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Posts Tagged ‘consultant

One of the best things about being an independent consultant is that I get to choose who I work with. I discover some fine folk this way.

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The flip side of that is I also deny myself opportunities because they do not align with my principles. Such a move hurts the pocket. I do not get paid for standing firm on my foundations and for work not done.

If I get paid for doing work that I do not believe in, I become a mercenary. That is not my way. So I try to work with potential partners to change plans and designs. 

In my line of work, this means incorporating long-term strategies that include sound pedagogy and meaningful integrations of educational technology. These ideas and discussions are valuable in themselves, but I am not paid for being principled. 

I strive for better. To do that, I want to be better and I know that we can do better. Those, in turn, require us to be courageous and to embrace change instead of wallowing in the status quo.

I close my unsolicited five-part series about being an independent worker with this question:

Why do you want to do this?

This is the most important question. You need a strong answer before you take the plunge.

Are you running away from something or heading towards a goal? The first might be about fear, but the second is about hope.

Are you leaving mainstream work because you cannot cut it? If you cannot handle that sort of work, what makes you think you can survive in a less supported environment?

That said, there is value is walking away from some situations. Your current work might be a threat to your principles, health, or personal development. My point that your decision should be driven by investigation and reflection, and not by fear or imagination.

You need to know what you want out of leaving full-time work. This might be more time with your family, regaining your sanity, or pursuing a new challenge. This makes the move goal-driven and planned instead of reactionary and rushed.

Pursuing one or more life goals is like preparing for a journey. The pathways of independent workers and freelancers are often not well-trodden and so you must prepare your mind, portfolio, finances, and loved ones.

The paths are not easy, but they can be scenic. You are likely to learn more about the world around you and about yourself. Your path might lead back to full-time work and there is no shame in that. But if you choose to walk that path, it is better to be walking towards something than to be chased by fear.

This is the second-last part of my answers to five questions on being an independent worker.

Your portfolio: What is in it, where is it, and how do people find it/you?

If you do not already have a portfolio, here is an alternate question: How large is your network or how extensive are your connections?

Even if you have a list of potential clients and partners, do not expect them to be loyal to you. Departments whose responsibility it is train or provide professional development seem to have budgets that shrink every year.

You need to advertise yourself to agencies that do not already know you. You need a portfolio. People need to find out what you do, what value you offer them, how to contact you, and what your fees are.

Mine is this blog and its various sections (see the navigation bar for the desktop browser or the drop down in the mobile browser). I do not claim to have exemplary practice. I only claim to share openly when I can.

The people who are looking have a problem that needs solving. You need to be the piece(s) in the puzzle that helps them see the whole picture. You will likely have encouraging conversations with such people because you will probably think alike.

Unfortunately, these people will hand the next phase of information gathering and negotiation to an administrative group of people. The latter group tends to only see in numbers, e.g., total cost, number of participants, cost per head, how many sessions, etc. Oh, and can you do a followup or two for free?

If you reveal your fees too quickly in your portfolio or initial communications, expect to not hear from the administrative person again.

Sorry, I got distracted. Back to the portfolio.

Your portfolio should showcase not just your experience and accomplishments but also your worth to others. I do this by reflecting on how my workshops or session went in daily musings. This might help others get inside my head and to figure out if they want to work with me.

While I behave professionally, I pull no punches. I am blunt with what I can do, can not do, and will not do. I am also open with the way I do things — I do not wish to compromise why pedagogy or my principles.

As a consultant or independent worker, you need to figure out what you are comfortable with sharing, but share you must. If you are smart about it, you might appear at or near the top of Google searches. That is how new people find you. But to do that, you must have a platform to share from and something worth sharing.

Today I continue my unsolicited advice on being a freelancer or independent worker.

How comfortable are you with discomfort? (Or: What do you think being an independent worker is like?)

Being an independent worker might seem freeing. I am guilty of reinforcing that stereotype when making small talk. I often say that I do not have to attend pointless meetings and I work only with people I want to work with. Who does not want that?

Making the choice to be a freelancer or independent worker has consequences. I highlighted the health insurance and personal finances issues previously. There are other sources of discomfort.

