The Rise of Independent Professional Consultants

HCLI Research
Published 4 December 2017

How is working with an independent professional consultant different from working in a corporate set-up or with a traditional consulting firm? Ruchira Chaudhary, current Organisational Development Head and Advisor for Medtronic APAC, shares the advantages, the necessary skills, and advice for those entering the freelance market.

Traditional consulting models work on a pyramid staffing model where the most experienced consultants provide only high-level strategic input while the bulk of the onsite or implementation work is undertaken by analysts and relatively less experienced consultants. Independent professionals (IPs), on the other hand, are typically very senior professionals who have either by design (or owing to circumstances) decided to work on their own terms.

Organisations are increasingly turning towards IPs over traditional consulting firms for a variety of reasons. Three key ones are:

  • Seniority
  • Embedded vs external resources
  • Price differential

IPs get embedded into organisations and work alongside full-time employees – this blended approach ensures that IPs have better context, a higher sense of belonging, and tend to assimilate into the organisation’s culture and ways of working very quickly.

They can also be flexible and go beyond the initial outlined project scope. Often IPs work as advisors to leadership teams and are considered integral members of the firm. Consultants, on the other hand, are strategic advisors at the periphery, considered them not “us”.

Importantly, all this rich experience and specialist skillset comes at a much lower price point while not compromising on the quality.

With the exception of a select few new-age consulting outfits that connect IPs to employers, the downside is there is no organised or efficient set-up to find and hire IPs. The other challenges are largely around the individual consultant’s credibility, assurance around quality, and a contingency plan if things go south.

The Skillset of an IP

Deep domain expertise and prior consulting experience are definitely advantages before a professional decides to go independent. However, in my view, it is not just the skillset alone but also the right mindset that will help IPs succeed.

Many of us who are dyed-in-the wool corporates find it very hard to make the transition to working as a consultant without the comfort of a big brand name, an army of analysts to support, and administrative assistants to aid in mundane tasks like travel bookings and expense claims.

To truly succeed and also enjoy this new way of working, an open mindset is the key.

You need to rethink seniority – remember, you are strategic and operational all at once. You provide the valuable advice but are also responsible for making it happen often on your own.

The beautiful PowerPoints and the never-ending Excel spreadsheets are now yours to generate, analyse, and deliver to a high-profile team.

Many senior professionals also find the transition tough for other ‘softer’ reasons: the comfort that a title brings status, respect, and speaking invitations at high-profile forums. Many of us find this a turning point or suffer an existential crisis, so be prepared to rebuild your brand.

Lastly and importantly, be comfortable with an uneven and often fluctuating pay curve in the absence of a stable income.

Advice for IPs entering the freelance market

A freelancer or an IP is a sole operator – this is a foundational point.

Being solo means having primary responsibility for business development and also delivering it. Two places to get started are: have strong industry networks that lead to referrals and be part of a network consulting organisation.

The IP model’s success (or lack of) hinges on an ecosystem that promotes super specialists who need clear direction and assimilation in the traditional organisational hierarchy. However, this expectation sometimes changes mid- assignment. Here are a few ways and how to adapt:

  • Client expectations and client goals will change often. Change with them.
  • As an embedded senior leader, you will be expected to hit the ground running and contribute from day one. Network internally with colleagues and administrators, build bridges, and navigate your way around the organisation. Being resourceful is the key to getting your work done.
  • Whilst keen to hire IPs, companies are still grappling with the concept of blended teams. For many traditional organisations, seniority is a function of “doing your time in a firm”. They often have a hard time embedding IPs alongside their senior leaders so be prepared to prove your value add and credibility. Leave your ego at the door.
Ruchira’s IP journey

My personal journey as an independent consultant has been exciting and exhilarating in more ways than one. I embraced it not by design but owing to circumstances. Not long after we moved to Singapore from Doha– my former employer Qtel (now Ooredoo)– undertook one of the largest acquisitions in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) telecommunications world.

They were keen for me to lead the post-merger integration of this portfolio of acquired entities. We worked out a seemingly simple (but rather complex) arrangement of me flying out every week from Singapore to Doha (or to one of the ten acquired entities in the portfolio Algeria, Tunisia, Kuwait, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, UAE, etc.)

I had to set up a local Singapore entity so that I could work with them as an independent consultant. This set the tone for my future forays into the world of independent consulting with the likes of Michelin Tires, SEAS (Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore), Telstra International, Estee Lauder, and Medtronic to name a select few.

I have undertaken this work either directly, through a network consulting partner but often in conjunction with other consulting outfits such as AT Kearney, Towers Watson (now Willis Towers Watson), and Boston Consulting Group.

As mentioned earlier, you have to shift gears. Being independent is not an easy transition, especially if you enjoy a structured environment and feel that your job defines who you are!

Now after a decade of taking on advisory roles – in house for organisations and for traditional consulting firms as well as industry roles– I have realised I truly appreciate the ability to add strategic value to an organisation, help deliver that value, and also find the time and space to fuel my passion, academia. As adjunct faculty and leadership/business coach at several top-tier business schools like SMU, NUS and my alma mater, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, I am constantly learning, enriching myself, and staying in the game.

From my decade of experience, here are six takeaways:

  • Be flexible and be perceived as reliable: A well-defined project scope and deliverables is important but be prepared to go beyond the brief.
  • Lead by impact not by influence: In the absence of formal reporting relationships and dedicated teams, the only way to succeed as an IP is to take the others along with you in this journey.
  • Be part of the team: As an IP, it is even more critical to truly integrate into the organisation and assimilate its ways of working. This could range from attempting to speak French (rather badly I may add) at Michelin, trying my hand at Arabic while in Ooredoo, to ensuring you make time for all your team members and especially the support staff.
  • Enter the circle of trust: The most important and most fulfilling part as an IP is to be trusted by the leaders of that organisation. I am often in a position to offer unbiased advice which is unique.
  • Stay connected with your sponsors and do a great job: The quality of your work is the best testimony to getting your next gig.
  • Keep that intellectual stimulation alive and those creative juices flowing: stay current and know your domain.

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