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Work, Your Way: Freedom
Flexibility, freedom, and focus are the three core reasons why professionals choose and stick with consulting. In the last of this three-part series, let’s explore the power of freedom. We’ll hear from three successful consultants who I interviewed for my upcoming book Work, Your Way: Reinvent Yourself, Create the Life You Want, and Thrive as a Consultant.
Take a look at the first two posts in this series: Why flexibility and focus are key reasons why professionals love consulting.
The myth of security
There are no guarantees in life or work. Many still believe that full-time employee roles are more secure than consulting contracts, but layoffs have become commonplace. The COVID-19 pandemic is the most recent example. Roughly one in six US workers, or more than 26 million people, filed for unemployment during March and April 2020 1, and the unemployment peak in April of last year (14.8 percent) was the highest ever recorded since the government began tracking unemployment in 1948.
Just as we saw in the Great Recession of 2008, a subset of these newly unemployed professionals with marketable skills and expertise will turn to consulting or gig work. For some, it will be a short-term stopgap. Others will embrace the benefits of the consultant lifestyle and never look back.
Loyalty is a two-way street
Deanna, a training and development expert, experienced this firsthand. Before she started working with me, a teammate’s layoff helped her realize that she was more loyal to her employer than they were to her.
“We had a round of layoffs in our group, and I shared responsibilities with a woman who’d been on the team longer than me,” she told me in a video interview. “They let her go. It was the first time I’d been in a group where someone was laid off. I realized that I wanted more control. I thought, If it’s so easy for them to let her go, why am I holding on?”
Deanna was tiring of her job for many reasons, but she stayed out of a sense of loyalty. Seeing her teammate let go—someone with a solid performance record and more tenure than her—was freeing for her. She realized that her loyalty wasn’t reciprocated by her employer. At the end of the day, as an employee at a global organization, she was ultimately a line on the budget.
As harsh as that sounds, it’s the truth. I have seen too many professionals shocked by an unexpected layoff. They never saw it coming, no matter how good their work was.
Creativity in full supply
For Alyssa, a longtime marketing consultant, consulting frees her up for creative pursuits. While her side hustles haven’t always taken off, they’ve been a creative outlet for her to try new ideas and skills—which she often funnels into her future consulting contracts.
As a military spouse and mother to an energetic two-year-old, the freedom and flexibility of consulting are essential to Alyssa. That flexibility enables her to work remotely and block out family time each afternoon. It’s also given her the freedom to fully embrace her new role as a working mom, thanks in part to her latest side hustle, Little Supply 2.
The company offers monthly “excuses to celebrate” in the form of ready-to-go activity kits designed with working parents in mind. Alyssa and her sister created Little Supply to give parents those memorable, Pinterest-worthy moments without the stress.
Her side hustle is at once rewarding and challenging. Alyssa is getting closer to her goal of having more quality time with her daughter while exploring new areas of marketing.
“Our generation has to be flexible because the world opened us up to the possibility that things can change at a moment’s notice,” said Hai when I asked him why millennials choose alternative career paths like consulting. “We have to plan for the future, but also plan for those plans to fall apart. Rather than scaring us from living to our fullest potential, those challenges made us realize that we need a plan B (and C) for everything.”
Most everyone I talk to has a before story—the career they had or roles they did before getting into consulting—so I was fascinated to learn that Hai doesn’t. A marketer at heart, Hai found a niche as a social and digital marketing expert with a passion for empathy. Consulting is the only way he’s worked since graduating from business school.
Hai has an interesting theory on why his generation is drawn to contract work.
“The collective challenges we’ve faced have shaped how we approach work,” he said, citing monumental events like the advent of the internet, 9/11, the Great Recession, and the global economic impact of COVID-19.
The pandemic has proved Hai’s theory. The New York Times recently reported on the “Yolo Economy”3 (as in, you only live once) in which burned-out millennials are realizing that life is about more than a stable job. “For a growing number of people with financial cushions and in-demand skills,” writes Kevin Roose, “the dread and anxiety of the past year are giving way to a new kind of professional fearlessness.”
Some are abandoning cushy and stable jobs to start a new business, turn a side hustle into a full-time gig or finally work on that screenplay. Others are scoffing at their bosses’ return-to-office mandates and threatening to quit unless they’re allowed to work wherever and whenever they want … a daredevil spirit seems to be infecting even the kinds of risk-averse overachievers who typically cling to the career ladder.
My hunch is that, as more millennials and Gen Zs take root in the workforce, there will be fewer consultants with before stories. It will just be the way we work.