Monday, November 25, 2013

How to Shine as an Independent Consultant

There are many people out there who claim to be consultants -- I’m one of them. However, the term, which is very loosely defined, basically suggests that whoever is using the title has expertise about that which they claim as their professional niche. And for a fee they can, for an agreed-upon span of time, provide their clients with this expertise.
It is not for me to judge who and who is not a real consultant because, you see, that’s the beauty of a free market and capitalism. If a consultant provides a worthy service for a price the market will bear and can build a satisfactory reputation to match, they will do okay. If they don’t, they won’t. As companies cut costs and increase what is outsourced, it can be a lucrative, albeit crowded and highly competitive niche.
For those who are already consultants and want to up their game, or those who are beginning or even considering pursuing that line of work, I have some advice, if you’re interested. Not everyone is wild about consultants and there are those who populate boardrooms who have a rather low opinion of consultants and with good reason. I can name a number of professionals that do little to solve problems although that is precisely why they were brought on and contracted in the first place. You would be surprised at how many times consultants who are paid a lot of money fail to deliver on what they sold. And I don’t care how many diplomas a person may have on the wall, I have met some people neck deep in titles and degrees and they can talk all around a subject presenting solutions in theory. But clients aren’t paying for theory – they want solutions. They don’t need a play by play of what’s wrong with an academic twist, they already know it and, again, they want solutions.
As an example, how many people who go to a psychologist are ever told they are cured? I am not picking on psychologists or those who find their services helpful. I am simply suggesting that from a cynic’s perspective, they are developing a client base of patients in order to maintain a dependable revenue stream. It is a business as much or more than a practice. If a patient were to actually become cured, they lose a paying client. Or, what if the pharmaceutical companies ever actually cured disease? There would be no need to refill prescriptions on a recurring long-term basis, which wouldn’t keep the money flowing, which, in turn, wouldn’t justify spending millions for R&D. But if you have a disease, affliction or syndrome du jour and you begin to take a pill to alleviate and manage the symptoms – never mind an actual cure, you’re hooked; they’ve got you for the long term. I see the same business model in consulting.
So my advice is perhaps a bit radical (sarcasm) and flies in the face of convention; however, if you want to set yourself apart from the majority, one way to do it is – to do what you say you will do; actually solve the problems you were contracted to fix. In my view that is what a consultant is, and not someone who finds and latches onto a host, always re-assuring their client that a solution is just around the corner in order to extend a contract. Sorry, but building in dependency to justify more work and revenue is, at the very least, misleading, although this is how many large consultancy firms operate, and how do I know this to be true, you ask? I’ve  worked both on behalf of large advisory firms to recruit specialists and I have represented consultants who were not hired because they did not conform to the model of perpetuating more business to rack up billable hours. Instead, they wanted to solve problems and, therefore, they were not selected. These are the people who go off on their own and establish themselves independently, ironic isn’t it? I am not suggesting all consultancies are like this but there are enough of them and, as such, this is one strategy for how one might set themselves apart in a crowded market. Because, if you get down to the core of the issue, it is about helping companies navigate transition, fixing things and solving problems. References of this kind differentiate someone from others, who present a list of clients with whom they are conducting work on never-ending projects.  
Building a solid reputation by leaving a trail of successes in your wake is real job security, especially when companies more tightly control expenditures for outsourced help. But this is not all there is to it, one must continually find new business and a reputation for being reliable and effective builds its own momentum. Or, am I being too idealistic and unrealistic? 
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Monday, November 18, 2013

Overplaying Your Hand

In Poker, overplaying your hand is when a player has an initially strong hand, takes the initiative but fails to recognize the point at which his hand has lost its strength. The same thing can happen to you if you have a job offer and you want to hold out for something better, or biding your time until you have something better. Or the luxury of having more than one job offer to choose from – or, using one to leverage the other. There are those who can occasionally pull this off, but I find it is rare and more often and likely a timing issue than actual cleverness. Trying to game the system more often backfires and the perpetrator ends up losing on both counts. It may be a bold strategy when playing cards, although it is often a symptom of greed and a wrong-headed strategy. A friendly poker game is one thing but gambling with your career moves may have higher stakes in terms of your career.

