I don’t know about you, but my whole career in HR was a kind of love/hate between the compliance and the strategic side of HR and for a while it followed me into my consulting journey. Thankfully, I was introduced to some top class coaches and mentors who helped me step into my bigger vision of what I wanted from my consulting business, or else I think I would have built a business I didn’t have a lot of passion for. Now that I’ve pivoted to become a business mentor and strategist helping other HR and Organizational Development people align with their purpose and start their dream coaching and consulting businesses, I’ve realized that I’m not alone in some of the mistakes I made early on. Thank goodness nothing is written in stone, but I certainly wish I would have started out knowing what I know now!
To give you a bit of context, although I got my first taste of consulting at age 23, when I was hired to work for a professor from Notre Dame University to apply Organizational Behavior Management in companies across Canada and the United States, it took me more than twenty more years to start consulting for myself! In the in-between time, I oversaw Human Resources for large, national companies. I always requested (i.e. insisted) they refer to my department as Organizational Development, because I was passionate about all things tactical and strategic about working with the people, and not so much about the compliance side of things. But if you’re in HR, you know that no matter how much you love strategy, you become an expert at compliance and spend 50% of your time there as a given…and that’s if you’re lucky and have a really strong team!
The whole time I held my corporate positions, I was dreaming of starting my own consulting and coaching business, but was held back by fear. Fear that I didn’t have enough experience, or in the right industries, or in big enough companies, or doing the right sort of things. That’s part of the consultant imposter syndrome that, I was to learn, is a big impediment for a lot of us. Then there were some pretty realistic fears around sales and marketing; chiefly that I’d never done it and didn’t have a clue what I was doing! So, I would do things either out of fear or misplaced enthusiasm that had the end result of mostly confusing my potential clients about who I was and what I did.
If you’re worried about that too, first, know that even if you mess up as badly as I did, it’s usually recoverable. Second, take a deep breath and realize that with a few simple course corrections, you can avoid some of the pitfalls and get straight down to enjoying your business! Here is the biggest thing that most HR and OD people tend to get wrong right out of the gate.
We think too transactionally .
Most of us, when we first start consulting, think pretty transactionally. I think it’s because that’s how we’re trained by corporate to think. We start our business and maybe figure creating handbooks is a good little line item, and then we decide how much we’re going to charge for a handbook for what size type of employer. From there, we try to think what else we can put on our ‘menu’. Maybe HR audits (that’s a good one), or developing policies. This is exactly what I did, and yes, it’s a problem because when you think of your business transactionally, you are not thinking of the relationship and connection you can have with your client, or of the value you can bring. My favorite example is when someone calls me to ask if I’ll do a handbook. If I’m thinking transactionally, I’ll say something like ‘Sure! How many employees do you have?’ I’ll ask a few other questions and then I’ll quote a price. On the other hand, what if someone calls me up for a handbook and instead of quickly solving that problem, I ask why they want one? You might think this is a silly question, but once I started asking it, it opened up so many more avenues where I could be of value, because the majority of the time, a client is asking me for an HR handbook to solve a different problem that I can solve, but that an HR handbook won’t.
The solution to thinking transactionally is simple, but not easy. It’s to think in terms of the value you’re bringing to the client, and not just the ‘stuff’ you’re doing. As you leave the world of being an employee, the specific things you’re doing are only a part of the value you bring. I had one client who hired me for HR work and every week I would spend time with them and we wouldn’t do any HR work at all. Instead, they’d talk to me about their fears and frustrations. This went on for months, and I was freaking out because I wasn’t bringing any HR value. As it turned out, this client had no sounding board, and the value I was bringing in my capacity as coach was far more important to them than anything else I could have done.
When you’re new(er) to consulting, it’s hard to place a dollar sign on the value you’re bringing. First, because you might not know yet, and second, because you’re probably still stepping into your confidence. This is helped by time and practice, and a mentor or coach, if you have one, is also really helpful in reframing this.
But here’s another practical tip that will launch you to the top of the heap – a diagnostic assessment of some kind.
I know, that may not be what you were expecting to hear, but as I teach in my Called For More Business Builders program, a diagnostic assessment is a consultant’s or coach’s best friend in not only bringing value to your client, but even before that, in the marketing or sales process!
Helping your clients understand where they’re doing well and where they’re not provides immense value, not only to them, but also to yourself. For the client, it provides clear visibility into where things might have starting going awry, where the day-to-day practices are out of alignment with the founder’s vision, and where some significant intervention is needed to prevent major problems or even lawsuits. As a consultant, this information is not only valuable market research, it also helps you understand quickly whether you’re the right person for the job, exactly what’s at stake, and what value you can bring to this client.
I’ve got a pretty unique service offering, so I’ve found it necessary to develop my own assessments, but there’s no shortage of choices out there. If you’re doing leadership coaching or culture work there’s a ton of resources (make sure you have the rights so you don’t get yourself in trouble). The great thing about starting with some kind of assessment is it adds built-in credibility to your service, and does a lot of the heavy lifting of selling for you!
So don’t get stuck in the transactional trap as a new consultant. Get to work figuring out what value you bring and how diagnostic assessments could be valuable in your business.