Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Dissent, disagreement, compromise and consensus 28 – the jobs and careers context 27

This is my 28th installment to a series on negotiating in a professional context, starting with the more individually focused side of that as found in jobs and careers, and going from there to consider the workplace and its business-supportive negotiations (see Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3 and its Page 4 continuation, postings 484 and following for Parts 1-27.)

I began addressing a list of issues in Part 25 of this, that can and do arise at least occasionally during longer employment tenures, that I repeat here as a whole for purposes of smoother continuity of narrative in what is to follow. And I begin this posting by noting that I have already at least preliminarily addressed the first two of the topics points of this list (as noted parenthetically here) and the first half of Part 3 as well:

1. Changes in tasks assigned, and resources that would at least nominally be available for them: timeline allowances and work hour requirements definitely included there (see Part 25 and Part 26),
2. Salary and overall compensation changes (see Part 27),
3. Overall longer-term workplace and job responsibility changes and constraints box issues as change might challenge or enable your reaching your goals there (with discussion of this begun in earlier installments in this progression of them),
4. Promotions and lateral moves,
5. Dealing with difficult people,
6. And negotiating possible downsizings and business-wide events that might lead to them. I add this example last on this list because navigating this type of challenge as effectively as possible, calls for skills in dealing with all of the other issues on this list and more, and with real emphasis on Plan B preparation and planning, and execution too, as touched upon in Part 23.

My goal for this posting is to further address the above stated Point 3 and its issues, focusing here on constraints box considerations and further expanding out the range of employee needs and options for addressing them, that can effectively be brought to the table in the types of work position and overall compensation negotiations that I have been discussing here.

Note: the issues that I discuss here can rise to critical importance because an employee’s work responsibilities have expanded out beyond any realistic interpretations of the official job description in place for work actually performed, and on an ongoing basis. That is the basic underlying reason that I have discussed up to here in these postings, for seeking opportunity to negotiate, or renegotiate terms of employment at a business. But this can also become important and even crucially so as a consequence of non-work, life issues and when an employee needs to find a better way to juggle the needs of their overall life with those of their job too. So I write here about expanding the range of options and option types that might be negotiated over, but I also write here from a wider perspective as to why these negotiations might even be needed in the first place. Remember in that context, that some of the possibilities that an employee might want and even need to gain approval for, would essentially only arise as issues for them when they have to address demands and pressures that arise outside of work. So this wider negotiating context is particularly important here in this posting.

With that noted, let’s start this line of discussion from the already at least partly addressed context of changes in job responsibilities held, and similar workplace reasons for seeking out change. And to set the stage for discussion to follow here, I explicitly note that I am not writing about special circumstance, limited duration changes in the work load expected of an employee or manager under consideration here, and certainly where everyone working at a business is facing what are essentially the same type of “crunch time” work load increases for some period of time, for what they would be expected to do. To take that out of the abstract, consider large retail businesses with their seasonally expected large and even tremendously so, increases in sales and sales-supportive business activity going into their year-end holiday sales seasons. My focus here is on fundamental, long-term and essentially permanent shifts in what at least some employees and managers are expected to do as their new upgraded but not necessarily automatically rewarded standard, expected work flow. The types of employee recognition and overall compensation changes that I address here, as negotiating goals are all long-term in nature. So are the shifts in employment context and in job requirements that I address here too. And that point is crucial to all that I have been discussing in this and the immediately preceding four installments to this series. And this understanding is equally important when thinking through and acting upon the issues that I will be addressing here as I continue addressing the rest of the topics issues of the above-repeated list.

• Effective negotiations are built around what at least hopefully can become a shared effort to find commensurate, equitable resolutions in what is to happen moving forward, that would match the changes that have led to those negotiations in the first place.
• And the key words there are “commensurate” and “equitable,” as in fair and balanced, and with a goal of arriving at agreement as to what those words mean as a practical matter, in the situation under discussion.

I cited one reference in the above topics list, for constraints box and what that term means as a key jobs and careers consideration. And I begin to more fully address that larger range of possible commensurate and equitable resolution, bargaining points here by offering two more relevant reference links too:

Globalization and Your Constraints Box.
Working In-House, Working as a Consultant and Your Constraints Box.

The basic idea of a constraints box is very simple. Start out by listing all of the needs, desires and wishes that you can think of that if at least individually met, might at least incrementally positively impact upon and reshape your work life and your life as a whole from that. In effect, toss these wish list possibilities as a loose and unorganized, unprioritized collection into a box. And after you have built up your collection there for a while, open the box and begin looking for patterns in what you have put in there, and for duplications too. What have you added several times, perhaps with slightly different wording but with a same basic need or desire coming to the fore, for you repeatedly? Which of your constraints box items fit together in patterns and what do those emerging patterns have to say as to what is and is not really important for you? Which of them are outliers, but ones that are still very important to you? Which of your entries here are more whim in nature and discardable, and which are more centrally important to you?

Collectively, these listed items can help you map out the points that you would want to raise and discuss in any jobs or careers discussion, where the terms of your employment and the workplace conditions that you and an employer would come to agreement with become important. To take that out of the abstract with a specific wish list item, is flex-time work scheduling important to you so you can more easily meet pressing family obligations? And to add in a second possibility here, would you see the possibility of being able to work from home at least part time, of real value and meaning to you? Does your employer support these options or ones like them, and if so would your immediate supervisor there be supportive of this, in your case? Now, how would you best approach this type of workplace issue if you wanted to try to negotiate a deal with your direct supervisor that would allow you’re achieving one of these constraints box goals?

