So You Want to Be a Consultant? Five Steps to Start Your New Career

I am often asked by people who are contemplating retirement how they can become successful educational consultants. Here are five steps to help jump-start your new consulting career. 

1. It’s all about the client. It doesn’t make any difference how smart you are, what your background is, or how much of an expert you are. It’s not about you; it’s about the client. Most consultants talk. Great consultants listen. Know the plans, visions, mission, and goals of the client. Don’t settle for reading documents. Instead, listen to the leadership team talk about their dreams, hopes, and fears. I often start hour-long conversations with clients by simply making one request: "Please tell me about your greatest successes and greatest challenges." And then I stop talking, stop “consulting,” and just listen. Resist the temptation to offer solutions -- that’s what clients hear every day from people eager to sell their latest wares. Just listen, take time, get to know them, and then find the unmet need.

2. Define your specialty. Too many consultants claim that they can do “anything,” conveying a sense of desperation that fails to value their own expertise and alienating potential clients who have specific needs. So decide what you love and what you are good at. Perhaps it’s assessment, curriculum, leadership coaching, data analysis, board relationships, or health and well-being -- but it is very unlikely that you are a true expert at all those things. Pick an area and stick to it. Be honest about the areas that are not your strength. If the client says, “What I really need is help on discipline” and your strength is assessment and data analysis, have the integrity to say, “I’m happy to help you find someone who is really great at discipline, but that’s not me.” If you are great at classroom management but not great at data analysis, tell your client that. Know your strengths and play to them.  

3. Present your best ideas at local, regional, and national conferences. This forces you to get your ideas into a brief proposal format and gets you in front of broader audiences. The national conferences, such as AASA, Learning Forward, ASCD, NASSP, NAESP, and so on, all plan a year in advance. So if you're interested in presenting next year, you need to be preparing your proposals right now. Many of these meetings have very low acceptance rates, so prepare to be rejected. You might need to submit 10 or more proposals to have one accepted. You don’t have to be a keynoter. Some of my best presentations were not when I was on center stage, but when teachers and administrators were the stars of the show. Subordinate your ego and let your clients speak.

4. Write. You don’t have to write a book, but you do have to get your ideas out there. Start with a blog once a month. If that seems too much, try a tweet once a week. Writers write. I’ve seen too many consultants take five years to say “I’m working on my book” while opportunities for real work pass them by. A few sentences, as Twitter and blog formats allow, can be more influential than a book. Be sure to honor the shoulders on which you stand -- retweet the work of others and include references to great authors in your blogs.

5. Better free than cheap. When you are starting as a consultant, it’s tempting to think that you can compete on price. Don’t do that. Set your price -- whatever you think is fair -- and stick to it. If you think that $1,000 a day plus expenses is fair, then ask for that without apology. If that’s too much for some clients, then say, “I have a policy of giving away 10 percent of my days each year to clients who are not able to pay. I work about 100 days each year, so 10 of those are free. If your district is truly unable to pay my rate, then I’ll work with you for free.” But whatever you do, don’t discount your rate. Be fair and honest, be charitable where appropriate, giving away a tithe of your time, but don’t discount the value of your work.

I think that the best consultants always share their ideas and mentor others. They are not covetous of their time or intellectual property. If you are considering a consulting career, please count on me for support. I don’t have all the answers, but perhaps I can offer some useful ideas for the next stage of your career. 

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