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Note to Self: "Contractor"


Ask any consultant and they will tell you that their life is hard, thankless, and exhausting. They will also tell you it is fulfilling, intellectually stimulating, and professionally rewarding. The intersection of these forces recently led me to tell one of my clients that the epithet on my tombstone will say, "I survived world-class-client". It was part joke, part thrill, part exasperation, part epiphany.

The travel ain't easy. The skies are mostly friendly but when they are not, they are hellish. Eating at airports is punishing. The worst foods in the world have found a home in the terminals I spend time in. Thinking constantly of doing right by my body seems untenable on certain days. I read that MRSA hangs around for 168 hours on airplane seat back pockets and E.coli for 96 hours on armrests.

Teleportation would be ideal. Elon Musk, are you listening?

People management is nuts! We can handle our folks easily with straight-talk and an occasional tantrum. Client people? Different story! Problem definition can border on nebulous and we barrel in with a resounding "Sure!" before figuring out how to fit the pieces. What stress?!

Here are the five lessons I have learned over the years and fall back on frequently.

You have limited time to make your point. If you aren't immediately impactful, you are dead. Clients will have 10x the patience with their colleagues than they will with the consultant. So choose your words wisely and keep your word, remembering that goodwill is gained with effort and lost in seconds.

The choice to promote has got to be in the middle. Seriously. The first choice is rejection-worth right away and allows you to build trust. The second choice needs to be worthy of consideration or that hard-earned trust will evaporate rapidly. The third choice can work but is costly or risky. You've got a fourth choice?! Unless there's a really good reason, stick it in the bin.

Crush the Ego. Consulting has taught me that no amount of planning will protect you from the unexpected. Project gremlins can be hideous and technologists are the worst planners in the universe. The antidote is to plan for risk, advertise it, catch it at first sight, and annihilate it with force. On that journey, you will face egregious comments, misplaced blame, half-complete information, and eye-popping conclusions which you have to rectify speedily. You gotta stay calm and retain two friends by your side: "Mea Culpa" and client leadership.

Move Forward. There are many reasons why a project stalls and sometimes the momentum can build against you. You can spend your time fighting the momentum, but as an outsider, you will rarely win. Sometimes the problem that was articulated is not even remotely connected to the problem on-hand. The point is to find ways to move forward, constantly.

Remind yourself that you are a "Contractor". That word resets my ego like nothing else. It negates the arrogance and reminds me that we are the custodians of risk and delivery commitments and we are paid for what we are worth. It also reminds us to do things sustainably and repeatably and to keep all parties financially, legally, digitally, and competitively secure.

As I wrap this post, these lessons kinda sound like parenting lessons too - limited time, limited choices, steel the inner self, move forward! Except we always have air cover as consultants but not as parents. For that reason, I'll pick consultant. But clients never give you kisses and hugs! And for that reason alone, I'll stick to my kids, thank you very much!


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