God Rest Ye Merry, Self Employed!

As an executive coach, leadership
development consultant, and owner of my own business with 12 other
consultants, I am not in the habit of writing about my own development
and learnings. Usually I’m the one listening, challenging, summarising,
affirming… Today, however, is exactly 15 years ago since I moved to
the UK, launched into self-employment, and changed my entire life. As
this is the season of reflection, I’m sure some of you out there are
considering going solo. This blog is for you.

There’s an article in yesterday’s FT: It’s lonely this Christmas in the white-gig economy.
I’m happy to say this doesn’t apply to me. It used to, but not anymore.
The main theme of the article is how hard the self-employed have it,
and how most work over the Christmas to New Year break. Yuck! What are
they doing? All the stuff they should be doing during the rest of the
year–accounts, tax prep, planning, strategy, etc. The article also
says, “A survey by IPSE, the association of independent professionals
and the self-employed, this year found that the top three reasons to go
solo were: better work-life balance, control of work and maximising
earnings.” It goes on to dispel the myth of work-life balance and cites
how hard you work when you are self-employed. In my experience, that is
certainly true–a 60-hour work week is not uncommon.

Better work-life balance. It took me a long time to
learn how to set limits on how hard I work. Like they say on an
airplane, “Put your own airmask on first, then help others.” This is
vital advice for the self-employed. If you are not taking enough time
off, you are not much good to others, particularly as a coach or
consultant. But when you are self-employed it is hard to limit yourself
to a 40- or 50-hour work week. There is so much to do beyond business
development and delivery. I’ve found that having a place of retreat I
can go to regularly makes the long work weeks bearable, and keeps me in
better balance to help others. So instead of weekly work-life balance,
mine is every 6 weeks or so. Manage it well, and clients won’t notice
when you are away from your homebase checking email twice a week, unless
you tell them. Of course, this is only possible with help from those
you work with.

Which brings me to my second big learning about self-employment. Donald T. Phillips, in his book Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times
outlines all the wisdom that comes from studying Abraham Lincoln’s
approach to leadership. My favourite lesson in this book is “Keep
searching until you find your ‘Grant'” referring to Ulysses S. Grant,
who was instrumental in helping Lincoln end the civil war. In short,
Grant Made Things Happen. No self-employed person can do it all on his
or her own, so know the things you don’t like doing and what you are not
very good at, and find somebody else who will be motivated to do those
things well. In my experience, I had a few false starts with finding the
right person, and then Peggy Bennett joined Talent Futures and together
we have created a yin and yang working relationship that sees us
through hectic delivery times as well as times of renewal and growth.

Control of work, the #2 reason people yearn for
self-employment, is a prize worth having. In the earlier years of
self-employment, it may not be yours however and you must fight against
that discouragement. Doing what you can to earn a living that is broadly
within your capabilities is work you must accept. As you become better
known and refine your brand, then you can turn down some things to focus
on what you excel in. But don’t define yourself too narrowly or you may
find your sector shrinking before your eyes. The market will define you
to a large extent, because everybody wants a specialist. If you are
motivated by variety and challenge (such as I am) you must define
yourself first, know your strengths, and help potential clients see how
you can deliver a wide range of services.

In 2006 I had a good foothold in the City of London as an executive
coach, so much so that I struggled to find work outside of financial
services or in team development. I listened to what others said about
the bubble and how it couldn’t last and sought inroads to other
sectors–engineering, manufacturing, housing and the public sector. I
put myself forward for team facilitation again and again until I won the
work, and kept winning it. Eventually I brought associates into Talent
Futures to help deliver work I was selling. My own energising strength
in strategic mindedness and desire to lead were satisfied through
growing my business, which meant I had more clear-minded focus to offer
my coaching clients who were paying me to be focused on their leadership.

In short, I learned that “control of work” is not only about what you
want to do, and how you do it, but also flexibly challenging yourself
to let go more and stretch into new things. Without constantly revising
how you approach your business, it doesn’t last.

Maximising earnings, the third reason for
self-employment, is hard to control when you are a coach and leadership
consultant in the post-2008 economy. Sometimes there is a slump for
buying such services. And while coaching and team development is needed
all the more when things are in a downturn, it is one of the first
things people cut back on when budgets are tight.

In January 2015, I stopped focusing obsessively on my topline growth,
and started focusing more clearly on how I spend my time. I wrote
myself new goals. I wanted to spend 2.5 days a week delivering coaching
and consulting, 1-2 days in business development, and 1 day in writing.
Anybody who has read my blog in the past may understand which goal I
struggle with the most–my blogs are sporadic at best! But I do write to
individual clients, I summarise, I read, I think of new ways of looking
at things and writing is a big part of my delivery. Since I have
focused on being more rigorous in how I spend my time, I’m happier
week-to-week. And this clearly translates into how I do my work, how I
show up to prospective clients and colleagues, and I find that the
topline growth has occurred naturally. When it comes to maximising
earnings as someone who is self-employed, the route to success is not
only about marketing, business development and delivery, it is about how
you present to others as you are pursuing it.

Christmas 2017 – New Year 2018. So there it is, all
ye potential self-employed. There is no work/life balance unless you
wrestle with yourself and find a way to achieve it. The more you try to
control your work, the less of it you may have–stay open to new
possibilities and better ways to define yourself and what you do, and
get others to help you do it. And when it comes to maximising your
earnings, focus on how to enjoy work and more of it will come to you.

This year I will be working right up to the end of Friday, as is my
habit, but then Talent Futures will be closed until 2nd January. In that
time I will read, dream, think, go for long walks, (and of course eat a
lot, too). When I’m back in January I have a long list of projects and
things to dive into. I can’t wait!