3 Rules for Future-Facing Consultants

3 Rules for Future-Facing Consultants

Black dress shoes on pavement with future-past text/arrows - future of consulting concept

When it comes to monetizing your expertise, most of the focus these days is on creating scalable online products like  courses or membership sites. While these are certainly valid paths – and much of the content here on Learning Revolution is dedicated to them – the fact is that the easiest, most direct path to revenue for most experts is consulting.

And, for most experts, even as they eventually build out more scalable offerings, consulting is likely to remain a source of revenue. A very significant one in many cases.

I also think that consulting, when it is done right, is a teaching profession – which is a key reason I focus on it here at Learning Revolution. The best consultants don’t just trade deliverables for money; they enhance the client’s own capabilities significantly. And, of course, consulting usually blends well with and complements the products an expert may create.

So, whether you are considering launching a consulting business or aim to grow the business you already have, it’s worth taking a step back and considering what it will take to thrive as consultant in our rapidly evolving world.

Here are three key rules that I think apply to the future of consulting.

Don’t Be a “Resource”

I don’t know the full history behind how we came to refer to workers as “human resources,” but I do know that it is definitely not the way you want to be thought of as a consultant.

A resource is something that simply gets used – and often used up – in the service of specific goals or objectives. Once those goals or objectives are achieved – or are no longer valued – the need for the resource disappears.

On the surface, that may seem fine. Consultants often think of themselves as coming in, performing a specific of tasks, collecting their pay, and leaving. But that’s a scenario that is of lower and lower value.

Soren Kaplan offers some useful insights in an article on the Inc. web site in which he notes that,

Consultants are increasingly being pigeonholed as either “strategic” (and worth the high price) or basic “resources” for implementation (and not worth more than a modest hourly rate).

“Not worth more than a modest hourly rate” is definitely not where you want to be if you want to build a thriving consulting business that generates significant income and has significant impact. In fact, if you are in t his bucket, I would say you are really a freelance contractor, not a true consultant.

Kaplan further argues – and I agree – that the ability to deliver “resource” type services virtually will continue to drive down price over time and make them more and more of a commodity. He sums the situation up with a concise, damning statement: If you can get it on Upwork, why pay a consulting firm to do it for twice the price?

Indeed.

Upwork may align with the future of freelancing, but it definitely does not align with the future of consulting.

So, definitely aim to position yourself as “strategic” and worth the price. I’ve already covered how to do that in posts like this one and this one. All of this takes time and effort, of course, but I know from my own experience that it pays off in multiples over time.

In addition to how you position yourself, re-think how you structure your engagements. Projects are still fine, if you are being engaged as a strategic partner, but also consider incorporating ways to deliver value over the longer term, like monthly retainers, coaching for key employees, and periodic progress audits.

One final note on this rule – a sub-rule of sorts: If you are dealing with the Human Resources department to get hired as a consultant, you are almost certainly not being seen as strategic. (The “Resources” in the department name is a big clue.)

If you are dealing with the Human Resources department to get hired as a consultant, you are almost certainly not being seen as strategic.

Jeff Cobb, Learning Revolution

Build Knowledge in Your Network

Part of the challenge with being “strategic” is possessing sufficient knowledge, skill, and insight to put you at that level. As we move toward the future of consulting, that will require a different approach.

Every consultant should, of course, make ongoing efforts to elevate their expertise. But these days, it’s getting extremely difficult, if not impossible, for any single person to manage the flow of new information and developments even in tightly defined niches – particularly when any niche really has to be understood against the backdrop of our rapidly changing world as a whole.

John Hagel, in a post titled From the Gig Economy to the Guild Economy, identifies this as primarily a learning problem. In the past, most consultants have worked as the “resource” described above, engaging in “gigs” that are largely transactional and project-based, representing relatively limited prospects for new learning – and by extension, relatively limited opportunities for becoming or remaining strategic. I’ve experience this first hand. Maybe you have, too.

