How to Become an Independent Consultant
Interview by Jake O'Neill
Kate Fielding is the founder of Fielding Communications, a new strategic consultancy that helps organisations achieve profile, positioning and impact through effective brand and communications strategies. Formerly head of strategic communications at the Natural History Museum, Kate’s background is in-house at well-known organisations.
We caught up with Kate to find out how she decided to make the switch and go independent, the benefits of freedom and her top advice for anyone thinking of becoming independent.
How did you make the decision to become independent? It’s a seed that’s been germinating for a long time. I was at a School of Life event seven years ago about finding fulfilling work. The central idea was finding the place where your values and your talents cross – the thing that you do well that makes the most difference to the world around you. When you advance in lots of careers you can end up moving away from a lot of what you enjoy doing and what you’re good at. Becoming independent was about going back to my roots in many ways and finding that sweet spot.
When I started out my plan was to be an actress, then I did two literature degrees and somehow found myself doing comms roles for scientific organisations. I spent a lot of time trying to mould myself to fit what I thought I should be in those roles. But more recently I’ve come to realise that the quirks in my background are actually an excellent combination to help my clients: a bit of drama, great copywriting, knowing how to tell their story and communicate it in an engaging way. The strength I bring is in combining incongruous skills and abilities that can unlock a fresh perspective.
What were the biggest challenges you faced/are facing? You could always be more prepared and have more plans in place before you make the switch but there may never be a point when it feels like it’s enough. Some of the biggest challenges, especially as I’ve always worked in-house for fairly large organisations, is dealing with a lot of tasks that are business critical but that other teams have always taken care of. Suddenly I’m not just the comms person, but the finance, IT, admin and design person. I’ve been lucky to get loads of help and advice from my network, but it’s also worth thinking about what you can outsource if it’s not your area of expertise.
Time management is a challenge now because I use the Eisenhower matrix, but there’s no one to delegate the ‘not urgent or important’ stuff to! It forces you to be clearer up front about how you’re going to allocate your time – so I’ll spend a certain percentage on contacting my network, on marketing and on writing etc, where in a bigger organisation this all happens at the same time across different teams.
What’s the best thing about being independent? Freedom. Obviously you’re constrained by the need to make money and you can’t sit on the sofa all day watching Cash in the Attic, but freedom in the sense of being able to steer a course and set my own standards – I’m now the arbiter of that. I have a very clear sense of what I can do and what I can achieve at any time.
I’ve also loved having the opportunity to reconnect with a lot of my network and spend my time in ways I previously wasn’t able. Yes, there’s an element that you’re hoping it will eventually turn into a future project or work somewhere, but these are people I know and like, and they have loads of interesting ideas and perspectives, so it has enormous value in its own right.
What’s the dream long term plan? I’m not sure I know yet. The short-term plan is to prove I’ve got a viable business within the next 12 months – so it’s very much about hitting my financial targets each month. Beyond that, I’d like to get to the point where I can make choices about what I take on, so that I’m really honing in on that point where I’m using my skills and talents to make the world a better place.
What advice would you give others thinking of going independent? I got lots of excellent practical and philosophical advice from other people who had made the leap, particularly Paul Sweetman of SweetComms who told me about the ‘rule of 3s’ – so as soon as you finish one task, contact three people you’ve not been in touch with for a while. Otherwise I guess the big piece of advice I’d give is – just do it! You can wait for years for the perfect time, or to get one more job under your belt, but sooner or later you’ve just got to take a leap into the unknown. I’ll let you know how it works out in about 12 months…