In the lead-up to the holiday season each year, I keep the leftover Halloween candy close as fuel for my professional holiday tradition: planning. If there’s one thing I can attribute to the growth of my consulting practice over the years, it’s this regular practice of taking stock of where I’ve been and what’s to come.
Some find the timing of this ritual odd. After all, if your business is like mine, many clients are blasting into the busiest weeks of the year. As their consultant, you are experiencing a similarly demanding period.
Oddly enough, I find this the perfect time to start brainstorming about my business’s next act. Why? Because it’s easy to lose some perspective once you’re away from crunch time. I used to take some planning time in early January, and somehow, the fall’s enhanced hustle and bustle feeds my desire to push my business to new heights.
As with all things consulting, your processes will likely differ from mine. But consider these steps a guide by which to customize some kind of planning ritual that works for you.
Assess your current state
This is the part of planning that’s not terribly hard to do during your everyday consulting: It involves looking up multiple times a day and taking note of which parts of your business are going well and which are not. What do you enjoy doing most? Least? What lines of business are profitable for you? Which are not? What elements of your work are gaining traction in your industry? Which ideas of yours might resonate with larger audiences? Are you working with your ideal clients? You might create a very formal assessment, or as I do, make mental notes and begin to jot down key ideas. This exercise might result in a few tweaks, or it might involve a wholesale redo of your business model.
As your preferences and directions begin to take shape, there’s nothing like setting ambitious goals. Cherished clients, books, key speaking engagements, and new business content all come out of intentional efforts to seek out those milestones. If you need inspiration for your goals, consider taking a favorite peer to coffee or listening to a successful businessperson’s podcast. It helps if you create some long- and some short-term benchmarks. A year can seem like an awfully long time if you don’t break your targets into manageable pieces. A journal article, for example, doesn’t often come in one step. It might require a research-related activity, then ones focusing on writing, editing, and submitting to one or more publications. It doesn’t hurt to formalize your goals by verbalizing them around trusted colleagues, especially if you work alone and want to hold yourself accountable.
What must you do to make those goals come to fruition? Usually, you will build information and networks via people, writings, workshops, or other sources. You likely know the dangers of social media and the internet flushing productive hours into oblivion. Similar dangers exist in your professional life, when you spend time reading, networking, or listening to content that comes across your desk or your phone. That content appears out of a somewhat random selection process. When you get down to it, reading might sound productive, until you realize that you’re simply reading the latest or the most popular articles—not necessarily those most relevant to your work. And those things you found helpful even just a year ago might not be such high priority now. Act as your own curator—on your professional time, anyway.
Revisit your fee structure
Let’s face it, there were likely at least a few times this year when you regretted the way you priced a job. Whether it was your fault or not, take some time to mull over the circumstances surrounding your frustration. What have you learned this year that might lead you to be more—or less—aggressive with your fees? Importantly, if you find yourself charging somewhat haphazardly, take the time to determine a pricing model that you can use for your most popular services. That alone will alleviate the stress of determining fees for each individual project. And if you charge hourly, don’t forget to revisit the model that leads you to that magic number, and determine whether it’s time to give it a nudge in the upward direction.
Streamline your work
It might seem straight-forward to focus only on the most relevant information, but there are two major hurdles standing in the way of our collective learning these days: time and distractions. In order to make way for my next-stage business, I also make a ritual of looking at how I spend my time. In the weeks when people are cleaning up their holiday lights and trimmings, my parallel clean-up includes an axe to apps, blogs, books, and meetings that are not directly related to meeting my current or new goals. That way, January begins with both my tailored list of needed new resources and the time and space to dig into them.
I also look for ways to automate and delegate. What tasks can I unload via technology, subcontractors, or some streamlining of my business model? In the end, all of these critical items lend themselves to capacity building. The endgame here is one of figuring out what you need to do. High on your list will likely be marketing, selling, interacting with clients, and carrying out key components of your services. Then ask yourself, what currently eats up much of your time beyond those activities? How might you offload those tasks? Each year, my business is increasingly set up to handle more, but (hopefully!) with greater focus on my part.
If you want to ring in the New Year with a plan that will keep your work—and your resume—interesting, don’t let the opportunities come to you. Seek them out, be open to new ideas, and never underestimate your ability to achieve new benchmarks, even if means incrementally finding your way.