In this session, Danilo discussed:

  • The importance of self-management for solo consultants and why it's crucial for sustainable growth.
  • The concept of a 'spacesuit' as a metaphor for the systems needed to thrive as a soloist, and the six self-systems that answer key the questions you didn't know you had.
  • Why copying successful founders might lead you astray.
  • How understanding your personality traits, strengths, and weaknesses can make or break your self-management style.
  • Why having no systems is as problematic as having systems that don't fit, and how to find your personal balance.
  • How to evaluate if your "spacesuit" grants you agency rather than constrains you.

Links and resources mentioned include:

Video Recording


Right, welcome everyone. BCC Bites are quick chats we run every other week. We talk about a topic suggested by our members, followed by a quick Q&A. Today we're going to talk about self-management for solo consultants. How soloists structure their work habits to support sustainable growth. If you have any questions, please put them in the chat and we'll go through them at the end.

Now, let's start with why self-management matters, right? The market is changing faster and faster. New client demands, new technologies, economic environment, etc. And all of you solo consultants are often the first to feel the effects of those changes, of turbulence in general. Larger consultancies... they have more clients, they have a diversified portfolio of clients and services. You don't have that. Larger consultancies have more cash to use as buffer or a cushion in moments of crisis, you don't have that. So one-man consultancies, they don't have the luxury of scale and resources to absorb those shocks. So they are exposed, right?

And here I want to share an analogy I'm going to use during this chat. Imagine being alone in the space, in the outer space, without a fixed space station or a crew to help you survive. So you're in the outer space, in the moon or any other planet, but not on planet Earth. What is your very first necessity? You need a spacesuit, right?

A spacesuit includes everything you need to try to make it out there, to try to survive. If you go solo and you start working for yourself, the only way to sustain a long and profitable practice is to use some kind of spacesuit. The solo consultants and advisors who have survived the self-employment leap and are still thriving now, almost all of them forced themselves to consciously design their lifestyle. They had to design their own spacesuit.

And for many people, creating and using the spacesuit... it may feel like you're losing agency or the feeling you are free to do whatever you want, you're on command. It restricts your movements, right? You lose... imagine you put up a space suit, you lose some peripheral vision. Sometimes you need to turn your whole body to look around, see what's around you, or you can't easily sit in the floor and do, for example, yoga sessions. You are dependent on a number of systems and technologies to pump your oxygen and keep you alive.

I believe the opposite is true. Designing our own spacesuit or lifestyle is what highlights our unique personality. And the reason is simple. If you think about it, when you were working for other people, you also had to wear a suit, right? You also had to adopt a number of behaviors or to design your lifestyle around your job. You just didn't get the chance to choose it. So you had, for example, a certain amount of working hours to fulfill. You had tasks and responsibilities that you had to perform or else you'll get fired. You had an implicit set of rules on how to communicate and work with other people in your team. That was the space suit you needed to wear as an employer, as an employee, sorry, for the good of the company and the team.

Running a one-person consultancy, it doesn't mean that you can wake up every day and choose what, when and how to do things. If you act that way, it becomes highly unlikely that you will survive in the market. What it means becoming a professional solo consultant or solo advisor is that you have the agency to consciously design your lifestyle to both build and sustain a profitable solo practice, but also to fund and support your preferred lifestyle. How you wanna live, right?

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

When we're managing a company, the business has many moving parts, right? And there's complexity. So you have to market, you have to sell, you have to price your offerings. And the market and 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 a profit for you. You need to work and collaborate with other people who have different personalities, different 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, are actually hard if you think about it. It's just either tiring, or it's tedious, or it's overwhelming. But you don't need a PhD to learn how to sell. You don't need it to improve your margins or to correct delivery problems, operational problems. You don't need that. 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. This is not working, this is working. Looking out for best practices, looking out for specific, specialized advice in implementing these in your business. 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 it's way less forgiving, right? If you go, for example, You go through a cashflow problem and you start to panic or you have a highly emotional response to it. A short period of being tight on cash, it might be enough to end your practice. You might say, "Ok, I had enough, it's enough for me." And these situations will happen. Your biggest client, they will leave you without prior notice. Or another consultant copies all of your services and content. Or you look at your pipeline and there's zero leads for the next quarter. So these tough situations, they will happen the longer you are in business.

And to use our initial analogy here, if you didn't design and arm yourself with a robust spacesuit, strong self-management systems... If you don't have them, what do you do at the first sign of your oxygen dropping? You desperately look for shelter, right? You jump in the first spacesuit or space station that you find. You accept whatever project or job position you can find in the market. And you just abandon your independent consulting practice. You just leave it.

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 this spacesuit. As I said, it's not complicated, but it's hard.

So what we're going to do here is reverse engineer all the working spacesuits to see how they're built. And the idea is simple. There's a number of functions a space suit needs to provide. So pumping oxygen, provide pressurization so that our bodies can function, allow us to communicate with others, etc. So our suit here needs to do these things. They are the basic requirements for survival. Now, the optional... there are some optional items. For example, what color you painted it. Or what you decide to wear inside the suit. Etc. That doesn't matter.

