Nearly A Decade in Business – so what do I know? - Wildflower Fire Coaching
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In the summer of 2014, I stomped out of work one night, drove home, logged on to Companies House and set up a new business. Such was my discontent at the environment I was in and the constant compromise to my integrity and sanity. I was a success but by other people’s definitions. Honestly, I was brittle, burnt out and fast becoming unable to lead with any integrity.  

At that moment, I had no clear idea what I was going to do with the business, but even that first step of making it more real than it had been the day before , meant that I started to feel more in control of my destiny than I had felt for a while.

At the start of 2015, after 20 ish years in the public sector, I handed in my notice on what was a good job, with a good salary in an organisation which, for many people, had lots to offer. My decision came after months of should I, shouldn’t I conversations with my family, my friends, my coach and other people that I came across that I thought would be able to help me make a decision.

As part of my exit strategy, I was on secondment to another organisation and this was due to end at the end of March. At this point I had a few ideas about what I might do next, some more concrete than others, but one thing I was sure about was that I wasn’t going back to my substantive post.

During my secondment, I had negotiated to work full time but in condensed hours. On the day I wasn’t working I spent time reading, preparing, meeting people and planning my future. I knew from the start of my secondment in October, that I would be leaving at the end of March. Having amassed 20 odd years service I did have the obvious discussion about redundancy but it didn’t matter who or in what way I asked the question, the answer was always no.

I got some well timed advice at this point about the energy I could spend fighting this compared to the energy I could use productively to build my future. I chose the latter and have never looked back . If anything, leaving with no financial cushion gave me a massive imperative which I may not have had otherwise.  

I read books and articles, I talked to recruitment agencies and business owners and I tried to imagine what a professional life outside of an organisation would look and feel like. I talked to people who had already done it, I laboured long and hard as I thought it through.

In a small way, I tried it out. I asked for a few days of unpaid leave and I went and worked as an associate consultant for an organisational development company. A fantastic opportunity which I really enjoyed and which gave me a taste of what it would be like to work in a more portfolio way, where you are paid for days of your time rather than on a salaried basis.

I looked at my experience over recent years in organisations, updated my CV and arranged time to speak to a couple of friendly recruitment consultants to get some feedback. It became clear very quickly, with them looking at my CV, that I had been working in an interim way, albeit within organisations over the previous couple of years. A positive side effect of all the change in the public sector. So I was advised to badge my experience in that way.

I considered what I was going to be doing with my time. What my unique selling point was, what my brand was going to be about, what I wanted to spend my time doing, what I wasn’t prepared to do, where I wanted to work, how much I thought I was worth and could charge, how much I needed to earn.

I thought about whether I wanted to work for myself, for agencies, as part of a consultancy. Whether I was going to focus my efforts on working alone as an interim manager or whether I was also going to spend time developing products. 

I offered to run a handful of free mini-development sessions for individuals on using LinkedIn, coaching, group sessions for colleagues on imposter syndrome and using LinkedIn. I talked to people who I had worked with about what they thought my best skills were. 

I spent time talking to recruitment agencies to try and work out what the interim management market would be looking for by the time I was ready to land. I checked out whether my existing skill set had a commercial value and what would enhance it. I then asked the organisation I was in, who already knew that I was planning for a future outside the organisation, if they could help me by helping me get some more of the experience that I needed to enable me to land better in the interim market 6 months later. 

I talked to people who had left organisations and many times when I came across another person I was struck by their vibrancy, their freedom, their integrity, their passion, their ability to spend much more time doing stuff that they believed in and with people they wanted to work with. 

I got practical. I sorted out an accountant, a business account, some branding, some brand photography. I realised what skilled, talented and generous friends and colleagues I had around me, and how much help I could have, if only I was willing to ask. 

I had some coaching, some fabulous coaching. Some of it I paid for, most of it I didn’t. People were incredibly generous with their time, willing to help, push, challenge, shape.

I spent time on LinkedIn, I polished my profile, I networked, I read, a lot, I networked some more, I watched what the market was doing, where the opportunities where, and without being pushy, I gradually added to my network.

Eventually I stopped thinking, planning, talking and feeling quite as scared and I just did it.

My first plan was to develop a business partnership with a colleague who I worked well with and who already ran a successful business. We spent time over months discussing and developing ideas and business plans to try and find a way that we could work together.  We thought about franchising models, shareholding, equal partnership, starting a new venture together but in the end, after taking advice, I decided not to go down this road.

Those months of discussing and debating were a fantastic learning opportunity and I have continued to work successfully with this colleague but as an associate to her business. Something I am still doing 10 years on.

I realised, when I sat and thought about it, that part of what I was looking for was something to be a part of, something to belong to, an opportunity to exchange one organisation for another. In the end I realised that going into partnership at that stage would close as many doors as it would open so whilst it felt much more risky to go it alone. that’s what I decided to do. 

