Three Stage Survival Guide for the Independent Professional Executive, Consultant or Specialist

The SWOT-landscape systematically deploys the ...

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Some found my blog last week entitled “Interim Management:  Ten Emerging Trends and Outlook for the Future” a bit scary and I agreed to reflect on offering a few tips for survival.

To quickly recap on my conclusion from last week:

My worst case scenario would see a circa 50% contraction from 2007, expressed in numbers of professional interims, ISP consultants and SME ISPs.

Regrettably, I would classify all interims and ISP consultants who are not economically viable as casualties.

For sure, these are truly scary times for many but there is a rational or logical way forward for the independent professional and I am including interim executives, consultants and other subject matter experts.

Firstly, let me introduce my proposed three stage survival guide. It’s designed to try to eliminate fear by focusing on one of the three survival stages at a time. The three stages are quite simple and include:

  1. Preparation
  2. Knowledge
  3. Discipline

A. PREPARATION

For simplicity, let’s adopt the Merriam Webster definition of “preparation“, with the primary attribute being:

the action or process of making something ready for use or service or of getting ready for some occasion, test, or duty

Key step in preparation might include:

  1. A personal SWOT analysis (Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Threats)
  2. Physical and psychological conditioning 
  3. Market research and intelligence
  4. Skills assessment
  5. Resourcing assessment, including one’s financial resources and other non financial assets, like one’s business or associate network, specialist expertise etc.
  6. Consider deploying marketing tools, like for example, web site, viral marketing, blog, webinars etc.
  7. Develop a personal survival strategy, including defensive or fallback strategies
  8. Deploy the personal survival strategy
  9. Refine the personal survival strategy
  10. Be ready to action a fall back strategy, if necessary. This might include a sabbatical or period out for personal development or extended travelling

B. KNOWLEDGE

Knowledge” is used in the widest sense, including full breadth of awareness, skill, intelligence, expertise and readiness.

Key steps in building a “personal knowledge” strategy might include:

  1. Brainstorming with a professional buddy or friend
  2. Develop a body of knowledge for your area of expertise
  3. Research best and emerging practice in your area of expertise
  4. Conduct a gap analysis between where you are and where you want to be
  5. Develop a strategy for enhancing your “personal knowledge”. For example this might include learning or developing language skills – see for example, the BBC online Mandarin course. Alternatively, your strategy might be to develop a specialized network. Perhaps you may wish to consider writing specialized articles or public speaking at specialized events?
  6. Become an acknowledged expert
  7. Be careful to focus your knowledge on themes that have been validated by your own market assessments and stick with your plan. For example, if you have determined that there will growth in  interim management in BRICS countries, you need to develop a viable strategy and marshal specialist “personal knowledge” to target this market
  8. Be disciplined and focus your knowledge enhancement in areas that directly support your own survival strategy
  9. Social media, like Twitter or LinkedIn, will provide some useful stepping-stones but be discerning and validate all information with multiple sources
  10. Do not waste time debating with professionals on LinkedIn subject sites, unless it directly supports your survival strategy

C. DISCIPLINE

Discipline” is the third element of the three stage plan. Try to focus on your three elements and not jump from one to the other.

Discipline is critical to driving out fear but be prepared adopt a fall back strategy, if required.

Discipline steps might include:

  1. Preparing a daily and weekly plan
  2. Tracking actual achievements compared to plan, understanding variations, identifying opportunities for corrective action, or in last or worst case, revising the personal plan
  3. Focusing on physical and psychological conditioning, so that you are strong enough to deal with variations to your personal plan
  4. Plan time for fun and relaxation
  5. Work with your personal buddy, mentor or trainer (this should preferably not a partner or spouse)
  6. Consider developing survival groups for more complex development
  7. Practice role-playing
  8. Develop “drills” for key activities, so that they can be handled expeditiously
  9. Try to stick to the planned activity focusing on one stage at the time
  10. Be ready to retreat, actioning a well-defined and planned fall-back

D. CONCLUSION

In my worst case scenario, fifty-percent of professional interims who were economically active in 2007 will probably not be fully economically active (as professional interims) in 2012. This applies to independent consultants and subject matter experts too.

