Set Your Own Speed Limit

What if you got to set your own personal speed limit? That vehicular dream might not happen any time soon, but if you run your own consulting practice, you do have an opportunity to set your professional speed. By that, I mean that you can decide whether you are taking a Sunday drive or a lane on the Consulting Autobahn. And you can do so for an unlimited number of issues, from setting your hours to growing your business.

One of the most fabulous things about this career path is that you can set and reset each parameter depending on your life circumstances and goals at a given time.

When I began consulting, my children were infants. I had been burned by a no-good nanny and therefore took projects that allowed me to work remotely, with our new babysitter not far from my windowed office door. That practice quickly evolved. Now, both my teenagers and I find it healthy to separate for longer periods, and travel is no longer an obstacle.

Practices – by default or by design?

On a range of issues, practical decisions overlapped with professional ones, shaping my business along the way. Some took shape by default, some by design. I wish I had been more intentional from the outset, but it seems that most of my peers’ businesses have also evolved through lessons learned more than anything else.

In one case, I was working with a dean to prepare a presentation for the university president.  This was one of my very first clients. I was working late on this project one night when my office phone rang. The dean had many new ideas to float. It was 9 p.m.

Why did I answer the phone? I asked myself that question over and over again during the long night that followed. I was a novice consultant who didn’t want to disappoint a new and influential client who could surely refer much more business—or quickly put a wrench in my reputation.

We talked through potential changes to the presentation, I revised accordingly, and for the next few hours, the dean called repeatedly with additional ideas. This presentation was obviously important to her, so I certainly didn’t want to be the reason for its downfall. I plugged away.

The kicker came just before our last call, a few minutes before midnight: The dean had been giving thought to the hard copies we would deliver. She thought they should be spiral-bound and include tabs at each of the major sections. Oh, and she would need them early the next morning. These points were all in stark contrast to our original plan, yet I followed her revised suggestions diligently.

Setting parameters & policies

I asked many peers after this encounter how they had experienced consulting-by-fire. Many could relate. But the experience opened my eyes to this reality: While it seems nice to make decisions on an as-needed basis, it does help to have some parameters in place as a starting point—parameters that you can certainly tweak when it suits you. This is your business, after all.

All these years later, I refer to those parameters as “policies.” Yes, I am a solo entrepreneur, so no one knows the full set of policies but me. No matter. If a client decides to call at 9 p.m., there will be no expectation of my answering the phone—either from the client or yours truly. Of course, if I happen to make an arrangement ahead of time to break that rule, well, that’s the advantage of running your own show.

What kind of policies might you want to consider?

  • Client criteria
    • Who are your ideal clients?
    • How willing are you to deviate from your service niche?
    • Will you have geographic restrictions for your clients?
  • Finances
    • What are you willing to spend on your business’s start-up?
    • How much will you save annually in your retirement fund?
    • What percentage of your annual budget are you willing to spend on marketing?
    • How and how much will you spend annually on professional development?
  • Fees
    • Do you plan to set one rate and stick to it, or will you vary your fees? If the latter, what criteria will you use?
    • What will be your billing framework, e.g., will you charge monthly, require any payment up front, etc.?
    • How will you negotiate or bill clients that require extensive travel?
  • Time
    • Will you track the way in which you spend your time?
    • Will you bill clients hourly or based on the value of your work?
    • How much time will you set aside for networking and marketing?
  • Operations
    • Will you utilize staff, subcontractors or strategic alliances to deal with an abundance of work?
  • Office hours
    • What will you consider your “office hours”?
    • Will you respond to messages while on vacation?
    • How may you be reached (if at all) in case of a client “emergency”?
  • Communications
    • What is the timeframe within which clients can expect email responses from you?
    • What about phone responses?
    • Will you communicate with clients via text?
  • Pro bono work
    • Will you work pro bono?
    • If so, under what circumstances?
    • How long will those engagements last?

This is merely a sampling of the endless list of policies you will create for your business, whether intentionally or not. The more answers you can determine in advance, the better your chances of preventing situations that you did not intend.

Too few consultants take their businesses seriously enough to consider these topics thoroughly—and revisit them on an ongoing basis. The advantage of doing so is that you will be more intentional in your work. You will gain confidence in the jobs you take, and you will give yourself permission to decline work. That’s right, you will empower yourself to say “no” to a job, knowing that you are holding out for one that better fits your goals.

You might choose to convey the most important policies early in your meetings with potential clients so that there is no confusion. You can draw the lines that are worth drawing for you. This is wholly a subjective exercise.

As your engagement continues, you can respond to potentially questionable situations by stating your relevant policy and respectfully declining or letting a client know whether you plan to stray from it in this particular situation. Even if you do make an exception, you are setting expectations going forward: This is not my usual practice, but I am willing to go above and beyond for you… this time.