How to Be a Consultant and Turn Your Employer Into Your First Client


Are you feeling boxed in by corporate “busy-ness?” Enjoy what you do, but tired of too many meetings and frustrated by tasks that detract from your ability to do your best work? Thought about becoming a consultant but unsure how to make the transition?

If your current job responsibilities align with a key area of your employer’s business, you may be able to transition into a consultant role by turning your employer into your first client. You can become a consultant by turning the essence of your expertise into your new full-time profession.

Evaluating the Opportunity to Become a Consultant

Before moving forward, take time to honestly determine whether becoming a consultant could work for you. You must weigh the pros and cons and ask yourself several serious questions: Are you ready? Do you work for the right employer? And if they say “no,” Do you have a Plan B? 

Why Make the Switch?

Even though becoming a consultant seems like an attractive option that could give you greater control over your work, consider both the pros and cons before making the switch:

  • Pros:

Becoming a consultant gives you more autonomy over your work and schedule. You can leverage your strengths and expertise, target the clients and projects you’re genuinely interested in, and build a richer, more successful portfolio in your desired industry. For those who are comfortable with the uncertainties that come with becoming a consultant, it can be a rewarding and lucrative career path.

  • Cons:

Becoming a consultant is obviously not as predictable or consistent as a traditional job. And while even stable jobs can take an unexpected turn, there are usually tangible employer benefits like contributions to a retirement account and, of course, medical coverage.  Also, becoming a consultant means that if you’re not signing clients, you’re not earning. So work never lets up and can be a constant hustle.

Are You Ready?

Consulting can be a solitary profession, and you may find yourself working alone or remotely for extended periods, which might lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. If the social aspect of working for a company is vital to you, becoming a consultant may not be the right move.

Are you crystal clear about what you love to do and do best? Identify your strengths, niche skills, passions, and the areas where you can add the most value to your employer’s (and later your clients’) business. 

Conduct a thorough assessment of your background and abilities. This includes taking assessment tests, meeting with other professionals and mentors, and taking care of any gaps in your knowledge or skills. These may be filled by additional training or certifications to establish your credentials – both to your employer as well as to other future clients. Also, take a look at your transferable skills: you may not realize how the specifics of what you do, or the underlying principles, can translate into other areas of your industry.

What are the financial risks involved in becoming a consultant? Do you have the resources you’ll need to bridge the transition period as you build your revenue? Don’t assume that your consulting deal with your soon-to-be ex-employer will suffice. Consulting for your employer could be an important validation of your ability and chosen consulting focus. But they could extract a price for allowing you to leave in this way and only pay you a token consulting fee as the price of your freedom.

Do you have a network of potential clients that you can tap into? Your network is going to be your most important asset to promote your new consulting practice. You have to have a clear sense of who your top allies are going to be. Before you negotiate your deal with your employer, spend the time talking to your top connections and developing your marketing and targeting game plan so you know who your other potential clients could be. This is where your personal Board of Directors could be your most important asset.

Assess Your Employer’s Business: Are They Ready?

There are three general scenarios that will determine whether you can make this successful transition and turn your employer into your first client.

They Need More of What You Do

It is clear that what you do is highly prized – or increasingly valuable. Your supervisor and other leaders are relying on you to deliver while also looking for ways to streamline or better facilitate your ability to deliver (e.g. more admin support).

The company’s business is trending in this direction and you see a greater need for your work down the road, not just for your company, but more broadly in your industry.

They Want to Move In a Direction You’re Prepared to Lead

Suppose new frontiers are opening up in your industry, and your company is aware of and interested in pursuing these new opportunities. In that case, you may be in a position to become a consultant and lead them into this new line of business.

Companies are often conflicted about how to invest in new and uncharted waters and want to minimize their downside risk. They may be talking about this opportunity but are not taking action. If you feel strongly that this new direction is worthwhile and that your background, skills, abilities, and vision qualify you – and you see yourself taking an entrepreneurial stab at this new area – then your company could agree to let you step into a consulting role for them and see if you can plant a flag for them in this new area.

From there, you could create a new business for yourself using your company as the case study for future consulting engagements, or even founding a new company to pursue this direction.

You See an Opportunity They Haven’t Seen Yet

This is the most difficult scenario to pull off. It’s not impossible, but it will require a great deal of research, study, presenting, and convincing to build the momentum necessary to achieve. It’s essentially doing all of the precursor work to the second scenario above.

If you are a visionary early adopter type and see trends and opportunities before others, and what you do and have learned how to do prepares you for where you see your industry going, you’ll have to convince the higher-ups that not only is this a business opportunity that is perfect for them, but that you are uniquely qualified to become a consultant for them and help them open up this line of business.

