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It is interesting when I get approached by somebody who has got a lot of experience as an Independent Consultant and they’re wanting to transition to a Portfolio Executive workstyle.
Consulting is no longer Making your Future Work
The drivers for it can be multiple. Sometimes, they are struggling to get their consulting assignments. Sometimes, their consulting assignments have become intense and long-term and more like interim assignments. Sometimes, it’s because they’ve just got tired of the famine and feast of constantly working flat out or flat out looking for work. Sometimes, it’s because they don’t want to do the endless travelling without any certainty of where their next assignment will be.
Thinking differently as a Portfolio Executive
But transitioning from being an Independent Consultant to becoming a Portfolio Executive is tricky because you are radically changing the way you go to market. As an Independent Consultant you’re used to constantly ‘finding a problem, fixing a problem’. As a Portfolio Executive, you’re building a capability in an organization. The network you’ve used to find your consulting assignments has gotten used to the fact that you’re looking for relatively short assignments where you define a problem, fix the problem and move on.
Now, you’re asking for something very different. You’re asking for a relationship with a business where, over an extended period, you are going to support them to build a capability so that that capability continues to be fit for purpose as the business evolves and develops.
Sales Consultant to portfolio Sales Director
Let me give you a concrete example. The typical person who becomes an Independent Sales Consultant will go in and do short projects to train a team, restructure a team, redefine a team or perhaps build a team from scratch. They may come in to launch a team in a new territory or in a new market. They make come in to do a specific thing around the effectiveness of integration between marketing and sales. But now as a Portfolio Executive Sales Director you are pitching to take full responsibility for the sales function. You are not going to be the kind of Sales Director who has a big number on their head and is the most senior salesperson. Your role will be to restructure, evolve and develop the capability of the sales function. Your key personal goal is to build a long-term relationship as a trusted advisor to the CEO. You will coordinate effectively with the marketing and product development people. You will ensure that the people who design the solutions are properly integrated into the team, and that the operations enable you to deliver the promise that the sales and marketing function have taken to clients.
Building on your Strengths
This requires a different attitude to potential clients. It also requires a different way of nurturing and building client relationships once you’re in there. Some of the skills of an Independent Consultant are still relevant. For example, a diagnostic will be part of your toolkit. But now, you’re doing a different kind of diagnostic. You’re not diagnosing a specific problem and a specific solution. You’re seeking to diagnose the overall capability of the function and to create a long-term view about how that function will evolve and develop. In that context, capability maturity is a much more powerful way of helping to understand the status of a business function. This is not the time to be digging deep down into the detail of process or technology or people. A capability maturity diagnostic establishes a high-level picture of the maturity of processes that deliver the function and create a roadmap for improvement.
Your pitch to your clients is also radically different. No longer are you building a business case which says by solving this problem I’m saving you this amount of money or increasing this amount of revenue, in a short period of time. Now you’re identifying how over the shorter and the medium term, what is needed to evolve the business in this functional area and enable the business to reach its full potential.
Working with Clients Differently
Finally, the way that you engage will feel quite different. As a consultant, you’re used to defining the solution and then leaving the implementation very much to the in-house teams. The pace at which you can operate is driven by your ability to run a project process that takes people out of their existing jobs to do this special job. Now what you’re trying to do is help the teams in place to evolve and develop. The pace of change you can do in this context is often slower. The benefits that you’re trying to bring are often longer term, and what represents value for money, the business case, the value proposition, needs to recognize that.
Attracting Clients Differently
There is one final challenge you face and that is to evolve your own sales and marketing process. If you’re used to doing consulting projects then you’re used to doing lots of small projects. You’re used to being very busy, and then very quiet. In the Portfolio Executive world, you’re trying to build trusted relationships with potential buyers over an extended period. You’re not saying to a client pay me £5,000, £10,000, £25,000, and I’ll fix your problem. You’re saying to a client pay me £30,000 to £50,000 a year on an ongoing basis, and I’m going to build a capability. That requires a nurturing of the relationship, a building of trust, that often in a consulting environment, you’re not used to doing. In a consulting environment the power of your sale is the way you can articulate very clearly a well-defined problem and provide the credibility of your experience and a methodology to solve it. Now, what you’re drawing on is the skills knowledge and experience that you’ve collected over 20 or 30 years of professional life, and the fact that the CEO wants to have a long-term relationship with you. You need to operate with a very different approach.
Your consulting website which has got the five problems that you fix is no longer relevant.
Now, your primary approach to the market is through building a LinkedIn front door that demonstrates there is 20 or 30 years of experience, and positions you for conversations with people and a different kind of networking and relationship building so you come to the attention of people who want a function to operate increasingly effectively over time.
Persisting to Build a Portfolio Executive workstyle
Many of the people I work with to make this transition are tempted to go back and take short-term consulting assignments to top up the coffers while they’re waiting to build their portfolio executive work style.
I strongly encourage them to start that conversation even while they’re doing consulting assignments, and to commit to carving out the time to build a portfolio executive work style. This doesn’t mean you can’t do a few consulting assignments, but it does mean you can no longer live in a world where you’re either working flat out, doing the work or working flat out winning the work. You need to move to a blended approach.
Consultants should be well-positioned to become effective Portfolio Executives. They understand about maintaining relationships with multiple clients. They have clarity about how to create value for clients. They have experience of winning work. But the transition is often harder than they think. The habits of a consultant need to be replaced by new habits that make a Portfolio Executive successful. Letting go of old and building new habits is hard, particularly when the old habits served you so well in the past. But the goal of building a sustainable, enjoyable, rewarding workstyle with a handful of long-term clients is achievable and well worth the effort.
Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.