• Know yourself and your needs, and know your own priorities for all of this.
• Know your workplace, and from a corporate culture and business practice perspective, and from the perspective of how your supervisor more individually views the issues that you might raise here.
• Think through how best to frame and present your constraints box goals here, and with some raised for discussion as throw-away negotiating points where that might help to advance your cause, but with that option only resorted to with care.
• Think through what you might be willing to give on, in exchange for a more valuable to you concession. And think longer-term here and not just in terms of your immediate short-term needs – unless that is, you are explicitly seeking a short-term accommodation, in which case you are probably looking for accommodations that would not go into your longer-term constraints box lists in the first place.
• Know what is short-term and what is long-term there and think in terms of how you would best present them as such.
• And listen for possible flexibility in the feedback you receive in these discussions, where rephrasing and fine tuning a requested accommodation might make it more acceptable. This point cuts to the heart of what your actual constraints box entries actually are and to the heart of what their actual priorities are for you. Don’t be surprised if discussing them in this type of setting brings you to reconsider your constraints box goals here, and what really defines them for you.
• And if you seek change in the terms under which you work at a business, and certainly where that would involve changes in when, where or how you perform your work, present your case in terms of smooth continuity, or even as a potential source for you’re being able to achieve real work performance improvement – if you can make the changes that you seek, with approval from your supervisor and from your employer as a whole.
• This means thinking through how you can make the goal of that last point both true and realistic sounding, where appearance is in fact an entirely separate if equally important matter here.
• And this means thinking through how your employer reaching agreement with you on accommodations here, need not appear as you’re being allowed a special exception that would not be offered to your peer level colleagues there too.
• And throughout this process think in terms of best alternatives to negotiated agreement if you cannot secure the accommodations that would really matter to you here. What is your Plan B? Think this through before you sit down to start these negotiations, and have an idea as to how you might proceed under this set of circumstances.

As a final point here, it is important to remember that your constraints box needs will change with time. Constraints box goals and requirements that hold importance when a professional still has young children, might no longer apply as those children grow up and become more independent and as they move away from home as a part of that. Constraints box needs can and do change as jobs change too, where for example commutes become shorter, or significantly longer from working with a new employer. As such, it is important to update your constraints box periodically, and certainly when approaching the types of work and life negotiations under discussion here.

I always recommend that you start your constraints box list assembly from scratch, and without reviewing your older lists first when you revisit this exercise. The idea there is to capture your new needs and priorities as they are now, and without you’re adding in older entries simply because they made sense before. Then after you have assembled your new list, compare it to your old one and think through the differences: the changes that have entered into your thinking and your prioritization. The insight that this type of comparison can offer can help you to more effectively order and prioritize what you have in your constraints box now, and it can help you to better understand the short and longer term significance that your current list entries hold for you too. Hint: if you forgot to add in something from your old list in your new one, it probably is low or even very low in priority now at most, and even if it was high priority at some earlier date.

• The idea here is to be up to date on what you see as your needs and priorities in this, and that you approach the types of negotiations discussed here as fully prepared for them as possible, for laying out your current negotiating points and for arguing their case.

I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment where I will turn to consider Point 4 of the above list: promotions and lateral moves. After that, I will address the remaining entries offered there. Meanwhile, you can find this and related material at Page 4 to my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development, and also see its Page 1, Page 2 and Page 3. And you can also find this series at Social Networking and Business 2 and also see its Page 1 for related material.

Consulting assignment life cycle 25: understanding the consulting context

Posted in career development, consulting, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on July 19, 2012

This is my twenty fifth installment on consulting and the consulting assignment life cycle (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 225-246 for Parts 1-24.) Up to now I have been discussing why consult as a career or a career step, the consulting process going through an assignment life cycle, and consulting as a business. I turn here to consider consulting as a mindset and approach, and the importance of consultants to be students of businesses and organizations and of how they do and do not effectively function. And I address that point by starting with the fundamentals.

• Consultants land assignments and succeed in doing them, when they identify and understand their client’s needs. And that has to mean understanding their client’s needs and priorities from their client’s perspective.
• That means speaking their client’s language and understanding their unspoken assumptions, and it means really listening to them and observing them.
• That means understanding why they cannot do this work strictly in-house with their current staff, and certainly where that would mean working across their table of organization and their patterns of sustained conversation and cooperation in doing so.
• This, I add means understanding the client business in a way that can in many cases only be achieved once you are working there, and observing how things are actually done in practice and by whom.
• This also means identifying and understanding what cannot be done, and what lines cannot be crossed. I add that barriers to working across the table of organization can develop as mangers build their own organizational fiefdoms within a business, that they claim ownership of: barriers that can simply develop as a result of historically accreted efforts to achieve authority where managers hold responsibility. But regulatory and other requirements can mandate certain types of firewalls and barriers too, and as an example I cite regulatory barriers that can pertain in financial institutions between investment analysts, and investment instrument salespersons and brokers. It is important for a consultant to understand where patterns of supported and allowed communication and authority are functional, dysfunctional or some combination and how – and that they work with their clients in ways that those clients can be comfortable with.

And on top of studying, understanding and working with the client at the levels of their table of organization and their operational processes and policies, a good consultant also studies, understands and works effectively in the context of their corporate culture. That does not mean they have to be a true believer in all that this corporate culture holds dear. It does mean respecting and accommodating what the culture in place values, and respecting and working with the people there in doing so.

With time and experience a consultant comes to work with and see a wide range of businesses, and how they do and do not function. They get to see how these client businesses communicate their policies and practices and their values. And a consultant develops their experience base both as a matter of expanding their hands-on technical expertise from working and solving specific tasks and problems, and from doing so in a wide range of professional contexts – that they study and learn from too. This is a side to consulting that first time and less-experienced consultants often overlook. When they take on an assignment they are not just hired to find a technically viable and cost-effective solution as if working in a vacuum. They are hired to develop solutions to their clients’ problems and with resolutions that will work for their clients, and in the context of their ways and practices.

