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MENTOR - TURN EXPERIENCE INTO INCOME...

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and be your own boss at the same time. Sally O'Reilly examines the benefits and pitfalls of life as a freelance con...
and be your own boss at the same time. Sally O'Reilly examines the benefits and pitfalls of life as a freelance consultant

If you feel constrained by the strictures of local government hierarchy, then it may be tempting to imagine life as a freewheeling independent consultant. Your time would be your own. Your diary would be free of team building meetings, pointless training sessions and other irksome features of office life. And your earning power might well be considerably better. But before heading for the door, it's worth taking a careful look at what your new life is likely to involve.

The first step should be to think where the work would come from. No matter what your specialised field - from landscape architecture to change management - you need to be sure that there is a market for your skills, and that you will be able to tap into it. 'The key thing is that you will be the one securing the work, so you will have to be good at selling yourself,' says Nick Burton, head of green spaces at Waltham Forest LBC, and a former independent consultant in the voluntary/community sector.

'Cold calling is time consuming and not very productive, so you need to keep your ear to the ground, attend conferences and seminars, and make personal contact with future clients.'

Demand and the ability to find work will vary - but the same ground rules will always apply, says Mr Burton. 'In general, areas like ecology or landscape management can be more specialised and harder to secure than landscape architecture, for instance, but generally supply and demand are more or less in balance, especially if you are prepared to cast your net widely.'

Hamish Masson, membership manager of the Institute of Management Consultancy, agrees that networking is vital if you are to succeed as an independent consultant. 'People do start from nowhere, but it's best to start networking with a view to doing freelance consulting at least two years before you plan to make the move,' he says.

Experience is also important - though again, your specialist field does make a difference. 'Normally, you would not expect people to set up as freelance consultants under the age of 35, but IT consultants may be as young as 25,' he says. 'And for leadership consultancy, you would expect someone with more experience, who had carried out a leadership role themselves.'

For Patricia Coleman, using her experience as a former deputy chief executive at Manchester City Council has certainly paid off. Since then, she has spent time as a consultant with the Improvement & Development Agency, and is now being offered more work than she can take on, and making a better living than ever before. The life of a consultant suits her very well and she thrives on the freedom she has enjoyed since going it alone in 2003.

'I do work with other people, but I avoid having other people work for me,' she says. 'One of the benefits of being independent is that I am not responsible for managing people. In the past, I have managed, indirectly at least, hundreds if not thousands of staff.'

The freedom also extends to how she uses her time. 'Pacing yourself is an issue,' she says. 'It's easy when you start to say 'yes' to everything, but you don't need to. People do make contact again. And you also need to build in enough time to do things properly when you take on a piece of work. Again, it's very easy to promise to get things done too quickly.'

Once you have sorted out your time management, you can enjoy the benefits of flexible working. 'I know people who work really hard for nine months, then take off round the world for three months,' says Ms Coleman.

It's not a lifestyle that suits all personality types. Ms Coleman stresses that you need to be a self-starter, as well as being well-organised and a good networker. And those who are overly concerned with status might find it tough competing for work in the open market, particularly after reaching a senior level in a council.

'A big issue is that your status goes,' she says. 'Once you have the title, it becomes part of your identity - people ask what you do, you say 'I'm chief executive, or deputy chief executive' and you have a clear role. 'Consultant' doesn't have quite the same ring to it.'

On the other hand, the door to working in local government is still open. In fact, spending time in consultancy can significantly boost your career, as Mr Burton's experience at Waltham Forest LBC has proved.

'I worked all over the UK and even visited the US and Kuwait on business. The experience was very broad, and I learned an amazing amount about how local authorities work,' he says.

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