Me, myself and I

Me, myself and I
by Alison Coleman


While some companies are freezing pay to avoid job cuts, others have no choice but to axe employees. Which means more directors are seeking to become consultants, freelancers or portfolio workers. We offer advice for directors going solo.

As the recession deepens, the managerial ranks of large organisations are feeling the impact of job cuts. And as more and more professionals find themselves caught up in this "white-collar recession", redundancy is proving to be the push that they need to consider going it alone as a consultant or starting their own businesses.

Online business portals and freelance networks are reporting increased activity from prospective new members. Since the start of the downturn, online consultants network Skillfair has seen membership soar, with a 70 per cent rise in numbers from a year earlier. Founder and managing director Gill Hunt, who herself worked as an IT professional in a corporate environment for many years before becoming an independent consultant, says: "Times are tough and jobs are being cut, but there is still work to be found. Businesses that do not want to risk employing permanent staff in uncertain times will consider alternatives, and that includes contracting out to independent business professionals."

A recent survey of Skillfair members revealed there were few regrets among those who had decided to use redundancy to launch a solo career, with the majority finding the move more lucrative than they had anticipated. Eighty per cent said that they had paying clients within the first three months of becoming self-employed, while 60 per cent revealed they earned as much or more than they did when they were employed by a business.

So what is the secret of making a smooth transition from a successful corporate role to career self-sufficiency? "It is about planning ahead, having a few business contacts and leads lined up before you leave your job; effective networking and absolute self-belief, because no matter how skilled or experienced you are, you will feel lonely and anxious at first," says Hunt.

When Rob Watling was made redundant from the BBC in 2007 and chose self-employment, his first decision was to avoid replicating his former job. He now runs his own executive coaching business, Momentum Associates, in Nottingham.

"When you are working out what you are going to do, it is important to look at the nature of your previous job, but not necessarily the specifics," he says. "My previous role was in programming for BBC Learning, which involved talking to people, understanding them and tapping into their passion, which I really enjoyed. I had also had some experience at the BBC as an executive coach, and it was in that arena that I decided I wanted to focus my efforts."

In the early days he offered some coaching services free to help establish a track record. Since then, with the exception of one or two lean spells, he has been busy. Watling also subscribes to the theory of strength in numbers, and has assembled a network of associates-other freelance coaches who can help with larger projects. "Eventually your confidence does grow and you find yourself wondering not if the work will come in, but when," he explains.

Some freelancers prefer the portfolio approach to career management, taking on several types of work at the same time. So popular has the concept become that it is a professional status as much as a style of working, says Adrian Bourne, an expert on this approach and co-author of You... Unlimited, a bestselling book on the subject of portfolio careers.

"Long before the economy slumped and jobs were lost, people were taking stock of their lives and deciding they wanted to spend more time on their own business plan rather than that of their employer," he says. "More people than ever are balancing their life interests with a variety of work interests, dividing their time between various companies, studying, or spending time with the family, and achieving a different balance of time and money."

Not only does he envisage the portfolio framework becoming the norm, he believes that companies are in favour. "It gives them the flexibility and the affordability that full-time permanent recruitment can't provide. The opportunities for those leaving employment, either by choice or because of redundancy, will increase," he says.

Interim management is another option for skilled, experienced professionals who have found themselves out of work. It is well paid, challenging and, at the highest level, fiercely competitive, but no cushy option, says Steve Huxham, chairman of The Recruitment Society. "If you take up an assignment there is no time for a learning curve," he cautions. "You are paid a competitive daily or pro-rata rate to make an impact in the first hour of the first day."

Companies rarely recruit interims to be generalists so you must be clear about the specific skills you are offering. A career interim should have a menu for employers; a check list of the specific skill sets and competencies you have and how they can be used in that environment.

If nothing else, interim managers are committed to their role, says Gavan Burden, managing director of interim management consultancy Burden Dare. "It's a profession, not a stopgap measure to fill in the time between jobs, and it won't suit everyone," he says. "Regardless of your ability, unless you are comfortable working alone, without the support of a team, you may find the work too isolating."

Whatever route you choose, going it alone for the first time can be daunting; a feeling often compounded by the sense of failure at having been made redundant, a loss of credibility if the role carried significant corporate kudos and the feeling of no longer being part of a team.

While confidence levels will quickly resume with a burgeoning workload, and a sense of team membership can be restored through good networking, a lack of security -the famine-or-feast nature of freelance work-is a permanent fixture. But you can learn to work with it.

Paul Taylor started his own consultancy after taking redundancy from a senior role in the head office of a UK retail bank in 1995, and has seen how market fluctuations can affect the independent sector.

Taylor, whose Staffordshire-based company Cleevebridge Management provides project management support for a range of corporate clients, says: "The worst year was 1999 and the run-up to the millennium when project work was heavily IT-driven by Y2K compliance activity. I know that a number of businesses similar to mine fared badly after that because they were offering too narrow a service. By focusing on being flexible in terms of services offered, I have built up a good network of contacts, who in turn have introduced me to new clients."

With more people taking redundancy, he anticipates more competition, although he suspects that not everyone will adapt to the working style of self-employment. In the current economic climate, business, too, is proving harder to find, with client fees being squeezed continually.

At Skillfair, Hunt's guidance is not to be deterred by the prospect of many people in a similar position flooding your intended market. "See other consultants as potential associates who can help you, rather than competitors, and build a good referral system," she advises.

In deciding the exact nature of your freelance career, Watling suggests speaking to your employer. "Ask them why they hired you above other candidates, and look over your past appraisals as these can reveal skills you weren't that aware of," he says. On a practical note, adds Taylor, set aside enough cash to live on for three to six months while the business is being established and income generated. "Invest in sound professional advice, including a good accountant, and be prepared to do extra training on things such as new technology and presentations, to at least keep abreast of the competition," he says.

Bourne insists that those affected by the white-collar recession should see self-employment, not as a solution to a short-term problem, but as a long-term decision. "Having experienced the freedom of self-employment, few people decide to go back to a full-time job, choosing a life of careers rather than a career for life," he says.

Original article available: March 2009 Director Magazine

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