So here's the question I have for you: What kind of psychological support you used to get from your colleagues, superiors, and company when you were employed, before you start your independent solo practice? If you never worked for someone else before, you can think about the psychological support you had in the university or the school, for example, from other students, teachers, university staff. That also work. And this is the starting point to the idea of the six self-systems.

Here, these are the basic, required parts of every solo consultant or advisor's spacesuit. They answer those 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?

If you're an employee and you work for someone else, those questions are easy to answer, right? But when you're by yourself, it's not that obvious. So let me quickly talk about each one of them. I'll give a brief overview of each one of those systems.

"What" here, it refers to task management. So here we're talking about assigning responsibilities and activities with a clear due date. 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. So if you don't plan your week ahead of time, chances are huge you get to Friday afternoon and you look back at what you got done and you say, "I haven't done one thing to improve or grow the practice. The whole thing was, the whole week was, I was on reactive mode." And you don't want that. You want to be proactive. You want to attack and do the things that really matter and we'll unlock future growth for your consultancy.

Now, "when". We're talking about 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? How fast you reply to emails? How quickly you move from idea to, from strategy to execution. I'm not giving you any specific advice because there's none. Of course, 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. If you're interested, there's a previous BCC Bites we did on planning cadence. I'll share the link with the recording. And I talk specifically about KPIs and capabilities and functions in boutique consultancies. And how frequently you want to look at those things, how frequently you want to implement or look or review or plan those activities. Too fast, you burn out and you don't have enough time to put them into practice. And too slow, you lose the learning feedback loop. You don't benefit from that. Now let's move to the next.

"Why?" And here on why, we have the direction setting. This is about creating an engaging vision, a reason to keep working day in, day out. Why are you working on those things? 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? Why does it matter to you? What are you trying to achieve, fulfill in the long term? Whatever it is, it needs to motivate you.

And here, I personally disagree with most of the "do what you love", purpose-business influencers. It's ok to do it for the money. It's ok not to have any holistic, word-changing vision. For most of the consultants who work as employees, the motivation is money and stability, right? When you're an employee, you work, because if you don't, you will lose your job. Now, what happens if you don't work on your business as an independent consultant? You will probably need to look for jobs again to survive. I had this conversation with a solo advisor the other day, and he said, "what motivates me the most is the thought of coming back to an office and playing the politics game. Yes, I like to make money independently and choose the projects I work in. But the main reason I work hard is to avoid coming back to being an employee." Now, this works for him. A client of mine hated so much the work environment from her previous employer that her motivation was, "I want to build a profitable consulting practice where people actually love working at." So find whatever works for you. Write it down. Put it somewhere you can see every morning.

And this ties to our next self-system: "Where?" And here we're talking about the environmental design. You don't need to be a specialist in behavior design to understand this. 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, even creating a working schedule.

Of course, that's only part of the spacesuit. But imagine we have two solo advisors. The advisor #1, he has no clear schedule, starts and stops working whenever he wants to. Sometimes in his office, sometimes in his living room, other times in his kitchen table. He had notes and post-its all over the house. The wifi signal is weak. His laptop is seven years old and sometimes doesn't turn on, etc. Advisor #2 works from Monday to Thursday at home and on Fridays from a co-working place next to him. He has a working schedule, so he starts at 9 AM after breakfast and exercise. Then a lunch break from 12.30 to 2 PM. He allows some flexibility, sometimes work longer hours in the afternoon, of course, but almost always closes the laptop at 7 PM. He created an office on one of his rooms of his apartment. There's a decent computer with two screens, fast internet connection by cable. He has a whiteboard, with business development goals and activities he looks at every day. He has a paper journal where he completes his weekly reviews using pen and paper. He has time blocked in his online calendar for these weekly reviews and for other activities. I can go on and on. Over time, he collected quotes and personal photos, maybe that are close to his heart, and put those things, pinned those things to another board close to his table. These motivates him. He has a comfortable and ergonomic chair. I could go on forever, but I think you got the point.

Everything else equal, ceteris paribus, who will work better? Of course, the advisor #2. A messy environment, messy calendar and working space. It will absolutely kill your ability to focus and get things done. So this is an important part of your spacesuit. It's an important self-management system.

Next, with whom? And here we have socializing, socializing rituals. In a job, there are systems and ceremonies in place to socialize you with others. And make sure you stay there, basically. So if you worked in larger companies or even mid-size companies, you have workshops, team retreats, you have happy hours. And when you're a one-person consultancy, you have to force yourself to do this. Now, of course, many of you are introverts like me and might actually be happy to stay more at home and avoid these gathering events. But no matter how shy or introverted you are, this is important. I've never met someone who managed to consistently grow a practice, a boutique consultancy, without any social support or interactions. It's... Yes, if you have a big project or something you absolutely need to get done without distraction, then it might be a good idea to lock yourself in a room in your office for a few days or maybe a week, but not forever. Humans are humans. And we all need some social interaction to function.