Effective consultants become conscious, aware students of their clients and their organizations’ processes and ways, and they seek to add to their knowledge base as to how businesses work with every assignment they take on and complete. This makes them more effective in finding clients and securing assignments and it becomes the key to securing repeat business and steady recurring client work.

I am finishing this series at this point but I will definitely be coming back to the issues of consultants and consulting best practices in future postings. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development.

Consulting assignment life cycle 24: office space, telecommuting and teleconsulting – 2

Posted in career development, consulting, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on July 14, 2012

This is my twenty fourth installment on consulting and the consulting assignment life cycle (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 225-246 for Parts 1-23.) I began a discussion of office space and related issues in Part 23 of this series, starting with a discussion of the consultant’s own business practice and where they manage and run it from. I then began a discussion of telecommuting and teleconsulting, and both within a consulting business, and when working with clients.

I pick up on that here, noting that working with a client means working with and within the context of their policies, practices and corporate culture. And it means working within the comfort zone of the manager you report to at your client’s business, and it means working with other stakeholders and in-house employees too. Some organizations allow and even actively support and promote telecommuting and other creative options for keeping their employees connected and productively contributing. What is allowed for and supported for in-house employees can be different than what is allowed for and supported for consultants, as consultants – even those on very long term assignments, are always outsiders in several respects. I have seen situations where consultants would be allowed to work from their own office space at least at times, where in-house employees would be expected to work entirely on-site at work. Know what is expected, wanted and preferred, and consider that part of the operating environment that you work in as a consultant. And work on-site or off, and face to face and via online connections accordingly, so as to satisfy your client’s needs and get the work done.

• Telecommuting and teleconsulting options can be a significant area of assignment negotiations, with for example certain days carved out for face to face meetings and work in-house, and others designated as telecommuting-optional or even expected.
• This should be settled upon early in the assignment, or even before it formally begins if possible, but circumstances can change, and sometimes just have to be accommodated. Northeast winter storms in the United States, with blizzards and the commuting challenges they create come to mind as a working example there. Even businesses that would not usually support telecommuting might be willing to do so and might even actively promote it when that becomes their best option for your being able to get your work done.
• So these issues need not be seen as being set in stone – and even with a more rigidly organized and run client business. Just know and understand where they might be willing to bend on issues of where and how you work, and when. And negotiate and follow through accordingly.
• The important point is that you not say you will follow one approach and then without warning or explanation do other things. Consistency and reliability are important, and both for working on the specific assignment and for developing and maintaining a positive reputation as to your skills and professionalism.

I find myself thinking of assignments I have worked on as I write this, and of consultant colleagues I have worked with. Sometimes these assignments have primarily required working at or at least primarily working with staff members at the client’s home office, and peripherally and largely via teleconsulting with others in more distant offices. I have, by contrast, certainly worked with consultants who seemed to virtually live in transit between out of state offices. They found themselves doing this because the nature of the work they did – direct hands-work setting up and configuring hardware that could not be done via online or other remote communications channels. Know if the assignments and types of assignments you take on carry with them minimum and perhaps even very large minimum percentages of time traveling – and either to remote offices, or simply from day to day commutes. Know what to expected, and for the issues I write of here, most of this should be predictable.

I am going to turn to the issues of client processes, systems and cultures in my next series installment, and as a foretaste of that make an observation I have found invaluable in my own career. Effective consultants are students of businesses and organizations and of how they do and do not work. I will discuss what that means and why it is so important next. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development.

Consulting assignment life cycle 23: office space, telecommuting and teleconsulting – 1

Posted in career development, consulting, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on July 9, 2012

This is my twenty third installment on consulting and the consulting assignment life cycle (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 225-246 for Parts 1-22.) So far I have discussed in this series a number of issues as to what consultants do, and how they do them in working with clients. That continues here insofar as the primary focus for any business venture has to be on cost-effectively meeting customer needs and in ways that bring in revenue to the product or service provider too. But my focus here is on the “cost-effectively meeting customer needs” part of that and on what can be seen as back-office issues for the consultant and for any consulting business that they build.

I will assume here that you start out, at least, as a stand-alone separate consultant and even if you go on from there to build a somewhat larger practice – or with time a much larger consulting business.

• Operating expenses and certainly fixed operating expenses are crucially important and as a business: single-person or larger organization, success can depend on controlling costs.
• And for a new and small business, and one with still limited incoming revenue streams controlling and limiting fixed operating expenses can be essentially everything as far as determining long term business viability is concerned.

And with that, and citing my two earlier series installments on finances (see Part 17 and Part 18) I turn to consider office space. And for purpose of this discussion I include in that both potential rent and utilities expenses, the cost of cleaning services if any and all other expenses that might have to be accepted if you take on having a separate, professional work space – as opposed to having a home office that is for all intent and purpose already covered for costs as part of your basic living expenses.

• When you start out and certainly if you do so as a stand-alone consultant, the only cost-effective way to start your practice may be to do so from a home office.
• If you move from that to renting or even owning business office space, that transition generally makes sense only as you begin bringing in revenue and profits
• And as you come to realize greater return value from taking on that type of fixed operating expense obligation than you do expense from doing so.
• Here, by point of comparison, this is a cash flow area where building a consulting business is much more like building an online store than it is like building a bricks and mortar operation, where that would essentially always mean finding and acquiring business space to work from, from day 1 – with all of the concomitant up-front costs involved.

But if you start with a home office, you are not for the most part going to be in a position to bring clients and potential clients in to your own office space when giving presentations or demonstrations, or when negotiating to land assignments. You have to be prepared to go entirely to them and to their office spaces or as a more temporary expense meet with them at third part spaces such as short term rental office facilities. Note in that regard that short-term and temporary office space with use of conference rooms and with staffing support has become an industry in its own right so that has become an increasingly available and viable option for when you do need to show a professional presence, and even at locations away from your home base. But for a new and still forming business practice that can still have significant cash flow implications too.

