Working on your own, calling the shots, deciding what to do, when and for whom: often, the most effective way highly skilled professionals can get their jobs to work for them is to work for themselves. As I’ve already shown, the entrepreneurially minded may decide to “lean out” and start a company they want to work within. But others—particularly those facing the dual demands of challenging careers and parenting—may not have the time or resources to start their own firms. Instead, they can lean out in their own way, by setting up shop as sole practitioners.
As Anne-Marie Slaughter observed, “the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed.” Case in point, my 24-year-old niece works full-time for a financial-services firm and intends to serve as a primary caregiver when she has children. But as she is neither superhuman nor incredibly rich, the only reasonable avenue for her, and many men and women like her, is to craft a career where work hours can be dialed up and down as personal demands dictate. This is almost impossible in the professional world, where employees are expected to work full-time.
For the past 15 years, I have worked for myself, as have a close circle of friends, including a lawyer who recruits attorneys for a startup, a marketing expert who organizes trade shows, and a conflict negotiation expert who manages the online presence for a clothing retailer. If you’re not in a position to start your own company, but you want to leave your rigid workplace and enter the flexible workforce, here are some things I’ve learned over the years that might help:
1• Reframe your skills into a set of services. Draft a list of the activities that you perform by reviewing the responsibilities in your current and former job descriptions and the roles that you have fulfilled on projects throughout your career. Take a look at the Business Talent Group website to get inspired and stay grounded, reading the stories and comparing your experience to those of their independent consultants. As a final edit, ask 10 potential clients what services they purchase from external providers in your field of expertise.
2• Define your business model and your “pitch.” Interview a handful of free agents who have businesses you would like to emulate, understanding how they market, contract, and deliver their services. Develop a business pitch that taps into the need of your target clients and describes the services you wish to provide. For example, when people ask me what I do, I say that I help businesses realize value from their information technology investments. Once you’ve designed your pitch, you should come up with a name for your business (don’t use your name or initials), design a logo, and develop a website that turns strangers into friends and causes them to do what you want them to do.
3• Determine how you are going to market your services. The most valuable asset is your network. Gather all of your contacts in a LinkedIn profile. Then follow the advice in books like How to Land Your Dream Job, and target the companies you want to infiltrate and the people you wish to meet.
4• Start networking and pitching. Leverage your network to obtain introductions into your target companies. Schedule get-to-know-you meetings to understand business challenges and envision the value you might provide. Don’t ask for work or make any offers at this time—instead, focus on giving rather than receiving. Since people are inclined to help those who help them, when the relationship is stronger, you can confidently make an offer of assistance with the expectation that they will say yes.
5• Take the time to develop a brand. Word-of-mouth will be your best referral source, so do what you say and say what you do. When you have a happy client, ask them to introduce you to other people who might benefit from your services. Expand your network by leveraging your unique capabilities. If you write, write a blog. If you read, share what you learned. If you speak, speak to lots of people. If you are a host, host gatherings so help people build relationships. If you are a networker, join associations. When people ask for help or ask you to do something, say yes, if you can. Their requests are a reflection of how they see your capabilities—by saying yes, you will expand your services and your business.
If you are interested in becoming a free agent, start planning early. My niece is working on her CFA, with the confidence that it will increase her options should she decide to start her own business in the future. Likewise, use your current position as a platform to gain the credentials, experience, and network that you will need later. Finally, live below your financial means, restructuring your lifestyle as necessary, so that you have the time to carve out a job that works for you, rather than the other way around.