For many, the idea of swapping a high-pressured and travel-intensive lifestyle for greater flexibility and work-life balance, is an extremely attractive one.

For management consultants this is particularly true, and often it is possible to make this work without leaving the relatively ‘safe’ environment of a permanent role. There are some great examples of firms that have embraced flexible working and are reaping the benefits of better engagement and retention of talented people.

Nevertheless, this is not true for all consultants nor for all firms, and for many consultants the only way to really achieve this is to move into the relatively less ‘secure’ world of self-employment. Often it is not just about flexibility, but also about what is important to people at different stages of life and career.

We recently sat down with Richard Lucas, a respected leader in People, Organisation and Change consulting to find out more about his recent choice to go independent after a very successful consulting career in senior roles with PwC, Molten Group and Sia Partners.

Can you give us some insight into your decision to go independent?   

Around this time last year for me there was a ‘perfect storm’ developing. I was coming to the end of a really exciting chapter in my career, with Molten having completed its sale to Sia Partners. However, I felt was having to compromise a bit too much at a personal level to be successful in the new firm.    

My reflection is that the more senior you are in a consulting firm, the fewer choices you may actually have over which clients, which propositions, proposals or projects you focus on. This can seem a bit surprising to some, and may not be true for everyone, but it certainly was for me. We often give our teams more choice over what they do than we afford ourselves, especially in a smaller firm where the results of not winning a bid, an extension to a programme or of an unsuccessful campaign in the market can be felt very quickly.

I was certainly losing the energy to keep pressing forward. Personally, and professionally I needed more choice and flexibility. We tend to feel more powerful and resourceful when we have more autonomy, and I felt this was becoming more important for me.

I needed to look after my own well-being, my Mum’s health had taken a serious downward turn and I wanted to make sure I had time for my family. Also, to be really honest with you, I felt I could finally walk away from a monthly salary without feeling anxious about it. The mortgage was paid, and both children were now ‘off the payroll’ and so at this point everything was pointing the same way, to exit gracefully from Sia Partners and take some time out to decide ‘what next?’

My son starting spreading ‘fake news’ that I had actually retired, which of course is neither desirable nor entirely feasible at 53 (although a little more time on the golf course and in the gym is now possible and indeed necessary!).

So, having taken the summer off, and taken care of family and personal matters, I set up my own company and entered the ‘freelance’ market last September.

 

What have you enjoyed most about working independently?

Put simply, it’s the ability to re-charge the batteries when I need to, and the freedom to choose the kind of work I go for and with whom I collaborate.  I know that certain projects will be longer term and more demanding, however there is a real benefit to being able to choose whether to extend or not, whether to contract on a part-time or full-time basis, or whether to opt to lead or to support the work.

There have been periods of self-doubt, of course. Most, if not all senior consulting professionals are just a little bit paranoid. If no opportunities are coming through you sense that the world has forgotten you, and your business development instincts kick-in at maximum. Then three come along at once and all of a sudden, you’re turning people down. This tells me there is certainly an opportunity to build my own business in the future, but for now my energy is focused differently.   

 

What advice would you give someone considering making the same transition?

We often like to think in our ‘change management bubble’ that people change because they see real benefits in moving towards a different reality. That’s only partly true. In fact, people rarely change unless the pain of staying put outweighs the perceived or anticipated pain of doing something about it. Benefits are sometimes just a happy consequence

Two very good friends have been in this situation recently, each with a slightly different context. Financial security has been uppermost in their minds. They are massively talented and would be in demand but money can be a big hurdle. Despite my encouragement that they should have trust in their ability and in their network to make the move with confidence (and that freelancing can also be financially rewarding) I really do understand their hesitation, so certainly it’s not right for everyone. For them, it kind of works because the perceived pain of financial insecurity is more than the pain of staying put, for now.   

For someone making the move to being independent I have a few tips, which hold true for any consulting firm really, whether it’s a ‘big 4’ or just you. It’s not an exhaustive list, but I do keep reminding myself:

    - It’s a numbers game, so network really hard…for every five conversations there’s maybe one opportunity

    - To be clear with people that you really want to work with them…spell it out, it’s not some dirty sales                process, it’s just being honest that you want a commercial relationship (people are not mind readers,            even those closest in your network)

    - To be clear about the one, two or three things for which you are famous

    - To be prepared for the ‘interview’ at any time…stay current, you are ‘always on’

 

Do you think it’s inevitable that people will continue to leave consulting firms to set up independently or can firms do more to keep senior and experienced talent within the fold? 

Consulting firms certainly need to continue expanding the options for people to develop and contribute effectively at every stage of their career. This just makes good sense and will help the address the shortage of skills and experience that most firms face.

It is inevitable though, that people will continue to see an independent route as feasible and attractive for them. So, the trick for consulting firms will be how well they identify, attract and work with an external network, in a world where they can’t expect to have an exclusive relationship and where rules are tightening over the definition and use of contractors. There is much complexity and ambiguity to manage here. 

Many firms have grasped this issue pretty well and are making efforts with more or less success, as I know first-hand. The bigger firms are starting to put more robust and workable processes and systems in place, and some are building ‘hubs’ that connect people more formally.

Other smaller firms are setting themselves up deliberately and overtly as a small team of permanent consultants with a tight, well selected and managed associate network, often as part of their ‘USP’. There are things that they are doing well that larger firms can learn from. 

For example, smaller firms tend to build their associate network into the natural resourcing process rather than as a ‘last resort’ where internal options are exhausted. Larger firms often lose out on the best talent in their network because people are in demand elsewhere and they’ve not done enough to tie people in. Keeping associates abreast of the upcoming pipeline so they know what projects might land and when, providing space via social media to connect and collaborate, hosting associate networking events, inviting associates into internal community meetings etc. are all things that some firms are doing routinely.

I do think one of the stumbling blocks for consulting firms is the level of information they are prepared to share with their associates. With the right framework agreements and contracts in place, firms can and should have more confidence that their associates will not be leaking information to their competitors. Business relationships are built on trust, and I won’t be in business very long if I breach that trust even once.

 

And finally, any plans for the future? 

I'm keeping my powder dry for the moment to just enjoy delivering some projects that make a difference and to work with some great people. Ultimately, I’d like to have a portfolio of shorter, more part-time paid projects or roles, perhaps non-exec, and to do more work in the not-for-profit sector. I’d also like Qualia Consulting to stand for something other than just me, but who knows what that is just yet. I suppose I still don’t really know what I’ll do when I grow up!

My plan for the immediate future is to stay balanced in terms of energy and time for every aspect of life, and that includes my family, taking time out to visit amazing places in Europe (before I need a visa), and actually doing that wine and spirit qualification I’ve been putting off for years. Right now, I’m about to start a new transformation programme which takes me into a new sector with a new company and a new team. My only focus will be to deliver a successful outcome for my client, and with lots of choice over how the role will develop it’s an exciting moment.