Like many consultants, occasionally I am asked to be a member of someone else’s consulting team. Usually this is a pretty good deal, but there are catches. I don’t have to do the marketing or administration of the contract, and when you are in business for yourself that is a gift. The bad news is that sometimes it is not a good fit.

What I have learned is to be clear about my contractor’s expectations, not only in terms of a work product, but also in terms of their culture and brand. And sometimes I just need to say no.  Here are some examples:

Personality Mismatch: One consulting firm’s brand was to deliver deep change with humor and a light touch, and it was very successful at it. When they asked if I would be part of their consulting team on a large contract, I realized that I could never pull off the “light touch” part. I do very well with difficult issues that need focus and depth, but even a 9-month “comedy improv” class years ago did not help to lighten me up.  I told them my reservations and offered to provide background consulting work. Unfortunately, that is not what they needed, but we parted on good terms and now refer business to each other.

Mutually Conflicting Expectations: One national consulting firm’s brand was to guarantee their work and their price, and they wanted that from me as well. However, they also wanted me to be very flexible to changes in process and variables. At best, this is a prescription for “scope creep” (and the opportunity to work for $5 per hour). At worst it can create serious team conflict and the inability to deliver a product that satisfies the customer. This was a consulting firm that I respected, but I would not work for them under these terms. We agreed to work “side by side” – i.e. they would refer projects to me and I to them, and we would collaborate when working on projects with the same client, but each under our own contracts.

The Best Gig Ever! I have been operating as a subcontractor on and off for nearly 15 years with a national law enforcement consulting firm, providing facilitation and change management expertise on many of their projects. I love this work! And although I am not “sworn” – their lingo for being a trained and licensed law enforcement officer – I have earned a modicum of respect in that field as a result of my work with them. Why does this relationship work so well?

  • Because law enforcement is not my background, there is no skill overlap to worry about. I enjoy learning their field, and my personality – upfront, bold, and action-oriented – works well with their clients.
  • We respect each other’s body of knowledge, we have very similar value systems, and we are all absolutely committed to doing the best job possible.
  • We know that we may be touching the lives of citizens with whom our clients come in contact, and we take our responsibilities very seriously. Our outcomes can change lives, not just spreadsheets.

My suggestion to those who would like to be hired as associates under someone else’s contract, is to make that desire known upfront and start a dialog early. It will take time for each of you to vet the other and see if a potential match exists. When an opportunity comes up, start with a smaller project and see how it goes before committing to something larger. You will be doing yourself and your contractor a favor, and you just might find your own best gig ever!

Cathy Perme is the co-owner of Perme & Peterson Associates, LLC.

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Catherine Perme

Fizz! How to Succeed as an Independent Consultant author Cathy Perme also wrote Confucius in My Cubicle: Practical Wisdom for the Leader in All of Us, released by Wisdom Editions.