The next step was to start talking to people about the fact that I would shortly be available for work. Fairly quickly I learnt that for every five conversations I had about work, only one ever came to fruition. I am exaggerating somewhat but what I learnt during this period of time was that not everyone who says they will have work for you, will have work for you no matter how much they want to work with you ! When you have a positive conversation which doesn’t come to fruition, there is an art in learning how long to chase it up for, how and when to let it go. I am still learning. 

Whilst it sounds like a cliche I also learnt that time is money. My time is money and whilst I can spend time networking, having meetings about potential work, spending time developing new business ideas for and with other people, talking to people about their careers and plans, none of it earns money today. There is space to do that and build possibilities for the future but it has to be balanced with time spent on billable work today. 

Although I have never been or needed to be placed by an agency (yet) I also learnt that when you put your CV forward for a job, it will land if it’s meant to land. There is no point chasing recruitment agency people up too much. They are busy and dealing with lots of jobs and candidates at the same time and will call you if and when they have any news.  I also learnt that it’s always worth taking a call, even if you have no availability, because you may know someone else who would be perfect for a role and that being polite and spending 5 minutes on the phone and promising to pass on a lead costs nothing. 

Cash flow. Cash flow. Cash flow. I’ll say it again, cash flow. It needs managing. Depending on the situation, if you work for yourself and invoice for your time then you will be mostly be invoicing after you have done the work. Depending on the organisation it can then take a further month, two, three or four to get paid. I learnt to find friendly finance people and to get the PO and get set up as a supplier straight away in order to try and minimise delays. Even then, glitches and delays in payment still occurred so it’s worth keeping a close eye on this.

In the first couple of months after handing my notice in, I also learnt to keep my powder dry. What I mean by that was hold my nerve, keep on networking and taking calls until I landed my first job. It took me nearly 3 months before I landed something but as I was still in paid employment, this was not a huge issue. I was very fortunate in that the secondment I was in gave me a new set of knowledge, skills and contacts and it was these that led to my first role. 

At first I spent a lot of time wondering what sort of work I was going to do. I thought about what I wanted to do. I thought about how my skills, knowledge and experience could be put to best use. Rather more self indulgently I thought about what my professional life purpose was and what I was “meant ” to be doing. I didn’t find it straight away but was contented by doing a range of interesting work in interesting places with interesting people. 

I learnt not to put all my eggs in one basket and to manage several clients and pieces of work at once. This has served me well, as it has meant that I have developed more of a portfolio career which has provided me with a safety net when, as invariably happens, things change with a piece of work. 

I learnt about functioning in organisations where you need to land quickly and start delivering from day one. I quickly learnt what it feels like to sit outside of organisational structures, to not be part of teams and to not have to get involved in any more of the organisational politics than it takes to do a job well. I learnt to operate much more independently and to make enough connections to get the job done but that I wasn’t there to make long lasting relationships. 

I started to think about the work I was doing and how much of it could be a repeatable set and skills and experience to use in other places. I started to think about whether anything I was doing could be turned into marketable products that could be sold to other places to solve similar problems that I was facing and addressing.

Integrity. Last but not least. I learnt more about integrity. Amongst other things I learnt about managing clients in order to keep them informed when the work changes and they need less of you than they think they need, I learnt to turn roles down that I didn’t have an appetite for so I could maintain my personal and professional integrity.

I learnt that whilst people around you may advise you to be more ruthless, to sharpen your elbows and to land, expand and make money at any cost that it’s not necessary. That being successful, whatever that means to you, can be done on your own terms, in your own style and in your own inimitable way without adopting behaviours that are not comfortable to you.  

In summary

1. I didn’t quit in haste. I spent months planning, networking, updating my CV, talking to recruiters and business owners to understand what self-employment would be like.

2. Before I quit, I considered different options like working alone as an interim manager, developing products, joining an agency or consultancy. 

3. Before I quit, I went on secondment to gain more marketable skills. I was honest with my organisation about my plans. I worked condensed hours for a while so I could spend a day a week having meetings and doing research. 

4. Before I quit, I prepared by setting up accountants, branding, photography, and leveraging the help of friends and colleagues.

5. My first plan was to go into business partnership with a colleague, but eventually I decided to go solo. It was a useful learning experience and I still work with this person, as an associate, nearly 10 years on.

6. Cash flow management was and is crucial. Keep a close eye on this as depending on the sector you work in, there can be months of delays before you are paid.

7. There is an art to delivering interim/consultancy work quickly, with enough understanding of the organisation to work out how they do things, without getting involved in office politics.

8. Maintaining integrity was important – being successful on my own terms without compromising my values. Also being really clear about what success means to me.

My new small group coaching programme, Planning Your Public Sector Exit will start in September. Book a call now if you would like to find out more.

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