A) the calm but effective multi-tasker?
B) the dramatist telling me about their range of deadlines, fatigue, rushing up and down roads in heels to get to meetings that have already started….?
Here are my top tips for consultants who want to effectively spin plates for a living:
- Use an online diary to allocate REAL time to a task
Book meetings, book time to prepare, book time to do tasks following, put a buffer of 15 minutes in-between meetings. Book thinking time, move thinking time, add more thinking time. Working time on bids goes in the diary, working time on client’s drafts…. Everything is allocated against time and moved around in real time as the needs of the day and week change. Real time is that which it might actually take rather than ‘imaginary consultant time’ (which is reportedly fluid and takes on a sort of matrix like quality where you can do three things at once).
- Acknowledge things sometimes take longer
Simply accepting that you will not always complete a task in an hour or a meeting in two takes the stress out of the occasion. One the people I respect the most is at his calmest when I know he is on a deadline (which is most of the time). This has greatest effect in meetings where it really focuses the group, ensures they feel listened to and sets them up to feel the urgency but not the stress of the deadline.
- Book yourself in, again, and again
If you have run out of time on a project or piece of work: Book time in your diary to complete it or at least move it on. Lest it gets forgotten or becomes THAT PROJECT that just won’t move. If you are on a deadline this might mean moving some things off the timesheet that day. But do move them – don’t expect to be in two places or on two projects at once.
- Delight in the fact that sometimes things take less time
Nuff said, move on – you just gained some time! Let us not waste it.
- Make the problem take less time and be less stressed
For me I know if I can’t see the solution, the marketing message, the event plan in my mind, then there is something in the way. So I could waste a lot of time forcing a solution that is probably not going to come any time soon… and now I am late for that meeting… agghh,
So here are some of the things I do to take the stress and time out of a problem.
- Leave it – if you can, literally park it on another desk, in a file for tomorrow. Give it time.
- Exercise – for me slipping on the trainers and running is likely to unblock a problem and show the next step which means I can move it on, even if not complete.
- Tea – Oh how many times has the act of making tea given me eyes away from something, again to find the next step.
- Phone a friend – well probably a colleague. Ask advice, roll the problem over with someone. Usually this is a lot quicker than emailing (which can end up with a 4 page challenge without context which your colleague may not be as delighted with as a cheery phone call).
- Go back in the process – review a few older notes on the project, talk again to the client about the challenge, rehearse from further back in history to work out the route forward.
- Take on clients, projects, challenges that you want
Ok – obvious? Really obvious? How many of us take on projects because we are: worried where our next commission might come from; that the client will be mad if we don’t and go to a competitor; because we feel we ought to help; because we like to be needed.
I am not advocating for an easy life. But to make stuff work it is generally better to be getting satisfaction in what you do – even the problems and really tricky stuff which can be our creative edge. So you better really want the challenge otherwise this job is likely to go on and on and give you a load of heartbreak. And goodness knows how many other projects will disappear as you are in lockdown on something that you are not enjoying.
- Say ‘No’
Actually you rarely have to say ‘No’ as directly as that. And in fact ‘no’ is quite a dead end response in any situation. And consultants are solutions people – right? So you can help find the ‘yes’ – even if you don’t do the work.
‘I think Paul in your accounts team would be the best person to pull that data together – do you agree?’ I.e., Not me!
‘Can I see if I can suggest someone from my group of colleagues/associates who would have the capacity and skill set to deliver that project for you?’ I.e., Not me!
‘That sounds like a really exciting project. I am caught up in other projects until January. Could I book in your work for February?’ I.e., Not now!
- Don’t assume the client manages time well
Clients are people too. Senior executives in organisations are often like consultants in their plate spinning roles. So the same challenges that consultants have your commissioners are likely to also. Ask the person commissioning you for a clear brief, milestones, check-in points. They might change and move but start on the same route. Your commissioner might be a little resistant to this to start with (their diary will be as busy as yours and potentially that is partly why they have asked you in). But if you remind them that this will be the smartest way to complete the project in the way they need it, you can usually find some agreed way of managing.
- Tell your loved ones
When deadlines approach tell your friends and family that you might be a little unavailable, distracted, in need of support. OK – so this is not a chance to tell them how dramatic life is and how important you are to the world turning in your sector. This is a chance to remind them what you do, why you do it and to book in (yes) some time after the deadline to re acquaint, restore and visit.
- Find your people
Being a consultant can be a lonely and challenging business. It is (mostly) not like having a job. Dude- where are my colleagues!? So you have to find your colleagues. Some of them might be obvious. People you have worked with before, people you meet at conferences on training courses. But sometimes they crop up in interesting places: Trains, planes, school gates, political rallies, dinner parties… The key thing is, use your intuition. If you know yourself you will probably intuitively know when someone is ‘your kind of person’ with some impressive skills which overlap connect or inspire you. Someone to pick up the phone to if you have that problem that just wont budge….