If you’re hesitant or don’t think you’ve got what it takes to try this approach, check out Adam Grant’s breakdown of how smart people convinced the very stubborn Steve Jobs to reverse course and move forward with the iPhone…

Assess Your Employer Culture: Could They Be Your Client?

How’s it going with your employer? Do you have an excellent (not just good) relationship with them? How about your manager? Have you gotten consistently high-performance reviews? And raises? If you have a history of positive feedback and an exceptional working relationship with your employer, you stand a better chance of them being receptive to your proposal.

Before taking the step, investigate: Do they hire (or have they hired) consultants? If so, learn more about the consultants they have hired (call them up!), the services they provided, and the outcomes they achieved. Could you do as well or (ideally) better?

If they haven’t employed a consultant before, that could be a red flag. Some employers have an NIH (Not Invented Here) attitude, which means they don’t value outside expertise and want everything to be generated in-house. While they may be more open to hiring you as a consultant because you have already worked as an employee at the company, it may be too much of a stretch. 

In the best of all possible worlds, your employer has not only hired outside consultants in the past, you know of instances where they have hired an employee or former employee as a consultant. In this dream scenario, your employer has a progressive growth mindset and sees transitioning you to consultant status as a strategic opportunity. By granting you this opportunity, they are also buying a certain degree of continued loyalty. They will want to benefit from your talent while also tapping into your extended business network.

What’s Your “Plan B?”

You’ve done your homework, gotten all the possible feedback and insight you can use, perfected your pitch, and gotten sign-off and buy-in from your manager and other colleagues, but the higher-ups still turn you down.

You can’t begin this journey without being prepared for this eventuality.

Calibrate Everyone’s Expectations

Decide on how hard you want to push for this change. Before you proceed to your pitch, understand that you won’t be seen quite the same way after you’ve proposed your consulting plan. So do your best to set everyone’s expectations around this proposal, and what it represents to you.

If it’s a “need to have”…

Then you have to proceed to set a termination date. Essentially, you’ve staked your future on this move and the company is your first opportunity, but not your only or your last opportunity. You are prepared to make the big jump regardless. And while you would rather have the company as your first client, what’s most important to you is setting up your own practice.

If it’s a “nice to have”…

Then you’re saying that you’d be happy to become a consultant if it fits the company’s agenda, but you’re not that attached to it and you’d be happy to continue in your current role.

In this scenario, you’re floating the possibility of becoming a consultant as a productive and effective option, but not necessarily as a definitive split. In this approach, your proposal is a discussion and an exploration for them to consider (with you at the center of it). The context is that this is a way of helping them to better utilize your time, and maybe save a little money because you’ll be forgoing fringe benefits to work as a consultant. While it’s something you’re prepared to do, it’s not an imperative and you’re also happy to continue with the status quo.

This is a delicate position to take and you have to have really good relationships in place for this to work as an organic option and a win-win for all concerned.

Becoming a Consultant Or Not: a Valuable Exercise

Regardless of whether becoming a consultant is something you decide to do, adopting a consultant’s mindset is a good idea. The career marketplace is increasingly transactional. Hiring and firing are more volatile than ever – and will continue to be so.

Companies look for specific skills when they create job descriptions and post jobs. But as a more experienced professional, you offer more than simply skills. You offer strategies born out of your experience. You provide insights and approaches that draw from more than simply skills. These are the talents of a consultant: someone who not only knows how to get specific things done and deliver specific results but who knows how to navigate complex situations and manage a range of stakeholders to achieve a specific goal or set of goals.

Look at what you do and what you’re capable of delivering. As an exercise, use your LinkedIn About section to define the specific set of deliverables you excel at. I call this your Superpower.

Let me know your thoughts on this. And share a link to your profile so others can see and appreciate your Superpower!

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John Tarnoff is an executive and career transition coach, speaker, and author who supports mid and late-career professionals in defining, planning, and achieving more meaningful and sustainable careers.

Fired 39% during his 35 years as a film producer, studio executive and tech entrepreneur, he learned how to turn setbacks into successes in a volatile business. He reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology to share his career lessons with others going through similar challenges.

Since leaving entertainment in 2010, John has coached individuals, groups, and led career workshops for university alumni, including for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Corporate coaching clients have included Bank of America, Bridgewater Assoc., Levi-Strauss, Softbank, TD Ameritrade, and Thrive Global.

He is the author of the best-selling Boomer Reinvention: How to Create your Dream Career Over 50 and has been named a Top Influencer in Aging by PBS/NextAvenue.


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