The above structured three-phase survival guide is not a panacea but it is designed to optimise effort, reducing fear and anxiety. Obviously, it can be tailored to individual circumstances, with variation in the activities. It is simply designed to help the professional interim stay the course, or beat a planned and well-rehearsed, orderly fall-back or retreat.

As always, please feel free to share your views and provide suggestions for improvement. I would particularly like to hear about casualities and what they are doing to bring order following fall-back and retreat.

8 responses

  1. We are not quite at the point where Barry has seen the light on the road to Damascus but we are getting closer.

    The earlier hectoring tone was to try and build a fire under ISP’s and alert people to what was coming next.

    This did not work but no-one can say I didn’t try or that they did not know what was on the horizon.
    In this regard (as an aside Sarkozy yesterday said that he was prepared to go to China), presumably to ask for the second trillion Euros which is needed to fix the system for a while.

    Over and above the main points of the survival plan I think there are some additional elements to consider:

    1) Eliminating or reducing any personal debt that may still remain and creating enough passive income from other sources to fill in any gaps in or between assignments that may arise either through delayed decisions ,ISP’s not producing enough assignments.

    This is so that you can size up an assignment and either take it or leave it – important when clients try to apply pressure or you need to walk away because what is being asked of you is not practical, does not fit in with your values, cannot be completed in the time allotted or involves you in unquantifiable risks.
    Also, if you happen to be alone and without a supportive spouse, partner, gold plated pension, private income, this passive income stream must be created so that when you are selling you can remain calm, impervious to buyer pressure and appear as though you are not desperate for money.

    2) Get informed, not just through the mainstream press but via other sources about what is going on in the world and in your target keeps you ahead of the curve and can help you formulate better solutions for clients.

    3) Unless you have particular access to a marketplace as Barry Scarr does in his former incarnation as a local authority Finance Director or you are a “connected ” person you will not only need to know how to sell and present but you will need to have access to others who can deal with a wider range of people than you can.

    No one person, even with NLP can appeal to everbody so you limit your chances by purely going it alone even after well meaning advice from a trusted associate or buddy.

    Sales techniques evolve rapidly, so there needs to be a constant investment in training and the knowledge of the latest terminology so that you do not appear dated.

    4) Build alliances with others with non-competing and complimentary skills so that your core offering can be broadened if the need arises.

    5 )Look and sound the part as part of your image building and what Steve Covey calls sharpen your saw

    • John. I find myself agreeing with what you say, no caveats! The debt point is crucial, and I’m disappointed I didn’t pick up on it myself, as I could almost be described as a debt repayment fundamendalist preacher. Back in the early 2000’s I saw that personal debt was becoming an thing of ease, not a thing to be wary of, and the way people were treating property as cash machines was insane. I suppose there is a temptation when times are good, and you are drawing decent dividend, to buy a new Merc or a Villa or whatever, but I chose to eliminate all of my debt, as you suggest. It does produce a different outlook and peace of mind.
      Although I have a Local Goverment Pension, I will not have access to it until I am 65, so unlike my of my compatriots who got made redundant after 50, I am doing this for a living, not for a hobby or to keep me from under my wife’s feet. The market has too many of these ‘hobby’ interims, who are the main reason that rates are being driven down in the public sector. Hence my setting up of the company, which is a pure marketing concern, to generate passive income in the internet arena. Its a sinple calculation – work out how much is your ‘bottom line’, set tagets and go for it.
      You make more points about learning and keeping up to date. Essential, in my opinion. If you are marketing yourself as an interim/consultant in a certain area, you have to have your ‘nose in a book’ at least on a weekly basis, and make time to do so. And as you say, not just on core specialist competencies, but on all of the things that surround your business. You have to accept that as a very small business you may actually spen more on training as a % of tuyrnover/time than a big business.
      Finally, I have seen many Limited Companies, interim or otherwise, get dissolved or go bust this year, for a single reason – the owner treats a limited company like a sole trading concern. I think that if you are running the business, you need to give it the respect it deserves – as John woukd say, look adn sound the part.