You might face lean earning weeks or even months. To tide these over, you might take the advice I mentioned in Part 2. You can also tighten your belt and live more simply.

I have cut down of extravagances. I used to upgrade my iPhone regularly; now I still have my iPhone 7 even though the 11 is currently available. This does not mean that I will not get the 11 or 12. It means I put some purchases off until I think I can reward myself.

I used to pay for extra utilities that I did not use, e.g., TV channels. These were the easiest to cut off. I found more economical phone plans for my family. We travel less, but we still eat out occasionally.

Belt-tightening aside, you need to embrace being and doing different. Most people will not understand how and why you work that way. They will likely be quick to make demands and slow to pay. You do not get bonuses or promotions. You can demand fees at current market rates, but this will not be heard by those living in the cocoons of the past.

The people you meet are not cruel (at least, I hope they are not). They are ignorant because they cannot empathise with you and they are not living your work life. So you have to keep communicating uncomfortable issues and educating them on change whether you want to or not. (Side bar: You might not help yourself, but you might pave the way for the next person.)

Being in full-time employment, particularly in the civil service in Singapore, can make you lazy. So much is done for you and you can be rewarded whether you deserve it or not. If you choose to freelance, expect people to ask you to work for free. If you wish to be an independent worker, prepare to be practically self-sufficient.

You might be financially prepared to cast off full-time work. But you are not likely to be prepared for the discomfort of dissonance and different approaches to doing the same things.

You have to jump into the pool to learn to swim. Likewise only plunging into the world of independent work will teach you how to do it. I hope that the three questions so far help you do so with your eyes open.

Coming up next: Advertising yourself with your portfolio.

This is Part 2 of a five-part Q&A on whether or not to be an independent worker.

What is your backup plan?

There might be push and/or pull factors that make you think about leaving full-time employment. Look before you leap.

A backup plan might take the form of a stash of cash you can reach for occasionally, the option to work part-time, or the capacity to return to full-time work.

Your savings are critical because you might face lean months or choose not to work for whatever reason. If you have people to take care of, your responsibility is compounded.

I recommend maintaining two bank accounts: One for regular work and bill payments, and the other for a nest-egg. I keep an eye on the first account to make sure that it does not fall below a certain level. I do not touch the second except to ensure that it is making money off a reliable investment.

Your current employer might be able to replace your full-time position with a part-time one. Alternatively, you might find some reliable partners to work with to ensure a minimum inward cash flow. Both give you some independence while not threatening to bankrupt you.

Finally, you might maintain a good network of friends, partners, and ex-colleagues so that you can find your way back to full-time employment if you find the wilderness too harsh. This was my initial plan — to work independently for six months to a year — but I enjoyed it so much that I stayed.

A backup plan can cushion a bad fall. Being an independent consultant is not all it is cracked up to be. I address that in the next question.

I have a fortnight of intense grading (I am handling 40% of a cohort) and another of performance assessment. So I need to keep my head down, grit my teeth, and write some blog entries in advance.

I mentioned on Saturday that I would share some unsolicited advice on being a freelancer or an independent worker. This is Q&A 1.

Do you need to take care of anyone other than yourself?

Do you have a family? Do you or a family member have a chronic health issue? Are you the sole earner in your household?

If so, you might think twice about leaving full-time employment. Your employer might already offer a good health insurance plan. They might even pay for it in part or in full.

If you go independent, you have to get your own plan. In Singapore, it is also compulsory to top up your Medisave account in one lump sum every year or in monthly instalments. This can be a strain if you do not have a regular flow of income.

Those considerations apply whether you only need to support yourself or if you have others to take care of. If you are the sole earner in the family, bump those factors up by each person you need to cover.

In short, if you have others to take care of and are thinking of flying solo for work, seriously consider grounding your plans for the sake of those you love. Take flight only if you have a considerable nest egg (see next question).

Tomorrow marks my fifth year as an independent education and technology consultant. During that time I have reflected on being a consultant. I have this generic list and this specific entry at the end of year three.

I could have copied and pasted everything from that third anniversary reflection here because I think and feel the same way today. But what good would that do? Instead I look outwardly this year and reflect on five truths I have rediscovered.