As a headhunter, at least in the style by which I practice my tradecraft, my task is to represent both parties in good faith. The moment one side or the other begins to play games, all bets are off and I cease to be impartial. One reason is that my reputation is attached to those I represent, on either side, and I just don’t like sneaky and duplicitous people who portray themselves in one manner and then do the opposite. 
I have a recent example of someone doing just the type of posturing and delaying as I have described. It is not one of those whom I represent, but the company is an entity that I am actively advising. They have a situation in which they were looking for someone for a critical position and the selected candidate has been sitting on the offer, with the need to, “…think about it” and thereby holding the company who made the offer hostage. So, in addition to my selection of this topic, in order to make my point I am sharing the advice I provided to the company I am advising, exemplifying the discussions that are occurring behind the scenes, while the selected candidate thinks she is in a safe and comfortable position. In it you will see, the reasons as to why I’ve advised the job offer be withdrawn (taken away) from the applicant to whom they’ve provided the job offer: 
With almost four weeks having already passed, you are still awaiting a reply. I suggest you consider rescinding the offer. There are a number of reasons to take it away; for example, giving too much time for a decision is very corrosive to your organization. First, it gives the recipient the impression that your organization is desperate and you will create your own problem if she begins to assume to be entitled to this same flexibility in future matters. What I mean is that this candidate will feel a heightened and, as yet, unearned sense of importance and an attitude that suggests that you need her more than is the reality. Perception becomes reality and you will create ego issues before she even starts, which can affect your team to a wider degree. I suggest this person is either awaiting another offer in order to consider both or is stalling in the hopes of gaining a better offer. Or, she will use it to leverage a better circumstance with her current employer. In the meantime, your management team is stalled and unable to move ahead with any indication of actually yet filling the position. So, will (company name omitted) be the bride or the bridesmaid? I suggest at this stage it is important to strongly encourage a decision one way or the other in order to not lose the secondary candidate before they tire of waiting and proceed in another direction. My suggestion is that you impose a strict time limit – a drop-dead date, if in fact she has had your offer for more than a week without any reasonable explanation for the delay of an answer. For example, the question I pose to someone sitting on an offer is: “what will you know in a week (or more), that you don’t already know, right now – it’s time for an answer.” I suggest you give her until the end of this week (longest) for either a yes or no - period. This will portray your company as it is in reality, a confident and good firm with an offering of a good opportunity. If this is the reality then the perception on the market should be the same. She should be reminded that the clock is ticking on an opportunity that, if she doesn’t appreciate and take it, someone else will do so.

So, here’s a question to readers of this blog. Do you think that by the time, or if even the job offer is accepted, the newly-hired person will be as warmly welcomed after playing games like this? Perhaps, but more time will be spent unnecessarily gaining lost ground. My intent is not to scare or to threaten but to make readers aware that, indeed, the clock is ticking. If you have excelled during the interview and there has been mutual interest and enthusiasm to the offer stage, don’t squander it with indecision or intentional delay if it is not absolutely necessary. 
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Monday, November 11, 2013

Patronizing the Interviewer

Why do some people do it, no one likes a brown nose and interviewers recognize when someone’s trying to curry favor. They also know when someone is trying to anticipate and say what they think the interviewer wants to hear. Thereby, they are working harder to pretend to be something or someone they are not, rather than putting effort where it belongs, demonstrating their qualifications and suitability as an individual.
There are many reasons as to why people do this, for example, some may think they need to endear themselves to the hiring manager because, after all, how you fit or don’t fit into the company culture has a lot of bearing. In addition to your qualifications, no question, they consider the combination of both factors together. There is also another group who will attempt to sidle up to the hiring manager, hoping their personality and personal chemistry will somehow compensate for their lack of suitability. Of course most people simply think they should try to blend in to fit the environment.
When you interview, your time to shine with a hiring manager is finite, the clock is ticking; purpose-driven people understand this and make the most of it. Over the years I have watched and observed with great interest, much like a researcher observes a control group study, the behavior and posturing of interviewers and interviewees and later noting the results. While I cannot proclaim a scientific method because, after all, I’m a consultant and not a researcher, nonetheless the observations are always interesting.
You’re not there to become pals with your potential future boss. While personal chemistry and likeability are important for the cultural fit, any relationship beyond solely the professional aspect, much like loyalty, is time tested and gradually developed and never instantaneous. So don’t waste precious minutes attempting to do so. Your job, in a natural and likeable manner, is to simply impress upon the interviewer why you are their best choice.
I can tell you with full confidence that ass kissers do not receive job offers any more often than regular folk just doing their best to honestly represent themselves. If you’re not qualified for the job, no level of BS is going to get you the job – and if it does, it will be short lived as they seek to remedy their mistake. So my advice is quite simple and far less stressful, just be yourself. Indeed, go in with every intention to demonstrate why they should select you but do it according to the merits of your experience and qualifications. This way you’ll waste less time and be less impulsive trying to read and/or predict what you think they want to hear. And if you do all this and still get rejected, oh well that’s life; look for another company or manager who will value you as a potential employee.
If I sound as if I am being too flippant and less than sensitive to the plight of people struggling, I am not. But I know that whining about being rejected too long stunts your momentum and prevents you from staying focused on the task at hand. I also know that by pursuing more than one opportunity continues to give oneself hope and keeps you moving in the right direction, thereby reducing the contagion of desperation or panic. Furthermore, if you determine that you possessed the necessary qualifications and still did not make the cut and were rejected, never mind, if you are going to be damned, be damned for who you are and not for whom you’ve pretended to be. Be yourself.
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Monday, November 4, 2013

