A move into freelance consultancy sounds ideal for those who want more control over their work but there is much to consider before going it alone, writes Tony McIntyre
You are sitting in a traffic jam on your way to a difficult meeting, and you know you are going to be late. There has to be a better way of earning a living: one where you can make full use of your managerial and social care expertise and make more money with less stress. It is then that you might start to think about the possibility of being a freelance consultant.
Something like that happened to me a couple of years ago. Last year, after much soul-searching and research, I established myself as an independent management consultant. But it is not the get-rich-quick scheme that some people portray it as.
Being an independent consultant requires most of the skills that line managers already have, such as managing change, good communication, influencing people and achieving results. The Institute of Management Consultancy’s (IMC) consulting competency framework has four main building blocks: customer focus, building and sustaining relationships, applying expertise and knowledge and achieving sustainable results.(1)
The biggest skill I had to learn was selling. Prospective customers need to feel confident enough to part with money to engage you. You might think that you have to “sell” your services already to other parts of the organisation. Or, if you work in the private sector, a key part of your role is selling its services to public sector commissioners. The difference is that you are working for an organisation and, as such, will receive a monthly salary regardless of your success. The same cannot be said for going freelance.
But there are benefits to being an independent consultant as opposed to working as a social care line manager. These include the flexibility and variety of the role and being able to focus on the strategic picture without being pulled into “firefighting” or operational issues.
But there are also disadvantages. The biggest one hits you almost immediately: you no longer have the back-up of an organisation. For example, soon after going freelance I took a telephone call from someone at the Inland Revenue who wished to speak to my “wages section”.
Before you set out on the freelance road, it is crucial to have a plan and to discuss it with someone you trust. You need to examine what support you will need to achieve this and from whom. Are you a budding entrepreneur or are you an alterpreneur, a term devised by insurance company More Than to describe micro-business people who are more motivated by lifestyle rather than career or financial ambitions.
Research for More Than has shown that 85 per cent of micro-business owners are more concerned about their lifestyle than earning large sums of money, something which seems to fly in the face of the usual entrepreneurial perception of owners of small businesses.
At an early stage you should consider making contact with your local Business Link. Most of its services are free and include a variety of courses – including selling – for those considering working for themselves. It also provides one-to-one business advisers, and it is worth checking out the website for information.
There are two main ways of going freelance: “sole trader” and a “sole director limited company”. Business Link or the Inland Revenue will be able to give basic information on either of these two options, but it is worth considering taking advice from an accountant or a solicitor.
It is also worth joining a professional body and ensuring that you have a knowledge base about the profession. The number of management consultants is increasing – there are thought to be about 70,000 management consultants in the UK – yet there is no single professional regulatory body.
However, there are professional organisations that could be useful to join – for example the IMC and its partner organisation the Chartered Management Institute (CMI). The IMC has a series of accredited awards, including the certificate in management consulting essentials, diploma in management consultancy and the competency-based award of certified management consultant.
I have learned several key lessons since becoming a freelance consultant. It is worth remembering that projects change. After agreeing the brief and actually starting work on a project, it is not unusual for clients to decide that they want the project to cover additional issues, or indeed that they would like the project itself to take a different direction than originally agreed.
I would advise thinking twice before cold calling. In my experience it does not work to call prospective clients who do not know of you or the services you offer. After entering the freelance market, it is also vital to maintain your own professional social care development. If you are a registered social worker and wish to continue with your registration, it is imperative that you ensure you undertake the required post registration training and learning.
Keep up to date, both in relation to the bigger picture in social care and wider management and leadership issues. Expand your existing network. Becoming an independent consultant entails doing your sums beforehand and ensuring that you have a “survival fund” for at least six months. Finally, don’t expect too much too soon: it takes time to build up your client base.
Tony Mcintyre is a registered social worker with more than 20 years’ experience in social care, many of them at senior level. He has an MBA and last year he became an independent consultant specialising in social care and health.
Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.
This article discusses issues which may be relevant to social care managers who are considering a move into independent consultancy. The article explores some of the similarities and differences between line management and freelancing and highlights some of the practical considerations which need to be taken into account before any move.
(1) Institute of Management Consultancy, Consulting Competency Framework 2005 – www.imc.co.uk
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