At PICA, we're always talking about how labels matter, specifically that you're likely to make more money when you refer to yourself as a consultant instead of a contractor. But to be successful as an independent consultant, you can't just replace contractor with consultant on your résumé and LinkedIn profile and expect new business to come your way.
I've been studying the LinkedIn profiles of various contractors and consultants I know and reflecting on how they usually get their work. What differentiates the highly-paid consultants from the plug-n-play contractors? Several variables come into play. They include prior work experience (internal with a company vs as an external consultant with a firm), their consulting niche, and how they market themselves, but the real difference is how they find and frame their work.
Contractors find work through agencies or staffing firms while consultants are more likely to find work on their own, usually as a result of their professional network.
This got me thinking. Why are consultants less reliant on agencies and more likely to find work themselves? How do they do it while contractors struggle?
The most successful independent consultants have strong, healthy, professional networks. They understand the concept of paying it forward, they actively nourish their networks, and they realize that what goes around comes around. It's like there's a secret consulting club with no clear path for entry, where everyone plays by the same rules, although the rules are neither documented nor openly discussed. We just know.
Consultants flock together and run in the same circles. They keep in touch, share articles and best practices, bounce ideas off each other, and refer work to one another. Until now, I never noticed this secret club despite being a member for over 20 years. But the more I think about it, I'm certain it's real. There are no chapters, meetings, or membership dues. It's simply an extremely high-quality network filled with smart, professional, hard-working, emotionally intelligent people who know how the game works. (The game being to help each other as one, giant, boundary-less consulting team.)
Your network is the result of the type of people you have worked with in the past and how they perceive you. Maybe this is why people who step out of corporate careers to “go independent” often struggle with the transition. They're not known for doing project-oriented work so people don't think to call them. Moreover, their network may be predominately full-time corporate career people, who may not hire many consultants.
If you've ever worked for a consulting firm, you're already a member of the club. Like me, you were probably unaware of it but have been a member for years. Be conscious of your membership and keep paying it forward.
But what if you didn't work for a consulting firm before you went out on your own? How do you network your way into that secret club to get referrals and word-of-mouth leads?
Step 1: Examine your current network.
Who do you keep in touch with the most?
If you answered a) or b) to the question above, here are five ideas to help you join the club:
Idea 1: Have you ever worked with consultants from a consulting firm?
Perhaps when you were a company employee you were a team member or SME (subject matter expert) on an initiative driven by consultants. If so, reach out to them on LinkedIn and reconnect. Invite them to coffee or to catch up during one of their commutes. Find out what groups or events they participate in. Ask for their advice. (Flattery works!) Figure out how "their people" can become "your people."
Idea 2: Join a consulting firm, even for year or two, to learn the ropes and build your network.
A former boss of mine did this even though he was the CIO of a Fortune 500 company when he decided to explore the consulting path. He knew he could clarify issues and develop sound strategies, but he didn't feel confident in his ability to find his own work. He joined a global professional services company as a senior director. (At some point titles don't matter.) Now he's a member of the consultant's secret club. When he's ready to go independent, he'll be able to tap into his network of former clients and fellow consultants.
Idea 3: Get affiliated with boutique firms in your geographic area.
This is similar to idea #2, except less drastic because it's more flexible. You may work with the boutique firm on only a project or two, but it's a way to expand your network. Some boutique firms host networking events where you can meet more consultants.
Idea 4: Join a co-working space and talk to at least one new person every time you're there.
Although I'm not a fan of paying rent if you don't have to, a few colleagues have had some success expanding their network this way. It may be especially useful if you've just moved to a new area.
Idea 5: Join a professional association and go to its events!
To actually build relationships and strengthen your professional network, you need to meet people face to face. I realize this takes time and effort, particularly if it requires driving and taking two or three hours away from your computer, but it's the best way to grow your network and work your way into the secret consulting club. Finding the right group may take some trial and error but ultimately will be worth it. Do an internet search on "consulting associations near me" or search for a MeetUp group in your area. Of course, I strongly recommend joining PICA to find your people and get connected. New "PICA pods" are sprouting up across the country.
Remember, birds of a feather flock together. If you want to cut out the middleman and their huge mark-ups, you need to find work on your own. The best way to do that is to find “your people” and tap into the secret consulting club. Get connected, then pay it forward. Welcome to the club!