      • Barry,

        If you and John agree, perhaps there is hope for the Euro?

        I would argue that both you and John are excellent examples of survivors in my three stage survival guide. I think it is also worth dwelling on the less successful. In recent months I have been made aware of former professional interims and former interim sales consultants (in no particular order):

        1. Doing pro-bona work for charity
        2. Doing pro-bona political lobbying (myself included)
        3. Signing on for job seekers allowances
        4. Driving vans across Europe
        5. Considering taking over DIY businesses
        6. Advising on deals that failed to materialize
        7. Selling bric a brac at car-boots
        8. Retiring
        9. Taking sabbaticals (myself included), and
        10. Generally reinventing themselves

        I am sure that you can both add to the list.

        It is also significant that you both are not dependent on intermediaries and are probably more consultants than professional interims, at this moment in time.

  2. Hi Alf,
    A good post and follow up to your last one. I have been fortunate over the last three years to see a growth in year on year revenues and a sustained day rate, even though the majority of my business is pubic sector. For those who don’t know, the company is a three Director consultancy specialising in change and resources in the public sector. So, I thought I’d look at your strategies and see if it resonates with what I have done:

    Preparation

    We have certainly developed a more focused approached to marketing and selling. One of the things that I woud agree with John Gelmini on is that interims/consultants need to have better marketing and selling skills, and I have been lucky in that I have worked in both marketing and sales in the private sector. Market intelligence has also been a big driver, and the main reason that we went niche this year, launching a new service and web site. We have also looked at SWOT, resources and our network. Our strategy has been to do as much direct work as possible (as John would say, hunt, kill and eat our our prey). 100% of our revenues this year have been direct, and we have used associates to extend our reach. We might now need to take a break and lie down in a darkened room, as I seem to be agreeing with John Gelmini a lot these days! Being an anally retentive accountant, I have also developed fallback and defensive strategies – The usual “one years expenses in the bank” plus we have set up another company in a different arena altogether that we can focus on if the core business pulls back.

    Knowledge

    Another key area – we have positioned ourselves as experts in a niche of adult social care, and used many of the methods you identify. This has been succesful to the point of national recognition – if you don’t believe me google the October edition of ADASS Futures and on page three I receive a personal tribute from the President of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services. I would add however, that you need huge balls if you are going to stick your neck out to this extent. Not one for chancers, because if you can’t hold your own, you’ll soon be found out. Plus as you point out out, it has to have a close fit with the market intelligence/strategy that you did from preparation. Also, be prepared to take advantage of ‘events’ if they occur in that arena – a lot of the work that I am doing at the moment is linked to a single event in the market.

    Discipline

    Yes, spot on. You need to know what you are going to do and when you are going to do it. For the reasons that you set out, but also for another – it helps fight procrastination, the enemy of many a small business owner. As well as developing ‘drills’, you also might want to outsource repetitious mundane tasks in order to be more productive, but only if you have conquered procrastinantion.
    I hope this all makes sense – I thought that I might add a ‘practical’ view of how I found your analysis, rather than a theoretical debate, and looking at what you said seemed to resonate with what I have been doing for a while. The only thing I would add is – targets. The setting of targets and goals is a subject in itself, but you’ll never get to where you are going if you don’t know where it is. A white board in our office has a number of squares drawn on it, each one representing £10k. At the start, there is a red unhappy smiley, and at the end there is a big green smiley. This has been a hugely powerful tool this year, and I can honestly say that there is a sense if achievement when the squares past the middle start getting coloured in. It was also a very visual call to action in June, when we had no squares coloured in whatsoever!

    • Hi Barry,

      Many thanks for taking the time to read the blog and respond. It is really most encouraging that you are able to resonate so easily with my proposal.

      I note that you are now agreeing more with John Gelmini. One of you must be getting soft..

      Thanks

      Alf

      • Some of what John says does make sense – its probably the way that its delivered that winds people up! I’ll now reflect on why I’ve mis-spelt public in my opening paragraphs. Dang.

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