The Consultant Mindset: PART 1

There can’t be many full-time employees who aren’t tempted at some point by the prospect of choosing their own hours and going solo.  Such a thought might be an immediate reaction to a particular job, a maddening line manager or a sudden surfeit of office politics.  But it could equally result from a considered response to changing family commitments or a desire – especially towards the end of a career – to adjust the nature of the work you do.

There are numerous advantages to making just such a move, and many who do so would never go back to ‘9-to-5’.  But the attractiveness of greater freedom and flexibility can blind people to the emotional shift required.  This has certainly been the experience of some Legal firms setting up ’On Demand’ divisions of self-employed lawyers.  Against their expectation, it hasn’t necessarily been the most technically competent or experienced lawyers who have thrived, but those most able to adjust to independence and what might be termed a ‘consultant mind-set’.

If you’re thinking about such a move I would suggest you focus on four key areas.  In this article I take the first two of these, ones which any new freelancer is likely to experience as a sense of loss – Belonging and Control.  I also offer a couple of tips to help you mitigate their impact.

Control.   It is only when you leave a company and start out on your own that you realise the extent to which the simple act of going to work each day, accepting organisational targets and the shape of a particular business cycle, structures your life.  It provides a framework for everything from your daily timetable to the shape of your career.  At the same time you sit within a hierarchy in which you have a place and status that allows you to call upon the support of others, whether peers or reports.  One of the sharpest shocks for those leaving organisations is the sudden absence of IT support or, at a more senior level, of a PA to manage their diary.

By contrast, those outside of organisations can find they have freedom, but at the price of uncertainty.  There is the difficulty of committing to anything, from a mortgage to a regular evening class.  And, whilst the dream is that you will escape the stress of expectations or politics, you can fall into the classic freelance ‘fix’ of being anxious about either having no work or too much work, and either way never feeling confident enough to book and enjoy a holiday.  That’s hardly a prescription for a better work/life balance.


  1. Calculate your outgoings and decide on three bands: what you need to earn, what you would like to earn, and what it would be great to earn. Then keep a regular ‘run-rate’ of how you’re doing.  If you’re on target, let that encourage you to relax.
  2. Learn to say ‘no’ nicely. If the point of going independent is to do more of the work you enjoy, make sure it’s the work you enjoy you’re doing.  That means finding ways of not jumping at the first offer but giving yourself time to reflect and (potentially) reject.  If you can do so in a way that maintains the relationship with the client it may well add to your ‘scarcity value’ in their eyes.

Belonging.    This need varies at different stages of our lives, and from individual to individual, but we all have a requirement to belong.  Arguably, human beings are wired for it.  In our tribal past, exclusion meant death as it was impossible to survive without the support and protection of the tribe.  At a more mundane level, the vast majority of us like to feel part of a social group, to be recognised and appreciated, and to share successes and challenges.  Many friendships begin and are then sustained by working together on a collective enterprise.

To move outside of an organisation is to let go of all of that.  There are certainly opportunities that come with greater detachment from organisations, particularly the ability to develop one’s own, independent perspective; but there’s no denying the difficulty many experience in no longer having colleagues with whom to share, to support and be supported by.


  1. Actively invest in family, friends, social and professional networks. Belonging is a need we all have, but it’s one which is likely to be less supported as a freelance where work attachments are typically more provisional and shorter-term.  So the challenge is to develop a sense of oneself outside of work and to take pride in this.  Particularly powerful can be the support of networks of other independent workers who share your new identity.  This is no longer a ‘nice to do’ , it becomes a ‘need to do’.
  2. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s important not to waste the benefits of being able to view organisations from the outside, and developing an independence of mind.  This means not only reading and enquiring more broadly, wherever your interests take you, but also being comfortable to hold the uncertainty and ambiguity of going off-piste.  As you learn to tolerate this, the discomfort becomes liberating.

Next time, we will look at the other two shifts in mindset required in going solo, and the way in which these could also support the option of a return to full-time work – at a more senior leadership level.

David Presswell, Partner, Aretai LLP

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