Project Management

10 personality traits of a highly effective independent consultant

Many IT consultants daydream about branching out on their own without giving much thought to what skills are necessary to succeed as a freelancer. Before you commit to being an independent consultant, read this list.

I get a lot of email from readers who ask for pointers on how to get started in IT consulting. I usually refer them to my very first entry in the IT Consultant blog, "So you want to be a consultant?" and then I respond to any specific concerns the reader has that aren't covered in that post.

Here's a snippet of a recent email from a reader:

I am now thinking about going freelance, possibly as a consultant, but am not sure how to get into it and also have problems with the confidence to be able to fix problems out there.

Do you have any suggestions? Are you able to suggest what skills would be needed at least to be able to break in to consultancy?

Here's part of my response:

First of all, if you don't have confidence in your abilities, I wouldn't attempt freelancing. You'll need to be able to convince not only yourself that you can do it, but also your clients. That doesn't mean that you have to know everything. But you need to feel confident that you can find out how to do anything that comes your way and that you can apply that knowledge successfully.

Second, I'd break in gradually if I were you. Keep your day job and take on a few small gigs on the side to feel your way. Then, if you can land enough business over time, make the jump -- or even try migrating to half-time at your present employment if they'll allow it.

As far as what skills to cultivate -- first and foremost are people skills. Being a consultant requires the ability to sell yourself, negotiate your terms, and motivate yourself to do the work. Naturally, you need to have some technical skills to back that up -- find the niche that you want to occupy and study that. Build on your existing strengths and target a segment where you can find some business.

This email exchange got me thinking about what personality traits are beneficial to the independent consultant. Here are 10 traits that I think are important in order to be an effective and successful consultant.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

1: Confident

You have to look at a challenge and say, "I could do that." It might even help if you are a little megalomaniacal about your thinking; for example: "I can do anything, given enough time and information." Now that we live in an era in which information is almost always only a google away, the question becomes, "Do I have enough time to master this?" Most of the spectacular failures of consulting engagements probably result from a false positive answer to that question -- stemming from the very hubris that makes it possible to be successful.

2: Problem solver

You need to be passionate about solving problems, because that is what you'll be doing all day. Whether it's a problem with computers, logistics, or personnel, your clients want you to solve it. Consulting may be for you if you like math and word problems; find problems in daily life more of a challenge in optimization than a drag; and enjoy playing a difficult game or solving a tough puzzle.

3: Motivated

You have to be able to keep yourself on task, especially if you work from a remote office. If you can't control your tendency to procrastinate, you'll never get anything done -- and if you never get anything done, you won't keep your clients.

4: Obsessive

Many of the problems you encounter will take a lot of mental juice to solve, which means that you need to be able to focus your attention for long periods of time. You also need to be able to continue to process a problem in the background when you're not giving it full attention. Some of my best solutions come to me in my sleep, in the shower, while taking a walk, or while engaged in some other activity.

5: Lateral thinker

While it's important to focus on a specific problem, you should also be able to see beyond the task at hand and question the assumptions that led to the problem; this can help you predict problems and find opportunities that your client hasn't considered.

6: Personable

You'll be involved in more than one company's culture, and in each case, you'll be seen as an outsider at the beginning. You need to be able to win the confidence of strangers who may be initially threatened by your presence. A big dose of humor works wonders, especially when you direct it at yourself.

7: Flexible

You will have to accommodate the priorities of multiple clients, as well as be flexible about managing your time and money. For instance, you might get an emergency phone call in the middle of the night that you can't put off until morning; your monthly income will wax and wane as projects come and go; and sometimes you might have trouble collecting your money on time.

8: Assertive

Although you try to be flexible on most things, you must stand your ground on the things that matter -- like getting paid and maintaining your integrity. You have to be willing to lose your client in order to defend your position in both of those cases.

9: Honest

In the long run, it is always best to speak the truth. Your integrity is your most valuable asset; once you lose it, it's hard to get back.

10: Realistic

This one seems to conflict with the others, but it actually tempers the other nine traits. You have to realize that you can't work 24/7. You must give yourself a life outside consulting, so you don't burn out. You can't start thinking about all your outside activities in terms of how much potential billable time they're costing you. And you have to be willing to admit when you make a mistake or need someone's help. You're not Superman... you're a consultant.

What qualities would you add to the list? Let me know by posting to the discussion.

Editor's note: This TechRepublic article originally published on June 24, 2008.

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

4 comments
rvanhaecke
rvanhaecke

Have a well developed contact-list or "rolodex", and work to have your name and specialty in other's lists.  Don't be shy about having a strong support structure and that you are a part of the support structure for other consultants.  It is tough to say you know it all, but presented in the right way, having a strong support structure should be an asset.



steven
steven

Chip, it seems you have forgotten the most important trait of all... and yet it is clearly expressed in your bio...MARKETING/SALES!  Most technical people who move into consulting don't understand nor want to do the marketing and sales tasks that are necessary for success. They often think that their technical competence and all the other nine traits you have listed will make them successful and yet, without the ability and DESIRE to do marketing and sales, their consulting careers will be short. You have accomplished the marketing side of the process with all your blogs and writings which keep you in front of potential customers. I actually would put the marketing part of the consulting job at the top of the list. You can be the best technically, but if potential customers don't know you exist, you will run out of work in a short time.

Be well,

Steven

greg.williams
greg.williams

Generalist

I've found that my clients need someone who knows a little bit about a lot of stuff.  There may be more money in focusing on a particular technology or vertical, but unless you are in a very large market with large demand, there just isn't enough work. 

Independent consultants are in a unique position to see the organization holistically. There is rarely any employee within the organization that does.  I like to think of myself as a general physician, or better, a veterinarian. Vets have to know a lot about a wide range of species (platforms) and breeds (versions), but they must problem solve based on symptons that their patients (computers) can not describe to them verbally (and often the problem is caused by the animal's owner (user), and not necessarily the patient). 

One caveat is that being a generalist means you may have to do things that you don't particularly enjoy. But thats why we get paid, otherwise they would do it themselves.

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