Opportunities Missed

It is easy to fall into the trap of negativity and complain how things are tough. Yeah, so it has gotten tougher, so what? You’re going to refuse to play anymore, you’ll take your ball and go home? Things are as tough as you choose to see or interpret the world around you. You can choose to listen primarily to those who morbidly thrive on bad news and seem content only when they see others suffering, or you can snap out of it and get yourself back on the right track, otherwise kindly stay away from me and take your cooties elsewhere. I’m not unrealistic, and I know of few individuals who are not somewhat concerned about the stability of their particular market sector, company, job and career. But we must all adapt to the changes happening around us and, hey, whoever said things stay the same. So why are we shocked when we encounter unanticipated change? Let’s dispense with the drama; we live during a period of increased challenges. When you watch the weather forecast or you look out the window, if the indication points to rain, you’re likely to carry an umbrella; you may need it or maybe not, but you have it with you at the ready – just in case.
On the other hand, most people manage their careers in a purely reactive manner. Clearly the economy isn’t running on all eight cylinders, it’s sputtering and clunking along, so why wait until a breakdown before conducting an overhaul and, yet, that’s what most people do and then    complain about their circumstance. If the job markets are changing, the effect is different depending on each individual’s situation. As such, it’s your responsibility to evaluate and prepare as best you can for whatever comes your way and not blame others if you fail to act in your own best interest. Regardless, most people will wait until disaster strikes before they actually do anything. 
But let’s keep this positive because the good news is that there are opportunities all around us all the time; I don’t care how you define the word, they’re there. The problem is that most people are open to opportunities only when it suits them and their timelines, however, in this manner they miss a lot. I’ll give you the most basic of examples; as a headhunter I speak with people every day about new opportunities. Many times I have a scenario in which I am conducting a search for a candidate on behalf of one of my clients. I will often speak to a potential candidate who is already working, is marginally interested but they might tell me, “yes, it is interesting and they are a good company, but it’s not the right time for me. I think I may be interested in looking for a new job, perhaps in another six months.” Fine, but as is often the case, timing is a factor they neglect to consider, so by the time they get around to it, guess what, the jobs that were available aren’t there any longer. But that’s how life is, isn’t it, when you’re not looking there’s stuff all around but when you’re ready, zip, zero, nada.
So, I’d like to make a suggestion based on tons of experience and direct exposure to just these kinds of situations – adapt your thinking to always having your ear to the ground, keen to identify and act upon new opportunities, however you choose to interpret the term. Don’t wait until you find yourself freaked out and panicking. If you’re in panic mode, you’ll hardly be at your best, so why do that to yourself if it is avoidable? Furthermore, the best time to look for a new job is when you don’t necessarily need one, for the very simple reason that you are more calm and confident.
I am not suggesting that you interview for everything you hear about but, over time, you’ll avail yourself of more choices. At the very least, always have a resume that is updated and ready to go; is your resume ready and updated? If not, what are you waiting for? Stop to reflexively dismiss opportunities without investing the few minutes to learn a bit more and, if something’s interesting, check it out. Don’t mess anyone around unnecessarily, but investigating an opportunity while being honest about your intent is not a bad reflection upon you. I would not share this mindset with your boss, besides, he or she might also be looking at potential new job possibilities, and why would they tell you either? Adopt this mindset from this moment forward and throughout the span of your working life and career, and then even if you get an unexpected gut punch, as a surprise layoff notice or some such thing, you’re already able to hit the streets.
Resist the tendency to focus only on what’s wrong out there; that’s the easy thing to do and if you’re focused the negative stuff, that’s all you’re going to see. But there are also good things out there, which you might not consider if you’ve got a closed mind. Are you open and receptive to any of it or do you just want to whine about how life is unfair, with self-imposed limits? It’s your own decision.
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