• In a pre-internet world, growth of business practice where you would take on a partner, or even hire in some manner a support-staff employee would always mean taking on separate, business-only office space obligations too.
• Business in an online context, and particularly in an interactive online context with capabilities for setting up virtual private networks (VPN) and with videoconferencing and other online communications resources changes that, and with both cost containment implications and with increased capability to bring in team members across and even regardless of geographic distance barriers. Telecommuting within the business becomes possible.

And this technology-based approach increases even the single consultant business’s capability for competing with even the largest consulting corporation. And with that point I add telecommuting to the client and teleconsulting for them to this discussion.

In a pre-internet context a single consultant can only be in one place at a time, and if that consultant is at a client’s home office, or at one of their more distant locations that is where they are. Working elsewhere would call for travel expenses, and travel delays which at times can constitute the most significant cost of all and to both client and consultant. So working across distributed systems generally meant teams and larger teams and assignments going to larger consulting businesses and not to individual and small business consulting firms. Telecommuting and teleconsulting mean being able to connect into and work with a client business at one of their locations from essentially anywhere, but more than just that it can mean single consultants effectively being able to work with the staff at two or even many distantly located offices at once. So online and particularly interactive online have in significant ways redefined what office space and distance mean – while empowering even small consulting businesses and single stand-alone consultants.

But even with that, professional office space can convey a message, and a potentially powerful one of stability and reliable professionalism and for many clients and for the people at those client businesses who would be gatekeepers to selecting the consultants they would bring in. So this is not entirely about cost containment. And even heavily online and technology-comfortable clients need to meet with people face to face at times too. So ultimately, and even if your consulting focus is on online technologies and interactive communications, you have to build and develop your practice with office space and where you work and work from in mind, and as a complex, nuanced set of issues. I add that I have only touched upon a few of them here as a starting point for further thought. In my next installment I am going to look more closely into the issues of teleconsulting per se. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development.

Consulting assignment life cycle 22: professionalism and professional image, and developing a brand 2

Posted in career development, consulting, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on July 4, 2012

This is my twenty second installment on consulting and the consulting assignment life cycle (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 225-245 for parts 1-21.) I began a discussion of branding and the development and marketing of a professional image in Part 21 of this series and I continue that here with this installment. And I want to carry over a very important point from Part 21 as a starting point for this posting.

When you work as a consultant, you compete for business against other consultants and that means competing against both large and well-established consulting firms and smaller and single-consultant businesses. The larger firms in this pool are not necessarily going to be a competitive problem when you start out and when you are primarily if not exclusively looking for smaller assignments, but even then you will face real competition, unless you are limiting yourself to a very narrow niche-market assignment profile – in which case you will probably have real difficulty finding enough assignments to get your consulting practice or new small consulting business established and going. You will have to compete. And that is where effective branding comes in and marketing that will help you set yourself apart. I argue the case that the two have to be considered together in this and I write here accordingly.

So I began in Part 21 by discussing some of the ways that larger consulting businesses get their message out through as to their capabilities, and the ways in which they brand themselves – and not just with taglines and logos but with demonstrated expertise. And that – demonstrated expertise, is the most important and compelling branding detail that you can develop and share throughout your market space and your intended best-fit marketplaces.

• Effective branding is not primarily about catchy taglines or logo graphics. It is about providing the information that your customers and prospective customers would need in order to select you as a product or service provider – and in a way that helps them identify your message with you as the information providing business. Effective branding starts with the message as to who your business is and what it offers and stands for, and the taglines and logos are simply there to help the people you seek to reach in the marketplace to find you for that message.

So I began this overall discussion by taking lessons from large and established consulting businesses, in finding effective and effectively scaled approaches to building a new consulting firm brand. And with that I turn to the side of that process that can be thought of as tapping into and utilizing the great equalizer – online marketing and particularly the interactive online and social media. As I noted at the end of Part 21, these resources:

• Create opportunity where even individual consultants can and do compete directly and effectively with even the largest corporations.

I begin that by asking a seemingly simple question. What is the difference between social use of social media and business use of those same tools and channels? When you use social media and the interactive online for business development and marketing and branding purposes, your goal should be focused on your clients and prospective clients and on their due diligence issues and concerns.

This means demonstrating a range of sometimes seemingly contradictory messages.

• You want to present yourself as solidly, reliably professional.
• But you also want to convey a message of your flexibility, creativity and originality, and of your ability to help your clients to reach and achieve new sources of competitive edge as they pursue their business goals. So “solidly, reliably professional” does not mean rigidly set in the patterns of your or anyone else’s past.
• You want to convey a message of your established expertise. But at the same time you want to come across as capable of meeting the challenges of the new and emerging problems that your clients face. And that might require breaking new ground and coming up with novel solutions that go beyond established current patterns.

And of course, whatever message you share, when using more central publishing tools such as web 1.0 sections of web sites, present your message and branding in ways that connect with and make sense to the target demographics you seek to reach. And when you turn to social media and interactive channels focus on the tools and channels that the members of those demographics who you seek to reach, are going to.

When you land a client and do work for them, the checks you receive for that work will come with the company name on them and from corporate accounts – but you will work with individual people at that client business, and individual people there will make the decision to hire you to do that work in the first place. So be aware of the business process and corporate culture constraints they work within and make purchasing and hiring decisions from within. But market and brand to those people as individual people too.

And that brings me to what may be the most important point that I could raise and discuss in this posting. And I raise it in terms of two specific and very different social media channels and their use in marketing and branding: Facebook and LinkedIn.

