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15 things to know about being a HR consultant

Last year I took a light take on advice we might offer those with an aspiration to enter the consultancy world, with one sub-plot being revenge for advice given to our clients as to how to milk us for all we are worth and get the best out of consultancy.

In this piece, I trade up my 15 tips with a (slightly!) more serious slant. Older, wiser and with seasoning, I’m still egging you on to go for a position in HR Technology Consulting – it’s a great job!

1. You’ll take fewer holidays and not more

You may imagine all the freedom in the world will be yours when you work as an HR consultant. In reality, it will take a good while before you can trust that there’s enough work around the corner to relax unpaid on a beach for a fortnight. Don’t use your confidence as an accurate gauge as to your effectiveness – look beyond yourself for learning and for feedback.

2. Satnavs can stop

Satnavs will let you down and when they do, it’s without warning, on a road without signposts that mean anything to you and always on the way into work and not on the way home. Have a plan B and plan C. Your plan B should start with “when I don’t have access to the internet I will……”

3. Sometimes it is better to give up

Sometimes it is just better to give up, at least until the morning. Fresher brains find solutions and your client might prefer to have an honest 90% of scope delivered than a wasted day satisfying a perfectionist mindset when it comes to your technical prowess. Monitor your daily progress and talk to your client about how you are getting on. Decide together as to whether a change of tack is needed.

4. Understanding train tickets is actually quite easy

Believe it or not, there will come a time, all too soon, when you can work out why the train line appears to deliver random answers regarding price. Better still, all those headaches you were suffering from in the early days will soon dissipate and travelling will become just that thing you do. Allow yourself more time in the beginning to make things easier still.

5. Notes are vital

Always make notes. I make the same recommendation to those working with you, you really will forget certain important things. If you don’t forget, your client or colleagues might well and then your note-taking system will prove its worth. Documentation can be both the downfall of the best HR consultants and the redemption with the poorest of consultancy experience. However, it is certainly worth doing. Your will thank you later!

6. Prepare for month one cash-flow

Moving from a salaried job to payment after invoice, means a month of coping on nothing. Plan how the mortgage is going to get paid for the interval until you’re into the swing of when your money comes in. Organisations don’t manage cash flow well for you – don’t undervalue the salaried consultancy option.

7. Appearance matters to a degree

Remember that it takes a while before real trust is going to build in your credibility as a professional and many consultancy engagements involve shorter-term contact with the people you will need to impress. By all means, have your own style, but do look like the HR professional you are. It’s more than a job interview. Your chosen personal profile has to be sustainable for you.

8. A consultant is not just there to say “yes”

The best HR and don’t necessarily agree to everything in the way in which it has been suggested. Your role is to offer expert advice and if you can see a more effective way, your clients are going to appreciate the suggestions – if supported by the right explanations as to impact and outcomes. Clients have different expectations of a consultant and you need to be highly sensitive to this. Are you a team-mate? An interventionist? Even antagonist? Critical friend? Make the right call depending on the situation.

9. Assume nothing

Many clients will look after you wonderfully but even access to water, tea and coffee are not necessarily a given. Incredibly, it is possible for your daily rate to get in the way of people remembering that you are an expert there to do a very good job. Arrive early and you can do both. Joyous days and disasters will teach you resilience.

10. It is rather like public speaking

Consultancy days involve lots of speaking and most of it public. If you would like to avoid this, then pick your jobs carefully. And I quote a favourite colleague: “There may be more of them than you think!” Sometimes the best value day for a team means involving everyone. It’s sensible to ask who you’ll be working with – and their job roles are useful to know too. These days consultancy is often offered remotely, including from within a team. At Phase 3 Consulting, we call this “bite-sized consultancy service”. There are plenty of career options for the consultant who can communicate but who fears failure in the classroom.

11. Even easier than train tickets

Something that is even easier than train tickets Is setting yourself up as a self-employed sole trader with HMRC. Rather less easy is removing yourself and, if you’ve earned anything, you’ll find yourself completing a self-assessment. You do need to decide if you’re going to operate as a sole trader (easier) or a limited company, so read some no-nonsense advice about the risks and (in)efficiencies with tax if you want to take the easy option. Watch out now for IR35 and ahead for the changes in the definition of self-employment. “Gigs” in the Gig Economy *{see Footnote} may need to be increasingly short-term.

12. The concept of a capsule wardrobe is not ridiculous anymore

You will end up with a bag packed and ready to go and your working wardrobe will be carefully constructed around a minimum number of interchangeable options. Having two tubes of toothpaste is a good idea too. Oh, and invest in your travel case. It must lift, shift and swivel effortlessly and if it doesn’t, ditch it early.

13. You may crave eggs or beans on toast

Hotel dinners or delicatessen sandwiches start out really good but after a while, everyone wants to be back at home and comfort eating. Yet as gourmet food trends in hotel lounges lose their glamour factor, there will be increased pleasure in a rediscovery of your own favourites.

14. A personal phone is not your client’s friend

I’m not impressed if I engage someone for the day and it seems like their wife/friend/the garage people take a good chunk of it. You will have distinctly less opportunity to deal with personal issues during your working day as a freelance HR consultant than in the course of employment with a steady team. Which brings up to my last point.:

15. You need your friends

There is nothing more valuable after a difficult day or on a difficult mission than not to be on your own with it. Sharing your knowledge does not diminish your personal value and it will bring you all that you may miss of “ordinary” office life.

HR consultancy life brings flexibility, plenty of fun and freedom to work at your best. Clients regard your role differently from that of a co-worker. Get used to the terminology of “resource”, “utilisation” and “add value” – all with your name attached. These mean you’re a part of an expert team, with a working life to balance and doing your job well. As I work to develop the careers of consultants in HR technology, I reflect that, of course, each remains an individual. Cater in your career plan for the factors you know you need – mentoring, learning opportunity, company, a safety-net, a challenge. You won’t change too much, but your potential will.

Gig Economy  “gigs” used to mean work for just musicians, but now this means jobs. The gig economy is a US term with growing prevalence telling us about the trend towards independent and freelance styles of work of a temporary nature. Uber is said to epitomise “gig” work, which is essentially the opposite of a “job for life” culture. The implications for HR tech are clear – workforces to cater for that are more fluid and with less clear definitions as to who is a worker, professional, provider, manager – as well as their systems engagement.

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