Hi there, Danilo here. 17 consultancy partners picked today's topic: Self-management.

As the saying goes, "it's always a people problem." We know that clients often put external circumstances or lack of technical expertise as the root cause of their challenges, when it's clear they can always be traced back to management action or inaction. But the same is true for our own consulting practices - looking inward is often the best investment you can make to unlock growth.

Wish you a great reading.

One Idea

If you’re reading this, chances are you lead a small consultancy.  You are by yourself or have a handful of people to support you, and are likely stuck in a low six-figure annual revenue. This means you can (and must) think and act differently as a larger firm.

It’s no surprise to anyone that the market is changing faster and faster. New client demands. New technologies. A rocky economic environment. Solo consultants are often the first to feel the effects of those changes, of turbulence in general.

This takes us to an unconventional truth: Running a one-person or lean consultancy doesn't mean that you can wake up every day and choose what, when, and how to do things. Doing that will bring down your chance of survival close to zero.

The process of becoming a professional solo consultant or advisor, in this sense, is somehow a game of balance. You have the agency to consciously design your lifestyle, as long as it sustains a profitable practice that funds your preferred lifestyle. You need to learn how to manage yourself.

Management vs Self-Management

Self-management, when you think about it, it's much simpler than management. But way harder.

Managing a business is complex. You have to market, sell, and price your offerings, while your client's preferences are changing all the time. You want to delight your clients, but you need to do that without spending more than you earn to make sure there's some profit left for you. You need to work with people who have different personalities and ambitions. So it's complex. Managing a company has many moving parts.

But if you're smart, and I know all of you are, none of these activities are really hard. They might be tiring, tedious, or overwhelming. But you don't need a PhD to learn how to sell. You don't need it to correct delivery problems.

You can score 5 out of 10 in any of these skills here and you will still build a seven-figure consulting practice - as long as you're tracking things, thinking clearly, and being willing to change when you see. Do more of what’s working, stop what is not. Looking out for best practices and specialized advice. Things are complex, but they're not really hard. You don't need to be a genius to do this.

Self-management, on the other hand, is simpler but way less forgiving. A short period of being tight on cash might trigger an emotional response that’s strong enough to end your practice. Your biggest client may leave you without prior notice, you get plagiarized by another consultant… These tough situations will tend to happen the longer you are in business.

That’s why you need to design and arm yourself with robust, strong self-management systems. Without them, it becomes easy to panic or overreact to the challenges you face on your growth journey.

In this previous BCC Bites, I used an analogy of being in outer space to better illustrate it. You don’t have a fixed space station or a crew to help you survive in the ruthless and soulless market. So what I call self-management here, and we've been working with a lot of solo consultants on these ideas, is the process of designing, using, and improving your own “spacesuit”.

The Six Self-Systems

There are a number of functions a spacesuit must provide. Pumping oxygen. Providing pressurization so that our bodies can function. Allowing us to communicate with others. These are some of the basic requirements for survival.

Now here's a question for you: What kind of psychological support you used to get from your colleagues, superiors, and company when you were employed, before you started your independent consulting practice? 

The answer to this helps us identify what we all need, in a practical sense, to self-manage. The goal is to somehow replace the psychological drivers you had as an employee, and that made you work in a productive and energized way.

After hundreds of conversations with consultancy founders, we identified it all comes down to six self-systems. These are the basic, required parts of every consultancy founder or advisor's spacesuit. And they answer the questions: What do I work on? When do I work on these things? Why? Where? With whom and by whom the work will get done?

Here’s a brief overview of each system:

  • "What" refers to task management. What exactly are you working on today, and this week, and this month? If you don't have a system to review and prioritize those tasks, you will end up stuck in this vicious cycle of only doing the urgent and neglecting the important.
  • "When" refers to cadence adoption. This is the rhythm you work in. Is your day-to-day work fast, like in a startup, or slow and chill, like in a small family-owned shop? The faster you pace, the more you get done. But up to a point. After that, the more you try to speed things up, the more you risk burning out. So you have to develop your own sense of pace based on your personality and circumstances
  • "Why?" refers to direction setting. This is about creating an engaging vision, a reason to keep working day in, day out. Why did you decide to lead your own independent consulting practice? Being an employee and working for someone else would have been much easier, that's for sure. So why do you do that? What are you trying to achieve and fulfill in the long term? Whatever it is, it needs to motivate you.
  • "Where?" refers to environmental design. How you set up your surroundings, your work environment directly impacts how you work. This includes choosing where to work from, what equipment to use, how to set up your working space, and even creating a working schedule. A messy environment, messy calendar, and working space will absolutely kill your ability to focus and get things done.
  • “With whom?” refers to socializing rituals. In a job, there are systems and ceremonies in place to socialize you with others. You have workshops, team retreats, happy hours. And when you're a one-person or lean consultancy, you have to force yourself to do this. No matter how shy or introverted you are, this is important. I've never met someone who managed to consistently grow a practice without any social support. Humans are humans, and we all need some social interaction to function.
  • “By whom?” is about the last system, what I call self-labeling. Defining how you want other people to see you. Not only what you do, but who you are. And in January, I wrote this short post on that. When you start your independent practice, you have no career ladder anymore. So, if you want to call yourself CEO, that's ok. Some consultants use a “managing partner” title, even though they have no other partners. It's up to you to create your own label. Seeing myself as an advisor, for example, makes me feel more comfortable, confident, and assertive than when I used to present myself as a consultant. And this ends up reinforcing some behaviors and rejecting others.

If you want to learn more about the six self-systems, feel free to watch the recording of our BCC Bites chat about it here. Also, drop me a line to share which of these systems you feel like you’re missing the most.

One Quote

“A self-improvement program is successful and sustainable only when the individual chooses to do it for himself, not for a spouse, children, or others.

The motivation must be intrinsic, because the essence of successful strategic change is not technique but will. (...) To achieve any goal, you must really want the goal. Common questions arise in discussions about strategies and strategic change: “Do we have to do this?” “Why, when things are going so well, do we need to invite more discipline into our lives?”

The answer, of course, is that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Strategy in a professional business is a choice that each individual has to make about whether he or she wants to put more effort into her life and career in order to get somewhere new.”

Source: “Strategy and the Fat Smoker”, by David H. Maister

One Number

When professional firms were asked to name the barriers to effectively using a CRM system, the top answer was “Principals / sellers-doers not entering data in it”. It was mentioned by 54% of the respondents. Even the most advanced professional systems will fail if we can’t bring ourselves to actually do what we committed to.

Source: “Marketing 2022: A Survey Exploring Current And Future A/E/C Marketing Practices”, SMPS

One Question For You

Which of the six self-systems (task management, cadence adoption, direction setting, environmental design, socializing rituals, self-labeling) do you find most challenging, and why?

Taking an introspective look into how you work and acknowledging frequent struggles is the first step to becoming a better founder and/or partner. Improving your personal operating systems is well worth it - do it right, and you will end up with a far more satisfying and successful practice.

Thanks for reading. You can get more specialized and actionable growth insights for micro consultancies in our newsletter. Every Tuesday, you get one idea from Danilo, one quote from other experts, one number you need to hear, and one question for you to level up your consulting practice.

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