As of this writing, Facebook’s community includes close to one billion registered profiles, with individuals and businesses and organizations of all types and sorts claiming ownership of those member profiles and the walls and other resources associated with them. When you market and brand your consulting practice through a site such as Facebook, you can develop and share marketing content and branding of your choice. But it is of the nature of online social media that others can and will impact upon and even help co-create the basic branding you show there too, and with all of their interactions with you on your wall there. So if you seek to market and develop business for a consulting practice through Facebook, or any site with similar content sharing and co-creation you have to explicitly manage what types of shared information you will allow up on your wall, and from whom and you have to do this from your initial profile set-up and on an ongoing basis.

And for a site such as Facebook, you have to remember that this is used as a social channel more than as a business channel, and certainly by volume of traffic and bandwidth-usage considerations and even if many, many businesses and organizations do have and maintain a Facebook presence. So if you only post there and on sites like it, the business people you would need to reach with your marketing and branding might not even be able to find you online – many businesses block sites such as Facebook for their work computers, seeing access to them as productivity reducers.

This brings me to sites such as LinkedIn that are much more professionally oriented. Even if you like and use and prefer Facebook, as a consultant and a professional develop an online presence through LinkedIn too. And be acutely aware of the “social and personal” versus “social professional” dichotomies inherent here in both selecting and using the social media channels you chose to work with, and as a general policy and approach. That means thinking professional when using sites such as Twitter, and when considering and using any of the newer emerging social media channels and tools too.

I am going to turn to the issues of location next, and of having or not having a separate offices and of telecommuting and teleconsulting. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development.

Consulting assignment life cycle 21: professionalism and professional image, and developing a brand 1

Posted in career development, consulting, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on June 29, 2012

This is my twenty first installment on consulting and the consulting assignment life cycle (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 225-244 for parts 1-20.) So far I have discussed consulting as a career choice, and the consulting process as viewed from the perspective of carrying out the various steps and stages of a consulting assignment. I then began discussing consulting as a business, with postings on finances and on setting up and incorporating a consulting firm. I continue my overall discussion of consulting as a business here, turning to consider professionalism and professional image, and the issues of developing a consulting brand. And I begin that by citing two large and well-known consulting company examples, simply noting up-front that most of what I could write about them in this type of discussion would apply with equal value to smaller firms and to single consultant operations too, at least for basic principles.

The two example firms I would cite here are:

McKinsey & Company, and
Bain & Company.

Bain has recently, and as of this writing faced some very negative publicity as fallout from the 2012 US presidential election and the heavy involvement of one of the leading presidential candidates for that election with that company. But both companies have developed solid reputations:

• For their consultants and their technical hands-on skills,
• For their business savvy in applying those skills to address real-world business challenges for their clients, and
• For their track records of success in doing so.

Both companies have studiously, systematically developed their own brands and brand recognition. And considering the first of them for more detailed analysis, clients have come to expect McKinsey consulting teams to come in and systematically, effectively apply the McKinsey way – the tried and proven McKinsey consulting methodology to solve their problems.

And this consulting firm in fact preferentially hires bright, ambitious young college graduates and Master’s degree graduates (MBA’s and others) and trains them in their consulting methodologies. And they prefer hiring relatively clean slates for most new hires, at least as far as consulting per se is concerned so their consultants will consistently follow their approaches and methodologies. This is all as much a part of their branding as any logos or tag lines and this performance and track-record based branding is in fact more valuable to them than any tag line or communications message-based branding could ever be. Virtually all major consulting firms employ variations on this same approach in setting themselves apart.

But even when just considering a consulting firm’s marketing messages per se and the overt text and images that their marketing is conveyed in, core branding includes demonstrated expertise and excellence in consulting per see, and in that I cite a book I have referenced before in this blog, written by two McKinsey consultants:

• Bryan, Lowell B. and Joyce, Claudia I. (2007) Mobilizing Minds: creating wealth from talent in the 21st century organization. McGraw-Hill.

I could as easily have cited professional journal citations or symposium citations. Effective consulting businesses and effective consultants get their names out and they actively convey and share a message of their expertise and their success on behalf of their clients.

• And starting an effective consulting practice, or a successful consulting firm means starting this process of developing name recognition reach and positive branding.

New consultants are unlikely to begin with a nationally published book, or by giving keynote addresses at professional meetings or symposia. But even there, participating as exhibitors, and presenting workshops highlighting consulting practice-defining expertise in niches worked in can be a crucial approach for developing that name recognition and for getting a brand developed and out in public view.

This, however, is just a part of the puzzle of developing a name recognized brand, and it is not necessarily the first part to developing and assembling that puzzle either. The internet in general and the interactive internet and social media are the great equalizers. They create opportunity where even individual consultants can and do compete directly and effectively with even the largest corporations. I am going to turn to the issues of online and social media marketing, and of niche marketing as a starting point to effective brand building in my next series installment. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development.

Consulting assignment life cycle 20: incorporation, partnerships and related legal mechanisms 2

Posted in career development, consulting, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on June 24, 2012

This is my twentieth installment on consulting and the consulting assignment life cycle (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 225-243 for parts 1-19.) I began a discussion of incorporation and related legal mechanisms in Part 19 of this series and as a part of that, I listed and at least briefly discussed a series of reasons why a consulting practice might incorporate. My goal for this installment is to delve in greater detail into one aspect of that: liability protection and the way in which incorporation can reduce personal liability risk on the part of owners and officers as they conduct business and provide professional services. And I start with a simple, basic question.

• What can go wrong for a consultancy and a consulting assignment, where the separation of personal and business liability of incorporation would offer positive value?

The basic answer to that in brief is that incorporation, and I add limited liability partnerships and other legally defined structures, provide protection from risk resulting directly or consequentially from business practices and/or activities that take place when working in fulfillment of work assignments.