Organisations repeat the mistakes that others have already committed even while they call themselves learning entities, e.g., putting old wine in new wineskins. I constantly remind my partners to let learning needs drive technology implementations, instead of administration, policy, legacy frameworks, etc.

They do not seem to learn effectively from others. This is despite (and perhaps because of) enforced learning journeys. Such chats and visits might provide inspiring ideas on HOW but ignore WHY, WHEN, and WHERE (these describe context). I harp on the importance of context over content and will continue to do so.

Admininistration comes first. There is the necessary “evil” of proposing ideas, responding to RFPs, vetting expertise, etc. But there is also playing purely by the numbers game.

I am not referring only to getting the lowest quote (you get what you pay for) but also the practice of spending left over money so as to get it again the next financial year. The “educational” or “training” engagements procured this way seem like afterthoughts instead of well-planned trajectories.

Efficiency trumps effectiveness. This mindset spreads quickly and deeply in most organisations. It starts with administrative and policymaking groups and ends with educators and learners. Examples of efficient but ineffective implementations might include large class sizes, tight deadlines and semesters, and sorting on a curve.

Inertia. The unwillingness to change is uneven in organisations — some groups learn and move fast, others make snails look like speed demons. I offer to provide perspectives that I have gained from working with different organisations, but I recognise that relevant ideas are not received the same way. For example, policymakers might like an idea while an infrastructure or IT group might not. The first group sees opportunity over a hill while the latter groups see a climb to avoid.

These truths hurt because they are real. They reveal mindsets and shape behaviours. They also drive me to be a better consultant.

Three years ago, I reflected on how I learnt to unbundle my work — I offer very specific and limited educational services to people and organisations even though I can do much more.

Such a practice has required me to be adaptable and to keep learning. That is how I have had to change.

However, I find one thing that has not changed since I was a university professor — I still work work a lot on weekends. I do this out of necessity.

For example, I might be given classes that submit assignments on Thursday or Friday, and they need the feedback by the following week. Instead of losing two days over the weekend, I make use of them.

I might also have to do this because some people I work with only understand administrative requirements and do not operate on human ones. When they do so, they operate at their convenience or pace, push deadlines back, and leave me to compress preparation to a small window.

That said, I do not always mind working on weekends given that 1) I used to do it before, 2) I can go out on weekdays, and 3) I am exceptionally productive when time is tight.

In Singapore, we have a saying: No money, no talk. This means that if someone approached you to work for free, you were entitled to not entertain them.

Now if only that was true. Some people work pro bono out of choice or are tricked into working for free. If they do the latter, they were out-negotiated by someone else. So I advise saying no to work-for-free unless you want to become a permanent volunteer.

Some things should not be negotiable. One of those things is personal well-being. I say: No health, no work, no money (the exceptions might be being paid to be a convincing corpse or patient in hospital).

Another thing I do NOT negotiate with is a lack of empathy or basic courtesy. Over the last few years of being a consultant in the fields of education and educational technology, I have met my share socially inept people.

Here are some clear signs of poor negotiators or representatives. They are:

  • rude and/or slow to respond
  • quick to speak and slow to listen
  • full of themselves or like to name drop
  • likely to make promises that they do not keep
  • self-proclaimed experts instead of relying on reputation

I say: No manners, no talk.

This is not a popular view, but I think that it is important for part-time university faculty and short-contract instructors to be anti-crowd. I mean this literally and figuratively.

Part-timers and short-contract workers in higher education tend to not be covered medically by the institutes of higher education (IHLs) that they work with. Along with the fact that these workers are paid much less, do not see pay increments, and do not get annual bonuses, IHLs save a ton of money.

It makes sense for these workers to literally avoid crowds, especially during flu season, so as not to fall ill. They not only have to get their own health insurance and pay for their medical bills, they cannot work and get paid if they are ill. It pays to be a bit anti-social in this sense.

I am part of this part-time group of people. I have met and work with some of the most dedicated, experienced, and talented people since leaving my full-time faculty position three years ago. I fully understand the pros and cons of working this way.

This is also why I would advise my fellow part-timers not to follow the crowd, but to stand out instead. It is what clients look for — something special that only you or very few have that no one else does.


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