What’s in a title? Would a consultant, by any other name, give the same advice?

Professional identity

I’ve been a freelance consultant for two years and two months. This is my longest tenure at any job in my life. That might just be a sign of the times—the “sharing economy” or whatever—except that I went freelance after a stint of nearly the same length at a small consulting firm. I also worked for a larger consulting company for a bit in the mid-2000s.

At a certain point, I have to admit the truth: that I’m a consultant. That’s more central to my professional identity than any skill or content area. It explains my longstanding habit of leaving jobs after a year or two, as my intellectual/professional wanderlust is only well served by a portfolio of projects and clients. I still keep an eye on potential full-time roles, but the five or six that I’ve applied to in the past two years have mostly been some sort of internal consulting role.

I’ve struggled with this identity because I believe in organizations. Social progress isn’t driven by individuals, but by consistent teams with strong cultures and relationships in their contexts, working toward clear visions with strategies iterated over time, and supported by efficient, established processes. Those are the building blocks of scalable, sustainable change. I’ve enjoyed my roles as an insider, helping to build those organizations. I don’t want to be the fly-in-fly-out consultant, whose four-stage process yields a slick powerpoint (or worse: dense report) of banal advice packaged as stunning insight.

With a few years and a few mistakes under my belt, I’m less worried about falling into that caricature. Each of those building blocks—team, culture, relationships, vision, strategy, and processes—can use an outside boost on occasion. I’ve found the right clients (or more often, they’ve found me). The repeat and referral business provides a solid testament to the value of my work.

“Synergy”

Instead, my primary worry is whether I can make this disparate body of work add up to more than the sum of its parts. That’s the only way to generate excess value for clients, beyond the immediate outputs. It also keeps me motivated when business is slow and ensures that I’m learning throughout.

The critical decision I made when I started freelancing was to avoid projects that are basically contract labor. That is: projects that could just as well be done in-house, if not for a short timeline or some bureaucratic hurdle. Those projects are tempting if you want to have internal impact on the organization. But they rarely add up to anything across my own portfolio. They’re only worthwhile as part of more meaningful support to a current client who’s in a crunch.

My value is greater when steering a process that can’t be run as well internally. That’s why I end up facilitating and convening, especially multi-stakeholder coalitions. When a conversation affects organizational interests, there’s huge value in having it guided by someone who has none. Which is not to say that any outsider can facilitate; it takes a certain temperament and skillset as well.

In other cases, I can pull ideas and practices together across a broader network, sifting through the noise and contextualizing for people embedded within organizations. That feeds into some of my research and writing projects. Clients benefit not only from my time and expertise, but also from the range of ideas I can harvest (and challenge) due to my untethered position. (For example: here’s a recent project on organizational agility at Mercy Corps.)

Thinking about consulting this way riffs a bit on one of my earlier professional identities: as an organizer. Both consulting and organizing marshal soft power (especially when working freelance, with neither staff nor budgets) to support others in achieving their goals. Even my writing is an extension of my consulting, as a low-cost way to reach a larger audience with the same set of ideas.

Current portfolio

Embracing this approach means getting more comfortable with wearing multiple hats. Those many hats are also the reason why I haven’t posted here in over four months (the longest break since starting this blog seven years ago).

Right now, those hats include:

  • Core consulting: As described above, and here. (Want to know more? Reach out.)
  • Local activism: I’ve lived in Brooklyn for three years (another milestone: the longest I’ve lived anywhere since high school). That’s made it possible to get involved locally as a constituent and neighbor—rather than as an outsider, which I’ve typically been. That’s needed now more than ever.
  • More writing: I’ve never wanted to be a full-time writer, but sometimes blogging gets too comfortable. So my hiatus here was partially driven by a challenge I set myself to write for larger audiences. That’s yielded a half-dozen drafts that I’ve started to pitch elsewhere.
  • Always be learning: I’m slowly teaching myself Python. Definitely a stretch goal, as programming has never been my strong suit. Fair warning: I may subject you, dear readers, to some of my data analysis projects as I go.

Lastly: I recently launched an initiative called Leaderful to support frontline organizers working across progressive issues and organizations. Local volunteer leaders have been driving a huge uptick in political action across the United States in the past few years, and especially since last November. Most are doing this in their few spare hours, with little or no formal training or support in organizing. Leaderful aims to provide tools and resources to help them be more effective.

The initiative is little more than a blog at this point, with content shaped by conversations I’ve had and what I’ve seen of frontline organizers’ needs. I’m planning to ramp it up in the coming months, and I recently joined Civic Hall’s new Organizers in Residence program (along with a super-intimidating cohort of leaders doing amazing work) and plan to use that experience to build Leaderful into something more impactful. Watch this space.