Accelerate: Creating Your Own Path Forward

Consulting after a career spent in the office

By Kimberly Olson

You’ve embarked on a well-trodden path to success—earned your degree, landed a challenging job, excelled on key projects. But despite your hard work, you feel dissatisfied. Perhaps you’re getting passed over for promotions. Or your ideas are too forward-thinking for your company.

There’s more than one way to build a stellar career. And for women seeking change, becoming an independent consultant offers an alternate path. Consultants tackle complex challenges at various businesses, garnering invaluable experience along the way. In fact, a LinkedIn study found that many CEOs were previously consultants.

Advising various organizations also broadens your impact, as Yolánda L. Chase discovered when she left her corporate career in diversity and inclusion to launch a consultancy. “My desire to develop the Diversity Way-Maker came from 33 years of being frustrated with corporate organizations turning a blind eye to what is really required to achieve sustainable equity and inclusion in their workplaces,” she says. Chase is now creating systemic change by building a movement of Way-Makers, leaders who provide creative solutions and fearlessly challenge the status quo in their organization and community.

Walking away from a regular paycheck requires a leap of faith, but once you’re established, you call the shots. You can focus on work that interests you, control your schedule, and set your own rates.

Identify your “secret sauce”

In a sea of consultants, newbies may try to model their business after more established consultancies. But Kymberlee Medina, known to her clients as Coach Kym, says that’s a mistake. Companies hire consultants to get a fresh take, after all, so standing out gives you a competitive edge.

It worked for Medina, who journeyed from professional dancer and choreographer to corporate consultant for top companies like Nike. The award-winning business owner now coaches others to build their own sky’s-the-limit consultancy.

“Your secret sauce is the unique perspective and experience that allow you to speak on a specific area of expertise like nobody else can,” Medina explains. “It’s such a valuable part of your armory to have this level of identity. I help people to find that point of difference, celebrate it, talk about it, and recognize it as the added value on top of everything they know.”

Nurture your network

As you launch, relationships are key. “One thing that I champion for my clients, because it worked really well when I was doing it for myself, is building relationships in the real world,” says Medina. “And of course, digital and social can help amplify and elevate that once we get the foundations right.”

That’s what Monica Harris did when she quit her job as a senior vice president of business and legal affairs at the VH1 network to launch her legal consulting business. “You have to write down every single person you think could be a viable connection,” she says. “You have to do a lot of legwork and follow-up.”

Yolánda Chase says it’s also important to connect with fellow business owners. “I’ve been extremely blessed to have a network and mentors who’ve started successful businesses and consulting firms,” she says. “They’ve been there, done that; know the ropes; and can often offer advice or resources if you’re headed in the wrong direction.”

Be persistent

While aspiring consultants can find coaches and online educators who promise to make them an overnight success, Medina says “overnight success” usually results from a few years of hard work.

“It’s important that you know there’s going to be a moment where it all feels like it’s crumbling,” she says. “Seth Godin talks about ‘the dip,’ the time between officially starting your consulting business—woo-hoo!—and building sufficient recurring revenue so you don’t have to worry financially anymore. And the dip is usually filled with tumbleweed and despair and regret.”

Medina advises her clients to expect this period as part of the process. “Those who go on to do well as consultants have simply gotten out of the other side of it alive.”

In the meantime, to reduce financial worry, experts suggest having at least a six-month financial cushion before striking out on your own.

Stay in the driver’s seat

As a consultant, you’re hired to be a problem solver and to think creatively. “[One challenge] is remembering that you are the expert, not the freelance technician, which we very easily default to if we’ve come from corporate spaces,” Medina says. “You are there to lead your clients in the very thing you’re an expert in, because they aren’t an expert in it.”

You will be most effective when clients value and lean on your expertise. “You are watching your clients achieve incredible results because of what you know and the skills that you bring with you,” Medina says. “The sense of freedom that comes with waking up every morning and knowing that you are doing work that aligns with who you are and what you love—that’s incredible.”

Craft your own journey

That sense of freedom can translate to a life lived on your own terms, as Monica Harris found when she left her prestigious job at VH1. “I was one of quite a few women, and women of color, who were running departments [at VH1],” she says. “I was also one of many openly gay executives at the company. So my move wasn’t prompted by a sense of feeling alienated or disempowered.”

As the entertainment industry became more competitive, though, Harris’s workload ballooned. “I was spending so much more of my time in the office,” she says. “And then I was spending an hour more in traffic on my commute to and from work. At the time, my partner and I had just adopted our son, and I wasn’t spending nearly as much time with them as I should have during that formative period.”

During Harris’s maternity leave, she and her partner visited Montana for a family reunion—with zero WiFi reception—where she was able to clear her mind, connect with nature, and reflect. “When James Truslow Adams wrote the book The Epic of America [in which he coined the phrase the American Dream], he wasn’t just talking about material success,” she says. “The American Dream was a quality-of-life dream.”

So, wanting to simplify their lives, she and her partner moved from Southern California to Montana, and Harris became a legal consultant. Now she works only with clients who are a good fit. “It is really empowering when you can say, ‘This isn’t a client I’m aligned with,’” she says.

And importantly, Harris says, she’s able to make decisions that enhance not just her career but also her personal life. “I never take on a large client without discussing it with my partner,” she says. “I’ve decided it’s better to reduce expenditures in one area if it means I will be able to retain the independence to be a better partner, be a better parent.”

As she advises clients from her home office, she enjoys views of the trees and ranges of the Continental Divide, and when she steps outside, a neighbor might offer her some chickens or advice on maintaining a greenhouse.

For Harris and others, the upfront hustle has paid off with rewarding work and the power to fully control their own lives. As Chase says, “When we do overcome the risks, the rewards are endless.” DW

Kimberly Olson is Diversity Woman’s managing editor.

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