We all remember starting a new job. There’s an orientation program, a period of time to get to know your new role and new colleagues; an expectation that you’ll take the time to learn everything you can about the core business. Essentially you get a bit of leeway to warm up to the new position. But all that changes when you become a consultant. With a new project to start every few months, you’re expected to hit the ground running. Clients have hired an expert and they expect a certain level of knowledge from day one. Like it or not, no one is going to ‘hand hold’ you through the process. Once you step into consulting, being out of your comfort zone is your new normal. Even if this brings some anxiety, you need to embrace it and learn to go with it.
You’ll often be working in unfamiliar content areas
As a consultant you’ll constantly work on projects where you are unfamiliar with the content area. Yes, you’re providing services within the sector/s you know; you understand the policy and operating environment and bring a wealth of experience drawn from working in that sector. But even so, you will have little or no experience in the specific content area of many projects you take on. Every government sector is large and complex and has multiple sub-specialty areas. I consult to the health sector and while I have a broad understanding about public health services, there are hundreds of different speciality areas and thousands of individual health organisations just here in New South Wales where I’m based. It simply isn’t possible for me to be across the content area of every project I undertake. Right now I’m working on projects in the areas of high-risk maternity services, health support in schools for students with a disability, and smoking cessation services. None of these specific health issues was familiar to me prior to commencing these projects. So am I outside my comfort zone? Absolutely.
You need to present yourself as an expert [even if you don’t feel like one]
I may not know very much about the provision of smoking cessation services, so am I still capable of providing expert advice in this area? Definitely. Because as a consultant what we bring is expertise in solving system problems, in addressing complex issues in organisations, in the application of policy, in issues management, in strategic and operational planning. We bring the kind of expertise that can be applied to multiple content areas, even those we are unfamiliar with. So even if you have that initial panic about your lack of specific content knowledge [and trust me, I get that regularly] you need to trust that you have a toolbox sufficiently full of skills, knowledge and experience to bring to each project. You might be outside your comfort zone, but you have to trust that you’ve got this, and present your confident persona to the client. Every project involves a learning curve, but don’t forget that you have a depth of understanding of this sector and you are capable of applying what you already have under your belt to this particular problem.
Make a little knowledge go a long way
As a consultant you need to be able to launch into a project with only some basic knowledge under your belt. You’re in a time for money business now, so you can’t charge an unreasonable number of days to get familiar with things. If you’re someone who needs to feel like you are totally on top of absolutely everything before you get started, then you are definitely going to be outside your comfort zone. You need to be prepared to launch in, even if you don’t feel fully equipped with all the facts and figures. It will help to remember that you are smart and resourceful and that you are perfectly capable of making a little knowledge go a long way.
Delivering within very short timeframes
When you move from employment to consulting you are in a project based business environment and you now have a contract outlining what you’ll deliver and when. And you won’t be paid until you do deliver in line with this. A key reason clients use consultants is to get an important piece of work done quickly. There’s no doubt that this new kind of pressure can take us outside our comfort zone, especially when we first start out. But you need to embrace this and get focused on delivering what you promised. Now that you’re a consultant, a deadline is most definitely a deadline.
3 Tips to help you work outside your comfort zone
- Focus on getting a quick handle on the main policy and contextual issues before you start. Why – because you really don’t need to know absolutely everything to do the job well and getting bogged down in detail is actually not going to help.
- Find a trusted colleague or mentor to support you. Why – because being a solo consultant can be isolating and when you’re outside your comfort zone a sounding board can make all the difference.
- Learn to manage your negative self-talk. Why – because we all have that nagging voice that has us doubting our abilities, and it gets louder when we have to operate outside our comfort zone. It’s not helpful – in fact, it’s just going to hold you back.
Being outside your comfort zone is just part and parcel of being a solo consultant. You might even learn to like it.
Jacq Hackett provides expert consulting services to public health agencies. And as a veteran of over two decades of consulting, she now provides coaching and development for other consultants. She is passionate about supporting the next generation of public sector consultants to become very good at what they do.
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