HR Consulting: Is Now The Time?
Few of us can remember ever experiencing times like these. But is being square in the middle of a global pandemic a good time to step out on your own as an HR consultant?
“I think it’s a great time,” said Manpreet Dhillon, CEO and founder of Veza Global. “It’s a great time to connect with other consulting firms and see if you can subcontract when they need more capacity. With the climate we’re in now, a lot of companies will be looking at cutting their payroll and bringing in consultants.”
The pandemic has been a growth period for her firm, she said. Since starting her consultancy in 2009, Veza Global has specialized in equity, diversity and inclusion in organizations and advocating for underrepresented groups, with focus on enhancing the leadership journey for people of diverse cultural backgrounds. “With the Black Lives Matter movement, our company is very relevant right now.”
Serena Morphy, chose to start consulting in the middle of the pandemic, founding Awaken HR earlier this year after working in corporate HR for 13 years. “That may seem strange to many, but I felt called to be of service to employers navigating the murkiness of this time.”
Lessons From 2020
“This year has brought some great awakenings to folks as we see greater value in working from home, balance, diversity and inclusion, opposing racism, bullying and harassment, and having empathy,” Morphy said. “The circumstances are very unfortunate, but I believe the pandemic and 2020 in general have afforded consultants like me opportunities to be part of the solution.”
Ray DePaul is director of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Calgary’s Mount Royal University. “Even relative to 10 years ago,” he said, “companies are more open to consulting relationships. In an uncertain environment, they can hire for specific projects without worrying about paying for benefits, severance, etc. But work still needs to be done. If a consultant can do it in 10 hours a week, the company and consultant will both benefit.”
The pandemic has forced people to look at things differently, said Gary Webb, a business advisor at Small Business BC. “People have had to get used to having remote employees and contractors. It definitely opens up some opportunities. Business needs, whether HR or others, still need to be addressed.”
Understand Your Motivation
DePaul said he believes there are two types of consultants and entrepreneurs—those doing it out of opportunity or those doing it out of necessity. The good news, he said, is you can be successful either way.
“I think the factors that make people want to do this are around flexibility and work schedule,” DePaul said. “If you want to take a month off per year and travel, that’s difficult to do in a traditional role.
“How do you define success? If it’s spending two months a year travelling and 10 months a year working really hard, then consultancy is a path to do that. Ask yourself what you want out of this period of your life.”
For others, consulting offers the ability to choose the type of work they do. Morphy said she realized in 2017, after being seconded to a leadership development and culture transformation project, that she lives for “aha moments.”
When she facilitated leadership team sessions, she said, “The moments where I could literally see light bulbs go off above the participants’ heads were just so energizing to me. No matter how long my days were, I would leave feeling invigorated and excited to go back the next day.”
The project paired her with expert facilitators from a large consulting firm that acted as her coaches and mentors. It helped her realize she wanted to make a career out of prompting these moments. Three years later, she founded Awaken HR to pursue her passion for encouraging awakening moments.
Take Stock of Yourself
A big first step is understanding what you’re good or great at, according to DePaul. “It’s the notion of ‘What is it that I bring to the world that the world needs?’ Start building a personal brand—it can include a website, professional headshots—things that show you’re in it for the long term.
“Everyone is going to Google you, so make sure that what they find supports what you want to say. Be a thought leader. Volunteer your skills for a charity or find other ways to add to your value.”
But DePaul also recognizes that working alone can be a problem for some people.
“You need to be comfortable with ambiguity and insecurity. Ask yourself, ‘Am I willing to promote myself and spend a lot of time networking, meeting people, etc.?’ You can develop those skills, or you may decide it’s not for you,” he said.
Dhillon summed it up as, “Know that you’re taking a risk and know what value you bring. Spend some time thinking about that.”
Understand the Positives and Negatives
“I love the fact that I get to work with so many different people and get to meet them in so many different ways,” Dhillon said. “I get to work on so many different projects, I travel a lot and I work on some really cool projects in a global context. For example, I did a trade mission to Croatia for women entrepreneurs. We’re seeing challenges like Canada used to have in some other areas now.”
