This characteristic of successful consultants may be the most difficult to learn and maintain, because it is an attitude and a way of life, rather than a skill or a tactic. Maintaining a calm and positive attitude in the face of “free-fall” — the rise and fall of your revenue over time, and the frequent inability to predict where your next nickel will come from — this is essential to success over the long term, and for the creation of wealth from your practice.
Trust me, the free-fall never goes away. You can work as a great success for years, with more work than you can handle, and your 15 minutes of fame can carry you along. But many forces are beyond your control completely, and they can hurt your practice. The economy can tank and your clients cannot keep you; technology can overtake and replace your expertise; your services can become part of a general price-reduction in your market sector, reducing your margins to nothing. Beyond these large-scale disasters, you can fall ill or become injured (remember insurance for disability and long-term care), or a force of nature like an earthquake or storm can destroy what you have built.
You can learn to remain calm, and practice a zen-like approach to business over time. It helps to have a positive nature to begin with, and confidence in your value and abilities, as well as a good dose of optimism.
Some steps to learning to live in this calm state:
- When the good times are upon you, always keep your pipeline filled with prospects, and keep moving them toward becoming paying clients. Letting your pipeline dry up because you are working is a sure way to lose your profits for the year, or your practice altogether (more on this in #10 and #11).
- As soon as possible, and ongoing, keep your back-up capital funds filled up. This will help to hold you through the down times.
- Do not assume your current success will apply to your markets in the future, no matter how much you are now in demand. Keep up with changes in your market sector, particularly technology and economic trends that may affect your client base and their needs.
- Adapt your services to what the market needs most, not what you have historically offered. You may need to adapt every 4-5 years to keep relevant (especially if you work in technology or an other rapidly-changing market). Embrace that change as a renewal — it will keep you learning new skills and fresh in your approach.
- When the down times comes, suddenly or over time from market and economic shifts, allow yourself a few minutes (not too long) to panic, feel sorry for yourself, get angry, whatever is your style. Get it out of your system. Then set to work.
- Assess the cause of the downturn, and address your next tactical steps to re-positioning, re-building, or re-inventing your practice.
- Take the time to figure out the real cause of the downturn. Whether it was your error or factors beyond your control, do not set blame on yourself or on others (useless waste of time, that). Just get active.
- Do not allow yourself to become depressed or frightened. Better to be angry than depressed. Best to be neither depressed nor angry nor frightened, but to be busy working to restore, to re-connect with colleagues, prospects and clients to learn what is needed to re-vitalize or re-establish your practice. Make yourself go out and see people. Make lists and accomplish them with discipline. All these tactics fight off the demons that paralyze your action.
- Pay attention to what you learn, what you do, what works and what does not work. The only way to re-invent or re-establish is to notice, then act on what you see. Then test to see if you are correct. Then re-adjust, and test again until you see positive results.
- While you are paying attention, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Then notice if that dread actually comes about. It rarely does. Something may happen but it is not usually what you anticipate. But if you don’t stop long enough to realize that your worst fears do not come true, you will repeat those fears and slow down your successful movement forward. If you regularly note what dread is in your head, and how it does not arrive (and what does arrive that needs addressing), you will strengthen your resolve to move forward (this is how courage is honed), and learn to put aside your fears.
This is the secret: to acknowledge your feelings (all of them), to put them aside so you can work and be sensible, and to notice that your worst fears do not arrive, and that you survive these downturns. Then, over time, this knowledge becomes embedded in you as a habit, and you remain calm in the face of the always-present possibility of a downturn.
Consulting as a life-choice demands this strength of character, and it can be exercised like a muscle, to keep you on course through good times and bad.