As a quick and I add partial list of possibilities for that, I include here:

• Challenges from clients of loss of control or misuse of confidential business intelligence or proprietary business processes, etc. Here, claims might be made against a consultant and their firm, arguing that the consultant was in some way responsible for breach of confidentiality or loss of proprietary information-based value to the hiring, client company.
• Challenges that can stem from serially working with competing organizations when working widely within a single competitive industry. This also means at least perceived loss of value to the client and their attempt to gain recompense from the consultant for that.
• Challenges stemming from possible client dissatisfaction, where for example they feel that a consulting product provided cannot readily scale up as expected and as they claim was promised. Once again, this means loss of value – in this case expected new value coming from the work performed by the consultant.
• Challenges based upon claims of unexpected emergent problems, such as information security breaches that might have occurred as a result of software systems provided by a consultant. This is a perhaps more open-ended basis for claimed loss of value to the client, and for this point I add that security liability and responsibility should be discussed in detail in the consulting agreement, and certainly when a consultant is hired to significantly add to or modify structures or systems in a client’s information architecture or its implementation (see Part 3: consulting clients and consulting assignments for more information on consulting agreements as contracts per se, and on what should go into them.)
• And as noted above consider this list as just a few of many sources of potential disagreement that could potentially be brought to court.

This all can be reduced down to three basic questions:

• What risk management issues can arise that are particular to consulting and consulting practices and policies?
• What more generic business risk issues should be considered that consultants and consulting groups should be aware of and prepared for as possibilities?
• And how can this risk be formally and structurally limited without impinging on the consultant’s business effectiveness or competitiveness?

Know what options are available as to type of corporation that you might at least potentially enter into, and which of them would apply to business practices of the type that you would professionally pursue. In the United States for example, certain types of partnership options are only available as corporate structures to accounting and law firms. And as outlined in business incorporation: an international perspective and in types of business entity, as outlined by country there are a seemingly endless number of options and certainly if you consider the range of business types that can be set up globally.

As noted in Part 19 of this series, seek out professional legal counsel to help you decide what type of corporate structure would best meet your liability reduction and other needs, and as cost-effectively as possible. Note that this can increasingly include what country you incorporate in as well as where you would do so within a country (e.g. should you incorporate in Delaware or the home state of one or more owners/corporate officers if you do this in the United States, and why.)

To balance this discussion out it is also important to note some of the issues and potential risks that would not in most cases be covered by the personal risk liabilities contained in business incorporation. It has to be assumed that nonprofessional, interpersonal activities and behaviors that take place or that as alleged to have taken place would not be afforded personal liability protection through consulting business incorporation. This would, among other things include behavior that could be construed as illegally discriminatory against a protected group, and in the United States as an example, that would include apparent discrimination on the basis of race or religion, gender, age and other identifying factors. What is protected, and what types of behavior face risk of legal action can vary a lot depending on where you work. So for example in Thailand it is illegal, and even potentially punishable by death to speak out disparagingly against the monarchy. And any discussion of this sort has to include consideration of behaviors that can be considered sexual harassment, and I note in this context that what in one culture might be considered harmless flirting can be viewed and accurately as harassment in another. Know and understand the cultures you work in and those of the people you work with and be respectful of boundaries, erring if necessary on the side of caution and circumspection.

I am going to turn in my next series installment to the issues of professionalism and professional image, and to the issues of developing a consulting brand. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development.

Consulting assignment life cycle 19: incorporation, partnerships and related legal mechanisms 1

Posted in career development, consulting, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on June 20, 2012

This is my nineteenth installment on consulting and the consulting assignment life cycle (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 225-242 for parts 1-18.) I have in more recent installments, been discussing consulting as a business (see Part 17 and Part 18.) And I continue that here with at least a starter discussion of business incorporation, and personal liability limitation and other factors that arise when this is considered.

The most important general points I could raise here as to incorporation and corporations in general are that:

• Incorporation is not simply a legal formality that costs filing and related fees.
• Incorporation as a process also serves to provide personal liability protection and indemnification from a business’ officers and owners when functioning as such and while working on behalf of the incorporated organization. Protection of personal assets is in fact one of the principle reasons for which businesses and particularly small ones are incorporated and this can be of real significance for consulting businesses, and for reasons that I will delve into in more detail later in this series after outlining some of the basic factors and issues going into incorporation per se.
• Incorporation facilitates greater ease of transfer of ownership when and as that might be desired.
• In the United States and a number of other countries corporations can be set up so as to facilitate setting up retirement funds and other owner and/or employee benefits systems.
• Corporations are also often taxed at lower rates than are individuals. Depending on where a business is incorporated, this can affect tax liabilities and maximum tax rates applicable and in a wide range of ways. A good tax accountant can offer more specific advice for these issues.
• Corporations can raise funds through the sale of stock, and depending on the classes and types of stock issued, investors might or might not hold voting rights on business decisions made. This set of issues, I add, has become more complicated and with more fundraising options with the advent of crowd funding. Here, incorporation can be taken as a positive indicator as to the merits of a potential crowd funding investment with a business, as it demonstrates through proactive decision and follow through on the part of its founders and owners that they are trying to build for longer term stability and success.
• Corporations can be set up to be durable in the face of changing owners, shareholders and other individual stakeholders.
• Corporations can set up separate lines of credit, independent from and separately rated from that of any individual owner.
• I add as a separate point here that incorporation is an area of business development where professional legal advice can be both important and cost-effective.