If we are to perform at a higher level, we must change our approach. As Hagel puts it,

the imperative is to learn faster – that’s the most effective way to respond to mounting performance pressure, while at the same time addressing exponentially expanding opportunity. By learning faster, I mean creating new knowledge through action and reflection on impact achieved. Those who master the ability to learn faster will achieve much higher impact in a rapidly changing world.

This imperative applies to all workers in our current global learning economy, but it is doubly to triply important for anyone who presents themselves as an expert who can help address complex challenges for others.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the first step toward learning faster is embracing humility, realizing that we don’t have – that there is no way we can have – all of the answers that might be relevant to a specific client situation. We probably don’t even have all of the questions.

Tackling this problem requires more conscious and intentional commitment to collaboration than consultants – particularly solo consultants – have traditionally embraced.  At a minimum, it requires establishing and continually engaging with knowledge networks that connect you other consultants in your field – perhaps even some who compete with you. Hagel argues that

If we’re serious about accelerating learning and performance improvement, we need to come together in small groups (what I call “impact groups”) of 3-15 people who develop deep, trust-based relationships with each other based on a shared commitment to increasing impact.

You may even find that you offer some of your services in collaboration with others in this group.

All of this enables much more dynamic, rapid learning – the type of learning that will keep you ahead of the curve, firmly in the “strategic” camp, and well prepared for the future of consulting.

A sub-rule for this one as well: Don’t over value your methodologies and intellectual property.

As useful as they can be in selling and executing consulting engagements, they are of declining value from the moment you create or license them and, if you are too wed to them, they are a barrier to learning.

Lead Learning for Your Clients

My strong bias, based on the previous points and well as seeing the market evolve over more than a decade as a consultant, is that the most successful consultants will be learning-based.

This means, in part, that the consultant is not focused just on solving a problem or providing a service, but with significantly contributing to the client’s ability to grow, adapt, and evolve. As I noted earlier, the best consultants don’t just trade deliverables for money; they enhance the client’s own capabilities significantly. This is a fundamental part of being seen and valued as “strategic.”

It also means that you are pointing the way for your clients – the future of consulting be built on showing your clients their path into the future.

Just like you, they will not be able to thrive without fostering continual learning for themselves – if you are dealing with individuals – or for their entire organization. But where and how to invest in learning may not be obvious. To the extent you can make that clear, you provide what is arguably one of the most valuable services that can be offered today.

Doing this, of course, relies heavily on the previous points. The client must view you as a strategic partner; someone they can trust to have an accurate understanding of the emerging landscape in whatever field or industry you serve or need you address; someone with established authority and deep expertise; someone who can produce results.

And, it means that you must be networked into sources of knowledge and experience that dramatically enhance you own. It’s the only way to minimize blind spots as you address the client’s current challenges and provide a valid vision for the future.

A final sub-rule: Learn to do it really well online.

While everything I’ve covered here can certainly benefit from – and perhaps be accelerated by – face-to-face interaction, I know from experience that it can also be done well online. And, of course, that is the reality of our world at the time I am writing this post.

So, invest the time and effort to build your online presence and become highly skilled with essential digital tools and skills that make it possible – from Web conferencing to Slack to more effective e-mail communications.

Facing the Future of Consulting

Everything I have described here is much harder than simply coming up with an hourly rate and hanging out your shingle on a freelance site or hoping for inquiries through your own web site.

But, of course, that’s what makes it work.

I’ve seen over the years that, out of the usually large crop of consultants that populate any field or industry, a very small percentage are willing to think, much less act along the lines that I describe here. It takes time; it takes commitment; the payoff takes longer.

But once you start start hitting the payoff, you’ll be at a level well above most consultants, with a business that will thrive  even when (often especially when) the economy takes a dive. And, of course, as you achieve this level, your prospects for those other ways of monetizing your expertise – online course, membership site – grow dramatically.

Really, everything I describe has always been true, but as we head into the future, it is no longer optional if you really want to thrive as a consultant.

So, I’d encourage you to take some time today to evaluate the degree to which you clients and prospects view you as strategic. Take a look at how you can more consciously establish and cultivate a knowledge network. And, as you face the future, set your site on leading learning for the clients you serve.

Jeff

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