Rewards of Risk

You’ve heard the wisecracks and jokes: “How can you tell your life-partner is a consultant? He/she celebrates an anniversary by conducting a performance review.” Or, “How do you know when you’ve got the consulting bug? When a two-page article in Fortune/The Economist/The Journal of Commerce is all it takes to make you an expert.”

Sometimes there’s some truth or even a valid point behind all bits of humor, but this can’t possibly explain why so many people complete the employment line on any type of form with the word “consultant.”

Defining one’s work as consulting can mean a dramatic and probably unexpected change has occurred with your employment, and “consultant” can fill the gap until a new “real” job comes around.

A “real” job is one in which you spend endless hours in meaningless meetings, looking over your shoulder to see who is looking over yours, working 50 weeks a year for two weeks of “staycation,” playing older sibling or senior adviser or pillar of strength for needy employees, incompetent bosses or uncertain colleagues. A real job does provide at least the illusion of a safety net beneath you, although sometimes that safety net won’t hold the weight of your paycheck, let alone your need for security.

Don’t you have to be a bit crazy to throw all that away, or to take the desperate choice when let go — for the complete lack of certainty, absence of security, egocentric unrealistic expectation of success — to put out your shingle as a consultant?

There is no denying the issues. Even with all of the insecurity and uncertainty rolled up in a modern employee-employer relationship, the regular paycheck and some type of benefit package are quite compelling. As a consultant, at least as an independent consultant, you are your employer, and you are 100 percent responsible to you, to your family, to your clients, to your creditors, for everything, every hour of every day. Now you’re really talking about insecurity and uncertainty.

So why do so many of us, regardless of the circumstances, take the leap into the unknown and create a new business with no safety net, a set of new costs and expenses, almost all of which will be higher than expected (health insurance, telephone/Internet, a place to work, retirement savings, etc.), and all needing to be supported by an uncertain revenue stream? Why take the risk?

Because, as is so often the case — no risk, no reward; great risk, great reward. It is, however, extremely important to determine early in the process what reward you really are looking for. If reward means lots of money, don’t do it. That might happen, but don’t base your plan on it. If reward means fabulous, interesting projects, with fascinating, brilliant clients, fuhgetaboutit. It might happen, but stifle your disappointment if the work is irregular, the projects look depressingly similar, and the people, well, the people will be more or less the same.

But maybe not; and the maybe not is the reward. If you work long and hard and spend time developing your space and are honest enough with yourself to understand your strengths and especially your shortcomings, and then take the time to match all of this with not just your known universe, but with all of the possibly adjacent universes that connect and interact with your familiar space — in other words, the terrifying unknown, because I think you must go there — the rewards may be there. Maybe not — but it is up to you — and that is the reward. If you are willing and able to be honest with yourself, no one will or can judge you as well as you can judge yourself.

Consulting is difficult work. More than anything else, it requires a commodity in increasingly short supply: honesty. Telling clients there are serious shortcomings with their work or their process, or their people, is difficult, often close to impossible, but the work can only be done properly if it is done openly and honestly.

Making this even more problematic is that the consultant cannot know, with absolute certainty, that he is correct. Much of the work requires analysis of unfamiliar situations and issues, so how can the consultant be sure of his own objectivity and how does one determine where objectivity ends and subjectivity begins? This is where, when and how the consultant can demonstrate his value.

For me, this is where the rewards begin. If the situation wasn’t problematic, the client probably could solve it himself, and doesn’t need you. The very fact of being called provides the first taste of the reward and the reason for taking that initial Indian Jones-like step off into the void. You may be in a position to help fix a seemingly intractable problem. Or maybe there’s no real problem at all. Can you say, “Everything looks OK to me; you don’t really need me?”

Barry Horowitz is the principal of CMS Consulting Services. Contact him at 503-208-2232 or at barryh@cms-cs.com.

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