I was such a dyed-in-the-wool corporate Sally, my husband used to say that if I cut my arm I’d bleed my company’s logo colors. It was true. I really loved my corporate job. I thought I would never consult or work for myself. The very idea of independent consulting horrified me.
When my company was sold, I was pregnant. I took the rest of the pregnancy off. I took a break from working for the first time in twenty years.
In all that time I had never had more than a week off at one time, apart from my honeymoon, which was three weeks long. I tried to be a stay-at-home mom. That was a complete failure. I adore my kids but I didn’t want to sit around with them all day. I started writing a column for the newspaper and I sang a lot of opera.
When my son was born I suddenly got itchy and wanted to work again. I called a fellow who had consulted for our company. I called him at 8:45 in the morning.
He said “Come over! Let’s talk right now. I could use your help.”
“My six-week-old is with me right now,” I said. “Bring him too!” said my consultant friend. He hired me to work on projects with him.
Oh my gosh, I said to myself, I had no idea.
I had no clue that consulting is not even a thing. You just talk to people about their problems at work. You just do the obvious thing: see what’s broken, and fix it. Then again, what else could consulting possibly be except for that?
It turns out that I loved consulting. I started to wonder why people always say that consulting is scary and dangerous. What did they know that I didn’t know?
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see why so many people would trash-talk consulting. There are lots of folks with an economic interest in keeping working people in the dark and disempowered. The more sheeplike working people are, the better for folks who’d rather point to a pay chart on the wall than negotiate the value of someone’s services.
The fact is that we are all consultants now, and it’s past time we realized it. We all run our careers, independently. No one else is looking out for your career welfare. You have to do it yourself. Whether you get paid through a payroll system or by invoicing your clients makes no difference. That is a small distinction. Either way, we’re driving the bus.
Let’s imagine Mitchell, who is at work right now. Mitch is a database analyst. He has a great resume. He’s only been unemployed once in his fifteen-year career. Let’s ask Mitch some questions about his work and career plans.
US: So Mitch, do you like your work?
MITCH: It’s fine. I’ve been doing it for a long time.
US: How much do you get paid?
MITCH: I get eighty-seven thousand, six hundred a year.
US: How is that number derived?
MITCH: What do you mean? It’s the market rate for someone with my background.
US: Okay, you say it’s the market, but what does that mean? What is the real economic value of your work to your employer, do you know?
MITCH: Hey, you got me — if they’re willing to pay me eighty-seven, six, I’m good with it.
US: What if the wind shifted? What would you do if your company laid you off or the entire market for database analysts tanked?
MITCH: I guess I’d deal. Why you want to be so negative?
US: What type of pain do you solve for your employer?
MITCH: They need a database guy, they call me!
Mitch is completely out of touch with the problem he solves in his work. He doesn’t concern himself with questions about the real value of his work to his employer.
Mitchell has a big mortgage and a private preschool riding on thin air, because he has no understanding of the economic machinery of which he is a part. He simply trusts employers to pay him whatever the chart on the wall in HR says they should.
Contrast Mitchell with Leanne, a home and office organizer. Leanne doesn’t have a degree. She earns a little less than Mitch does — about seventy-five thousand per year. She’s elated about it.
“I make my own hours and I have two people who freelance for me when I’m overloaded,” she says. Leanne takes in about six thousand dollars per month, and she always has a few months’ visibility into the future. She is always marketing, always doing business development and always performing a customer service function.
No one taught her how. She’s operating on instinct and the experience she’s gained as an entrepreneur and a grown-up running a business in the real world. Leanne has never been to a seminar and wouldn’t know Six Sigma if it smacked her in the face. Lots of corporate high-rise folks might look down their noses at Leanne, but Leanne is much closer to her market than they are.
Leanne knows why people call her for help. She knows what they’ll pay for her services, because she negotiates her rates every day. She is right down on the ground in the middle of the economic ecosystem in which she operates.
Mitchell, on the other hand, is miles off the ground. He has never billed anyone for his work. He doesn’t know a thing about the problems that might result if he and his colleagues in the department suddenly disappeared one day. Would problems result at all, if Mitch and his team disappeared? Mitch doesn’t want to think about that question, much less get the answer to it.
He trusts his retirement and his kids’ college fund to the faith that his large employer or some other large employer will continue to need his services and continue to pay his salary. But what if those assumptions aren’t true?
I’m sick and tired of hearing people say “It’s so hard to be independent. You have to do everything yourself.” That’s like saying “It’s so hard to go to the gym and grow muscles. Your muscles get sore and they hurt. It’s such a pain. You should stay at home and watch TV instead. It’s easier.”
Why would we want our workforce so passive and disempowered that all they know how to do is search for salaried employment and collect unemployment checks between jobs? We should teach entrepreneurism to every kid in school.
We should make the Department of Labor the Department of Self-Sufficiency, and stop treating salaried employment like the pinnacle for every working person. It’s sickening to see good colleges attracting kids by reassuring their fearful parents that the right degree will get a kid a job ‘with a good employer.’
Why are we talking to kids about good employers, when we should be teaching kids to grow muscles of their own?
Once you have the muscles, you don’t have to be grateful that you lucked into a job with a good company. You can make a company of your own, any time.