel it is not good enough.
Be aware not to overload the client with tasks, they will start to wonder if it had been easier to do the job themselves. Indeed, a plan for communications, and check-ins at the appropriate milestones means everyone knows what is happening and when. And if it needs to change, talk about it. Don’t avoid the issue, instead review and agree the plan.
Finally, we looked at progress against the project plan and timeline. A common anxiety here is feeling you are behind or things won’t be ready in time. Blocking off time (however long) to get some things moving quicker helps and creates a sense you are ahead of yourself. Being able to estimate how long a task will take is a vital skill for consultants. Of course it is, you are selling time. Underestimate and it could cost your own time and resource, overestimate and you could be required to return some contract value, or under or overspends may balance each other out. Importantly, getting time estimates wrong can be a block to progress, making you believe there isn’t time to get the simplest of things done.
It was great to be able to uncover the development needs of my mentee and unpick some of the elements of a considered piece of consultancy. I enjoyed giving some of my learning back as well. I will keep an eye on this one to ensure things go to plan!