That said, she recognizes the challenges a consultancy presents: ebbs and flows in work, understanding what the market is at any time and even setting rates. “Everyone charges such different rates; it has been a big challenge figuring out what to charge. B.C. is a pretty small market, and people don’t readily share their rates.”
Dhillon said it is easier to sell a product or service than to sell herself, so promoting herself while creating authentic relationships is an important challenge.
Morphy said she values flexibility more than she realized. “I enjoy being able to focus my work in certain areas and having the time and space to engage in professional development and interesting discussions. I enjoy the diversity in working with clients of different sizes and industries and the continued learning and the pace that it brings.”
Meanwhile, DePaul said consultants actually have more sense of control over their career. “We all know people who join a big company and they blink and five years have gone by, they’re doing very similar things to five years ago, and have the sense that they’ve turned their career over to the company. As a consultant, you’re in complete control of what you choose to do. You can say no to positions or work you don’t want.”
However, he said, “Realize that consultants have no job security. You tend not to get health benefits; even if you’re a consultant for one company for three years and you probably feel more like an employee, you don’t have a wellness program or sick days or paid leave for medical reasons.”
Consultants are business owners, DePaul said, which requires some skills you probably weren’t trained to have, such as cultivating business contracts, business development, finding investors, negotiating contracts and promoting yourself. “These aren’t things that you necessarily learned in HR training.”
Webb said industries also have ups and downs and consultants need to plan for that possibility. “Your workday isn’t a uniform nine-to-five. You have flexibility, but you can work very long hours in the short term.
“You’ve got to think about the second and third contracts, think continually about how you’ll have enough billable hours in future. Also, as a consultant, you are the intellectual property, you are the business, but you only have so many hours you can work in a month — what happens if you can’t work, if you or your kid get sick or you have some other personal emergency? How do you sustain it?”
Specialist or Generalist?
“I think you have to be a bit of a generalist before you specialize, but it’s better to specialize in the long term,” said Webb. “You can narrow your focus, target your marketing materials and it’s easier to identify potential clients who will require your services.”
While setting up her business, Morphy met virtually with more than 30 other consultants. She said most senior consultants she spoke with found their niche, choosing to concentrate in one or two areas of expertise. Many told her that if they were to start over, they would have specialized from the beginning.
“I’ve chosen to focus on culture transformation because of my passion for awakening moments, but as strategic as that is, I need to be both strategic and tactical,” Morphy said.
For Dhillon, becoming a specialist was a natural progression on a journey that began in 2007. “I decided on my focus at the beginning. I’d been doing gender equality work since 2007, focusing on women with culturally different backgrounds. I’d done many cross-cultural consultant projects with either a political or arts focus, bringing women or community together. I wanted to keep working in that space and further define it.”
Access the Resources Available
Overwhelmingly, consultants identify fellow consultants as a great resource for their business. Maintaining networks is crucial to success.
Small Business BC (SBBC) offers one-on-one advisory services and answers general questions by phone or email. Webb advises people to check out the resources available on their website, noting any questions they have, before booking a free 30-minute advisory session to get answers.
Clients have found SBBC’s starting-a-business checklist very useful. The organization also offers seminars on a variety of topics; the Start Smart seminar looks at business structures, taxation, WorkSafeBC, licensing, insurance and other important topics.
“We have a Talk-to-an-Expert series where we bring in people with expertise to do one-on-one meetings, like a lawyer or an accountant, or experts in IT, websites, HR, social media, branding, etc.,” said Webb. “It’s a fee-based service, so have your questions ready to ask during your session.”
The website offers many do-it-yourself services, too; the business planning template can help you get your ideas on paper, clarify and set goals, figure out your break-even point or how many clients or billable hours you’ll need per month in order to make a living, determine pricing and more.
Getting Your Business Out There
Network, network, network. Attend industry events, cultivate business and build peer relationships. Join your chamber or commerce or board of trade to meet other businesspeople.
“Consulting is a community,” Morphy said. “Conversations have led to sharing what I’ve been working on and how I can support. I’m not a salesperson. I’ve chosen to continue to have authentic dialogue and hope it brings continued organic connections.”