But with that said, I'd say that the hard part is not finding time to meet with friends, or go work with others in a coffee shop, etc. It's to discover how often you want to do it and with whom. When you're employed, you don't need to choose who to invite for events. These events are for those who work in a company. If you're solo, you get to choose which people you want to spend more or less time with. And over time, you can see how this affects your work as well. So, it's up to you to experiment and find out what kind and how much of socializing you need. Maybe weekends is enough for you. Maybe it's not. Let's move to the next one.

The last system is what I call self-labeling. So defining how you want other people to see you. Not only what to do, but who you are. And in January, I wrote a short post on that. If I'm not mistaken, it's called "The Inner Struggle of Labeling Ourselves." I'll share the link with the recording. But let me explain what I mean by label. When you're employed, you get a label. You get a label. When people ask about you, you might say, I'm a McKinsey associate or "I'm a marketing manager at P&G", It's a label. And this label gets reinforced all the time by other colleagues, by your email signature, by your business card. Your job title and the employer logo is there for everyone to see, right? You don't even think about it. When people ask about you or introduce yourself, maybe the first thing someone will say is, "I'm a marketing manager at Procter & Gamble."

But when you go solo and start your independent practice, you have no career ladder anymore. So, if you want to call yourself CEO, that's ok. If you want to call yourself managing partner, even though you have no other partners... Ok, go ahead. It's your business. It's up to you to create your own label. Now, this situation... it creates two challenges. One external and one internal.

The external one is how other people perceive your label. It's important to think about the words we use, our brand messaging, because it affects how our target market sees us, right? It affects our positioning, how effective our pitch is, whether we resonate or not with potential buyers. Every marketer and every strategist worries about this.

The other challenge is the one that no one talks about. Or very few people talk about. It's the internal challenge. So what are the labels that you yourself are comfortable using? Should I call myself a consultant or an advisor? Should I call myself a freelancer or self-employed? Some of you might see yourselves more like entrepreneurs than consultants, for example. Others prefer to create their own labels. I have a friend who calls himself a change facilitator. Now, if you look at what he sells, what he does... that's 100% consulting, bespoke consulting. But he simply doesn't see himself as a consultant. That's a label that makes him feel insecure, that makes him question himself and the journey he's in.

So what I mean by self-labeling here is what identity you want to create for yourself and how you need to behave for this to become true. I prefer to label myself as an advisor instead of a consultant because the way I see it, for example, a true advisor  embodies values and behaviors that are different from those of consultants, typically. Now, is this true? Probably not. But seeing myself as an advisor makes me feel more comfortable, more confident, more assertive. And this ends up reinforcing some of my behaviors and also makes me reject others, right?

So, these are the... I see we're short on time. These are the six self-systems that I recommend any solo consultant and advisor to think about. Now let me, let's take a look at some questions. OK, so there's a good one here from Peter:

How do I find my self-management style? How do I know if I have a great spacesuit?

In this analogy that we used. Now, I'm not going to tell you how to create your self-management spacesuit. There's already a lot of bad advice out there and on how you should copy or mimic the behavior of other successful founders. 99% of this is bullshit. It's survivorship bias. Every one of you have different personalities, different circumstances. So this comes down to self-awareness. Understanding what gives you energy, what works for you.

When I see someone trying to copy someone else's spacesuit or someone else's systems, I know that chances are big they will see some problems in the future. You don't want to wake up at 5 AM and exercise before work? You don't need to do that. You can, but you don't need to do. You don't need to have a clean and minimalist office space If you're a creative person who feels better in an unstructured space, for example. Copying others is just like trying to use a spacesuit that was not tailor-made for you, right? So over time you will start to feel uncomfortable. Maybe it's a bit tight here or too large there. You feel like the suit controls you. And not the other way around. Which is just like how you felt or how most of you felt when you used to work with others, right? It feels tiring to work like this because you don't feel a sense of agency, that you can change those systems.

But I really feel like it's important to reinforce that the opposite also doesn't work. If you have none of those systems at all, it means you have a crappy suit and you're going to die in space. And worse, it will really be your fault. Resisting to create those systems means that you are consciously choosing to play the helpless, and just spend your life and all of your time blaming others in the market. You need some kind of structure as a solo consultant or advisor. You have no team to support you.

So, how do I know if I have a great space suit? I think you need to feel like, you need to feel kind of convinced to do certain things you wouldn't actually choose to do for fun or just because you feel like it. But you know that sustaining those systems is important. And you feel happy, you feel personally fulfilled, and energized when you do those things. So it doesn't feel like you're forced to use the suit. It feels natural to you.

I'd love to hear about your personal experiences and how you have built or how you're building your self-management systems. There's no formal research behind these six systems. It's all observational data and anecdotes. So there's always more to learn.

Let me just thank you all for joining. The next BCC Bites will be in two weeks time. So on the 14th of September. And we're going to talk about delegating roles and responsibilities. So I'll present some ideas for you to clarify, support, and improve the offloading of some of your activities, some of the activities you do now. If you're thinking about starting to build a team to support you or already have one, this should be very useful. So I'll share the link with the recording. But thank you. Thank you again. Stay safe, and I wish you all a great end of week.

Thanks for watching or 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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