God Rest Ye Merry, Self Employed!

By 22 December 2017 January 25th, 2019 Personal Development

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!