A strong network of other consultants also means you have a pool of expertise to call on for large projects that require more or broader expertise than your own.
“In the consulting world, you end up doing little bits for free to show you’re the right person,” DePaul said. “You might offer advice to someone over coffee. Then, if work does come about, they’ll be convinced you’re the person who can do it. Maybe one in 20 will do that, so you need to be comfortable with that.
“Your job is just to be curious and ask questions. People like to tell you their stories. At the end, ask them if there’s anyone else in their network they think you should meet; it often leads to good contacts.”
Webb said that if you don’t choose or can’t afford traditional advertising, “You have to do things differently, which usually means lots of networking, having a strong online presence, social media marketing, keeping your LinkedIn profile professional and up to date. Plant seeds, get your services out there; success won’t happen right away but you’re laying the groundwork.
“As a consultant, you have a fairly low overhead, not paying employees or commercial rent, so you can be a little more flexible. Keep your basic rate the same so it’s protected for better times, but be more flexible with extras.”
The Day-to-Day Details
Our sources identified several details that consultants need to consider in running their business:
- Contracts: Always get clients to sign contracts, preferably ones in which you will be paid as the project progresses, not all at the end.
- Insurance: Liability, business, vehicle, WorkSafeBC, home insurance for your office. Some companies will require proof of some insurance coverage when awarding contracts.
- GST: Get a GST number from the federal government and set the GST aside when a client pays you.
- Pricing: Be sure to consider all of your costs when you set your rates. You’re not just paying this month’s bills, you’re setting aside income tax you’ll have to pay, building reserves for when business is slow, contributing to your own retirement fund, charging enough that you can afford to take some vacation time so you don’t burn out.
- Collections: Stay on top of your accounts receivable. If you own the business, there will be times when you have to pursue payment you’re owed.
- Accounting: Keep every applicable receipt as you incur the expenses, so you’ve got them when it’s time to do your taxes.
- Income tax: Set aside a third of your income for taxes so you don’t get a nasty surprise when you file your return.
- Ongoing marketing: Set aside time for networking and marketing activities, so that you’ll already have another project lined up when this one ends.
- Be persistent: Prepare for peaks and valleys; don’t be discouraged during slow periods.
- Systems: Set up systems for success. Consider organizing a board of advisors you trust to present diversity of thought.
- Governments: Recognize that rules vary according to the different levels of government: federal, provincial and municipal.
Your plan may be to stay an independent consultant indefinitely, or you may end up enlarging your business to meet new opportunities. Veza Global has grown to a regular team of five people, supplemented right now with eight students. “I wanted to go more global,” Dhillon said. “The work was bigger than myself, and I wanted to develop a tech solution. I wanted to work with bigger entities on cultural transformation.”
Dhillon said it’s important to understand why you’re consulting and what changes you want to see because of it, whether in your life, your family’s life or in the world.
“I really feel that I’ve learned humility at a deeper level. I’ve also learned self-value, knowing my expertise matters and there’s a reason why people hire expertise. At the end of the day, people want relationships and people who connect on a personal level. Any contract we get is about a relationship we’re creating.”
DePaul recalled an analogy one consultant shared. “Don’t be afraid to zigzag. Your path won’t be a straight line. You might end up taking a job and finding something you didn’t know you’d enjoy, and you move in that direction. It’s a benefit of being a consultant that you can try things without committing as an employee. Try something once and you may find you’re good at it. Don’t be so goal oriented that you don’t try things in your peripheral areas.”
Morphy said she has learned that her personal values aren’t negotiable. “I consider myself to be very flexible and adaptable, but I’ve learned that my values come first, and the importance of working with clients that exemplify a similar set of principles. I’ve worked really hard to live my values in my work and value partnerships with like-minded leaders.
“You need to be authentic. Stay true to your values and who you are.”
Nancy Painter is an award-winning communication consultant and writer based in Surrey. She is an active member in both the International Association of Business Communicators and the Professional Writers Association of Canada.
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