Part I: Choosing the Right Time
“I’m sorry. This isn’t a meeting for students. What were you looking for?” This statement was the first thing my very first consulting contact said to me when I walked in the boardroom for our initial project meeting. I was young and I was hired sight unseen at the recommendation of a very high level professional from my undergraduate institution.
It’s becoming increasingly common for higher education professionals to start a side hustle as a consultant. There are a lot of things to consider before taking the plunge. Choosing to be a consultant can be an incredibly rewarding choice but it can also be a very frustrating endeavor to get off the ground. Because it’s often confusing knowing how to get into the consulting game, we’re going to explore some of the basics in a four part series: how to decide when it is the right time, getting off the ground as a new consultant, and eventually deciding if it’s just going to stay a side hustle, and my tips for those who are new to consulting.
My very first client was a prominent institution looking to potentially make a very big change to their organizational structure. I was not far out of my undergraduate experience and while I had an unusual amount of experience for that age, it still would not have probably been enough to land the job if it had gone to a bid. Would I have landed that project if I didn’t have my connection to the institution? No. Should they have hired someone with more experience? Probably. Did them not doing that work out for both of us? Most definitely.
Choosing when to start consulting can be one of the most important decisions you make. But how do you decide when you’re ready?
The Litmus Test. For me, a good litmus test is to take a step back and ask yourself, “Are people coming to me for professional help and advice not because they’re a friend or colleague I have a good rapport with, but because they perceive me to be particularly knowledgeable in an area of higher ed? Do I bring a unique and important perspective to the table?” If you don’t feel like you’re a subject matter expert in something, it will be hard for others to think you are, and at the end of the day, that’s why we hire consultants. They bring in the expertise and broad knowledge scope we’re missing.
Expert Knowledge Areas. Another great indicator you may be in a good position to start consulting is if colleagues outside of your institution are recommending people talk to you when dealing with particular issues. For instance, I would consistently find people recommending folks talk to me about issues related to strategic planning and change management – both are things I love and I have a very systems and process style of thinking. Once you find these topics or knowledge areas you’re that much closer to starting your side hustle as a consultant.
Sometimes we’re all too eager to start consulting after our first full-time professional gig and that drive is great but the timing probably isn’t.
I own the luck I had in launching my consulting and understand that wouldn’t have been possible without the incredibly strong network I had and their unwavering faith in me and my ability to think at a high level. I understand now it could have turned out very different had my first few projects not gone well. It’s important to have a good reputation going into a consultanting endeavor, but it’s even more important not to have a bad one. With a field as small as ours and where institutional decisions can have a lasting impact, it’s better to be conservative in your decision to take on high-level projects to ensure you’re ready.
So how do you actually start? That’s the topic for the next part of this series where we’ll look at tangible tactics to get your new consulting gig off the ground.
Read the entire series here.