Picking up on that last bullet point:

• It can make a big difference where you incorporate as your jurisdiction of incorporation can significantly affect your up-front costs for this, your tax liabilities and other fees due, and other rights and options as touched upon in the above list.
• It can be important how you incorporate and the type of incorporation business that you set up too, and there are a great many types of corporation and other limited liability company structures to choose from in determining which would be best for your purposes and circumstances.
• Where you incorporate can determine your primary business address and this can have significant ongoing consequences.
• A good attorney can also provide valuable insight and advice when determining who is to take what officer positions: chief executive officer, chief financial officer and so on that incorporation can specify as required. And an experienced attorney can also provide insight as to what corporate officer participation means as far as their legal responsibilities are to the business.

I stated that I would come back to the issues of liability protection as provided through incorporation, and with a specific focus on how this applies to consulting businesses, and I will turn to that in my next series installment. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development.

Consulting assignment life cycle 18: consulting as a business, and business financials 2

Posted in consulting, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on June 15, 2012

This is my eighteenth installment on consulting and the consulting assignment life cycle (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 225-241 for parts 1-17.) I began a discussion of consulting practices as operating small businesses, and of taking a business model and a business approach to the practice of consulting in general, in Part 17 of this series. I focused on money issues there, and on working with and within client budgets. I also focused there for the most part on in-house consultants and on consultant employees of larger consulting service providers. They have to deal with and reconcile their employer’s budgets, and those of their client businesses that they work for as consultants so their situation highlights greater opportunity for having to understand and manage business expense related budget factors. To finish up on that, as a shared point of general importance with the issues I will turn to here, I note that a lot of the financial records keeping and management that these consultants have to take care of involve identifying and keeping track of expenses as they fall within one or more of three specific buckets:

• What the client business will pay for and to what expense levels,
• What the employer business will pay for and to what levels, and
• What the consultant has to pay for out of their own pocket.

A quick and perhaps too facile generalization might say that those first two bullet points simply collapse down to one for in-house consultants – employees who work full time for and within a single business but who are farmed out for their expertise and experience across the table of organization to take care of tasks that would not be cost-effective to manage from within those client lines on the table of organization, and more specifically by their client groups and teams directly worked with. But operationally and functionally, client and in-house consulting service budgets can be so distinct and separate that as far as cash flow is concerned, they might as well be entirely separate businesses.

And turning to the third bullet point of the above list, “what the consultant has to pay for out of their own pocket” can mean expenses that were not thought through and an effective, business-savvy consultant can sometimes both reduce their own out of pocket expenses and reduce the friction of resolving who pays for what, by working to get those details resolved in advance. I am particularly thinking of travel-related expenses here though expense planning is always important and for all parties concerned.

I said that I would turn in this posting to consider the stand-alone consultant, and I add the small consulting-firm consultant – and their individual expenses and finances. And I begin that by drawing a distinction with their more big-business employee counterparts as already discussed.

• In-house consultants and consultants who work full time as employees for larger consulting firms are for purpose of discussion of individual finances, simply in-house employees.
• They receive fixed base salaries or fixed hourly rate compensation plus bonuses in accordance with prevailing in-house regular employee standards for that business, industry and local.
• They also generally receive comparable benefits packages too, and for health insurance coverage, vacation days paid for and other issues. And bonuses are frequently set in comparable manners too, based on a combination of factors including individual performance and the reaching of stretch performance goals, and overall business success.

So I focus here on small consulting businesses and on stand-alone single employee/owner consulting practices – and on how compensation is handled for them and by whom.

• Here, a small consulting business is any consulting business that operates on a scale and with cash reserve limitations where member consultants receive compensation that is directly linked to current clients and the overall assignment compensation agreements reached with them.
• Small consulting business and stand-alone consultants negotiate single comprehensive compensation packages with their clients as part of the overall negotiations process in specifying and obtaining assignments.
• This has to be divided up to cover all expenditures, including but not limited to consultant compensation, fixed operating and other business management and development expenses, and tax payments. And as a significant cash flow consideration, tax payments can include quarterly or other pre-payments towards overall annual income taxes that will be due for the tax year.

Basically, consultants need to at least match in their consulting fees the total value that their skills and experience level in-house employee counterparts would receive as a total compensation package, for their consulting to be worthwhile, at least from a strictly financial perspective. This means they have to bring in from their consulting fee sufficient monies to at the very minimum cover to equal levels what they would receive as an in-house employee for the sum of:

• Their direct compensation – their salary.
• Their indirect compensation, including healthcare insurance and for themselves plus any discounts they would get for family coverage, paid sick days, vacation days and holidays, employer paid training, certification and/or licensure where that would apply, professional association memberships as they would apply and be required, and more.
• Look to the list of expenses and for both types and levels that would qualify as standard for your core industry and in your geographic area, and for your expected employed position level in determining baselines for both direct and indirect compensation levels to benchmark your situation from.

Now add in the financial impact of your receiving compensation as a consultant some X number of days receivable. In-house employees generally receive their pay weekly or at most every other week and salary is distributed on a regular, consistent schedule unless the employing business is in real financial trouble. Consultants may prefer to be paid 30 days receivable but some clients go 60 days receivable and I have worked with a few that actually let that slip to 90 days receivable. Whatever you reach agreement on, take that into account in determining your expenses and certainly where this holds potential for creating cash-flow problems for you. And add into your consulting agreements as a standard clause, allowance for an agreed-to percentage of fee increase if the agreed to days receivable is passed without compensation being paid. There are ways to negotiate terms like that, and any business that flatly refuses to allow for late payments is telling you that they will not meet the agreed to timeline for their paying for your services. So simply build that into the basic fees due for those clients if you agree to work with them at all.

I am going to turn to the issues of incorporation in my next series installment. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development.

Consulting assignment life cycle 17: consulting as a business, and business financials 1

Posted in consulting, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on June 10, 2012

This is my seventeenth installment on consulting and the consulting assignment life cycle (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 225-240 for parts 1-16.) I began this series with a general discussion of consulting as a career move then proceeded from there to discuss a set of issues related to the consulting assignment, and from landing one through its completion. And I ended that with at least a brief discussion in Part 16 , on preparing for a next step and moving on to a next assignment. In that regard I note here that working on a single consulting assignment means working on a job. Developing a continuity of business with a flow of assignments, and development of an ongoing consulting practice means developing consulting as a career, or at least as a career-level step.

