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  • Writer's pictureGraham Atkinson

Reflections on a Consultancy Journey

A lot has happened in the last 5-years. There’s been (nearly) three Prime Ministers, the UK left the EU, England ended a 56-year wait for a major football title and there’s been the small matter of a global pandemic.

Time seems very distorted and it genuinely felt quite surprising in May, when we (myself and Laura) reached the five year anniversary of setting up Atkinson HR Consulting. In lots of ways it feels like only yesterday. A combination of us recruiting for some new roles and Eleanor Walker and Louise Speksnyder, in our team, facilitating a session on 'Starting your Journey as an HR Consultant' has prompted me to think about the journey over the last 5-years and whether it has been anything like I expected it to be.

In September 2017, I wrote my first ever blog on the topic of 'Freelance: Freedom to Choose'. At the time, I was reflecting on my first 3-months as a consultant. It's always strange reading something you've written a while ago. In the piece, I talked about greater flexibility, control and having time to focus 100% on key projects without distraction from "Outlook Purgatory". 5-years further down the road, here are my thoughts on the things that have been good, tough and interesting about being a self-employed consultant..

The Good

Flexibility was, and still is, a big driver. When it goes to plan, it’s really good and most of our team at Atkinson HR Consulting cite flexibility as a major benefit of working in a consultancy business. In practice it still requires discipline. It can be very easy to jump to urgent client requests. I’m writing this blog on my last day before annual leave, nervous about the prospect of not checking emails for nearly 2-weeks. But, at least it’s in my control and any pressure comes from my own choices rather than external pressures in the working environment. The ability to swap working days last minute or ringfence time for after-school clubs is a big bonus that you might get with some employers, but not all. In my experience, this has also got significantly better post-Covid. A working month that used to involve an average of 12-15 days ‘on the road’ now involves around 4-6.

Probably my biggest highlight over the last 5-years has been getting to meet, and learn about, lots of new organisations. I’ve worked with really interesting, intriguing businesses – each with their own set of quirks and issues. I love building insight into an organisation’s culture and really getting under the skin of the problem they are trying to fix. This plays to my natural sense of curiosity. Every client we’ve worked with has their similarities with others – sometimes most of their challenges are about their size; sometimes they are about their sector; sometimes they are about their leadership or culture. However, every client also has their unique features and it is a great feeling being a consultant when you really get to the crux of a client’s problem and are able to help them shine a spotlight on it.

The Tough

We are very fortunate to have a business and profession that was largely resilient to the Covid-19 pandemic. If there was anything that organisations still needed support with during lockdown it was HR. Help with engaging employees, remote working, furlough and wellbeing were all at the top of the list. However, I know plenty of small businesses and consultants that didn’t have this luck and privilege. It brings a stark reminder of the financial vulnerability and insecurity that can come with being self-employed or small business ownership.

I think we’ve built a relatively stable small business with a great, loyal group of clients. However, we’re still only ever one or two difficult months away from a cash flow problem. Every month we pore over the accounts and talk about debtors. Before setting out, this was never the intention and didn’t used to be something to worry about. But it is now; and I suspect it is for most consultants or self-employed people.

Another tricky aspect of being a consultant is how hard it can be to separate out the professional from the personal. Part of this is about remote working and the erosion of working boundaries (lots of people have had a taste of that over the last couple of years). However, a big part of it is also the inevitable personalisation of a role, when the product you are selling is yourself. Every job has it setbacks but it feels very personal when you are the business. Missing out on a new contract or coming up against problems on a project all feel that little bit sharper and riskier when you’re self-employed.

I think, over time, most freelancers build up resilience in these areas but my experience is that takes a while and is still, after 5-years, something that plays on my mind.

The Interesting

A friend and colleague recently asked me what my “exit strategy” was from consultancy. It was a great question and one I’d not even remotely (consciously) considered. When setting up Atkinson HR Consulting, there was no end game. We did have some clear objectives (financial, work-life balance etc) but not an overarching long-term goal.

Over the past 5-years, some things have happened by chance, that have given us the opportunity to re-evaluate what we wanted from being self-employed, consultancy and the business.

Did we want to grow a business or remain as freelancers? Did we want to employ people? Did we want to work in partnership with other consultants? Did we want to work outside the UK and/or outside the sectors that we know?

None of these questions even slightly occurred to me 5-years ago. One of the key things I’ve learned, I think, during that time, is the importance of adaptability when self-employed. Being able to embrace new opportunities or take a slightly different approach when something isn’t working has been really important. It feels like the opportunities for learning and personal stretch have been enormous.

If I’m asked for suggestions from people starting out on their consultancy journey, I encourage them to embrace this amazing learning opportunity. There can be a lot of pressure to get things right first time – to have the perfect website, business card or client pitch. I think anyone starting out should give themselves permission to test and try different things and learn. Personally, I’ve found the most rewarding thing being able to learn, grow and enjoy the process.

When I wrote my blog in September 2017, there were around 2 million self-employed freelancers in the UK. That figure has stayed static and then declined slightly in the last couple of years. There are now an estimated 1.9 million. As I’ve said previously, being self-employed definitely isn’t for everyone, but it’s a journey that I’ve (so far) found to be interesting and challenging at times, but mostly good fun and really rewarding.

I hope this blog’s useful for anyone contemplating their own future career choices and plans. I remain massively grateful to people that offered me their generous advice and wisdom 5-years ago and am happy to speak to anyone that may be thinking about venturing into the world of consultancy. Feel free to get in touch and connect.


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