It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider the question. Being a contractor or consultant is very appealing, but it does require dedication and hard work to be successful. That being said, after the initial settling in period the effort required would be comparable to ensuring your career remains on track in a permanent role setting.
Many contractors and consultants may look and sound like any other employee on the surface but what really sets them apart is their ability to manage and communicate effectively at all levels. It’s not just about fulfilling the day job related to the contract; it requires business management and great interpersonal skills with multiple levels within the client business to be successful.
To be a successful contractor or consultant you need to be able to flex your personal style to fit with the company culture and the level of the individuals you are working for and with. In addition to this you need to be confident and outgoing to be able to pitch, win and develop your contract and client base.
Probably the strongest personality trait required is resilience. You need to be comfortable with the word ‘no’. Not just hearing ‘no’ but saying it too (a lot). The contractor and consultant market is competitive and depending on the length of contracts or projects you’ll be putting yourself out there for new work frequently. It’s not just about being unsuccessful in winning the contracts; your resilience will be tested when negotiating fees, rates and contract details, as well as potential contract extensions.
For many new contractors and consultants saying no is more uncomfortable than hearing it. For James, although moving on was easy, getting used to saying no took more time.
“My first contract was for six months but I ended up staying there for over four years. I really enjoyed my time there and when I knew I wanted to move on I knew it was the right decision but it took me some time to work myself up to do it. Saying no to another extension was more difficult than I’d thought. I was uncomfortable doing it, rather than it being a difficult process. Now I’ve moved a couple of times, it’s easy.”
As a consultant there is the added conundrum of how to cease working with clients that no longer fit with your business; whether it’s because they want services you no longer want to provide, don’t pay the going rate or are late payers, or managing the client relationship takes up too much time. Julia took some time to find the right balance.
“At first I’d pitch for projects I wanted, so I was always in control of the work I took on. That was great. Then came the time when I was getting referrals and one client became difficult to manage: always last minute requests, changes to the brief, always negotiating the price down. It was my first year of trading so I was worried about how it would affect my business if I simply refused the work. I avoided the conversation by saying I was fully booked all the time. Now I’m more confident so I discuss areas that don’t fit with my business and if we aren’t a good fit for each other it’s more of a mutual decision. You have to be clear about how you want to work and if a client doesn’t fit with your business model, you need to be strong enough to end the relationship.”
Of course confidence, interpersonal skills and resilience can be built up over time, so what are the core attributes of a contractor or consultant?
Core attributes of a contractor or consultant
As a contractor or consultant you are your own boss, you run your own business and ultimately your success or failure rests with your abilities and drive to make it work. Your contractor business is unlikely to fail because you can’t fulfil the requirements of the contract; it’s more likely to fail due to running the business – getting work in the door, managing clients and ensuring the figures add up.
The skills and attributes can be strengthened over time, but it is important to ensure that you have a good foundation to start from if you are to sail through your first year.
- Resilience – build it and nurture it. For every successful bid for a contract or client, there will be plenty of knock backs.
- Tenacity – it takes a good year to get your feet under the table and it takes hard work and dedication to do the ground work to build a successful contracting or consulting career.
- Focus – it’s easy to get side tracked but you need to ensure you can focus on your short and long-term business plans. A clear vision of what you want to achieve and remaining focused on how you are going to do it goes a long way to becoming a success.
- Confidence – going it alone takes confidence in your technical abilities and in your decision-making when enlisting expert help to keep your business in top condition.
- Interpersonal skills – managing your core relationships is critical to your business success. You are your own marketing professional, client manager and debt collector as well as project manager and worker so you need to be comfortable in wearing many hats and fulfilling multiple roles.
- Management and organisational skills – keeping on top of the admin is the difference between getting paid and going broke in many cases. Logging hours, chasing clients, balancing the books, invoicing and the other daily elements of running your own business can take minutes a day if you are really organised.
Being a contractor or consultant and being your own boss is exciting and rewarding; ensuring you continue to work on your weaker skills and personal development goals will help you to become more successful, more efficient and ultimately happier as it leaves you with more time to do the things you really want to. Personal development is a continuous process and something contractors and consultants have more control over than their permanent worker counterparts. We’ll cover more of this in the next article.
We’ve listed some of our favourite resource hubs for tools and training on resilience, personal development, and understanding and managing others. These can be used in addition to your professional bodies and industry-specific training.
- Mindtools – tools and resources to develop yourself.
- TED – presentations for inspiration and thought leadership, all under 20 minutes long.
- Psychologies – magazine site with personal growth articles and resources.
- Gov.uk – portal for support from HMRC, UKTI and the Department of Business Innovation and Skills.