Consulting, and certainly consulting through a succession of assignments can also be considered as running a business. This clearly applies for consultants who have stand-alone private practices. But I would argue that professionals who work as consultants for others should think of their own work as managing their own business too – and whether they work in-house for a single employee, or for a larger consulting business and as a member of a consulting team.

• Every working professional and in fact everyone who works for a living should take explicit ownership of their own careers, and responsibility for managing them – and even if they find themselves in what should be a safe, stable and reliable long-term situation with an employer that would simply keep them on until they reach retirement. Change and the unexpected can happen, and that can come from an employer or from outside circumstances. So everyone working should be prepared for the need to face change as it can and does arise. That, I add, has been one of the core lessons running through the more than 270 postings that I have added to my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development and its Part 2 Continuation leading up to here.
• And for the same reason, everyone who works should think of themselves as working for themselves, and even when they find great satisfaction and support from working for a larger business and with an established, long term team.

So I turn to the issues of managing a consulting career as running a small business with this posting. And I begin that by considering money issues as bottom line, financials and profitability are the essential long-term criteria for business success – and of consulting success.

This posting is in fact the first of what might be considered a sub-series within my Consulting Assignment Life Cycle series. And in keeping with my approach to starting a new series per se, I am going to begin here by laying out a basic organizational framework for what is to come and by outlining the general structure of issues that I will address. And I begin that here by noting that financial issues for consultants can be conceptually viewed from at least two distinct perspectives and that I will address both of them:

• Whose financials are being considered – your own as a consultant or your client’s as you work with them and within their budgets?
• What is the nature of the consulting practice that you offer your serves through? That impacts on what financial issues you have to focus on and with what priorities.

I begin here with the first of these two bullet points and with consideration of the client’s financials and their understanding of them. And I begin by noting a point that should at least sound obvious and even trite when stated as a simple abstraction:

• Good, effective consultants offer solutions and resolutions to client problems – but more than just that they offer cost-effective results from their work done.
• A technically more perfect solution is not going to be appreciated or valued if it comes at an unacceptably high price, and either up-front, or long-term for its maintenance.
• So working effectively as a consultant means working within the framework of your client’s operational systems and processes,
• And within the framework of their operating budgets plus any generally short-term special projects expenditures that they authorize for your direct efforts per se.

When you understand your client’s financial perspectives and priorities, you know how to better present yourself as a preferred consultant choice for work in your areas of expertise and interest. This information can serve as a road map for securing follow-up work with a client that you have successfully worked for at least once. And if you can find this type of information out as part of your basic due diligence, you can more effectively present yourself as meeting their needs for a first assignment with them too.

• Remember that businesses hire consultants because doing so would be more cost-effective than trying to carry out the work of an assignment from in-house. So this is always important to the client and prospective client. Make their financials important to you as a consultant too.

There with a second fundamental point that I would raise here that as a simple abstraction should also seem obvious – but that can easily be lost track of in the day to day details.

• If your work has to be competitively cost-effective to your clients, and both in comparison to in-house and other non-consulting options and in comparison to other competing consultants and their offerings, your work has to be cost-effective for you too.

And with this I turn to the second perspectives bullet point and the type of consulting practice you work within, repeating the three basic options as outlined in Part 1 of this series:

1. Stand-alone, independent consultants who function as independent small businesses.
2. Team member consultants – employees of consulting firms that can in and of themselves be anything from relatively small businesses to large corporations with a complex and even multinational presence.
3. In-house consultants who function as consultants within a single, generally large business but who are formally placed as employees of those businesses. These are in-house employees who are moved for their expertise to work with in-house clients across the lines on the table of organization and outside of their usual flows of management and supervisory control and oversight.

I am going to begin this focusing on team member consultants who work for larger consulting businesses, and in-house consultants and will then switch to discuss the sometimes larger and more comprehensive set of financials issues that stand-alone and small business consultants have to deal with.

In-house employees and managers frequently have explicit spending authority and budgets. They may or may not have to account for every penny of this and they may need prior approval for certain types of expenditures or for individual expenditures over some agreed to threshold limit. But many employees and more managers have operating budgets that they at the very least have a significant voice in, in determining when and how this money is spent. Team member consultants and in-house consultants can also be given what amounts to budgets that they have spending decision-making control over, and certainly where that spending would explicitly fit into their completing identified aspects of an assignment – and both from their direct clients’ funds and budgets and from their direct employer’s budgets. And both in-house employees and managers, and consultants have to seek out approval and certainly for expenditures outside of any discretionary budget limits that might be placed under their control.

• It is vitally important that consultants know who they need approval from for what expenditures, and where monies are coming from and supposed to be coming from for what, and certainly for any expenditures they have to sign off upon.

This is important. If you work for a third party service provider consulting firm as a member of a team or as a team leader, or if you work as an in-house consultant, on the books as working for one supervising manager but in practice working for in-house clients you need to know what lines on the overall budget that you expend from in doing your work, are paid for from where. And you need to get explicit sign-offs and agreements from the right people for the right expenditures and certainly where you might be exceeding their discretionary spending limits – which means you have to know what those are.

• You work as a marketing consultant or an information technology consultant, a sales consultant or offer some other form or area of expertise. But whatever you do as to the specifics of your assignments, you always need to ground your work in the relevant financials, and on who pays for what and with what budgets.

I am going to turn in my next series installment to consider the stand-alone consultant, and the consultant’s own expenses and cash flow issues as a small business. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development.

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