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So, You Want to Become an Independent Consultant?

This was my dream!  In 1992, I decided that although I was enjoying my job as an internal leadership development resource, I would like to be on my own someday.  Five-and-a-half years after dreaming it, I did it—I became an independent consultant for leadership, management and personal development . . . and I am successful!

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How did I do it?  There are three ingredients: skill, network and reputation.  All three are critical factors for success.

Skill—To be on your own, you need to have something people want and, furthermore, you have to be adept at it.  Degrees and experience are two ways to build skills, but there are other options as well.

Through internal mentoring and prior experience, my skills were good, but I felt I needed more depth.  After considering my options, I participated in the University Associates (UA) Intern program (three nine-day sessions extended over eight months.)   While there, I built an aggressive plan for learning which included reading, attending classes/conferences, and connecting with people who had the skills I desired.

Network—It is said that it’s not “what you know”, but “who you know”.  Skill covers the “what” and your network covers the “who.”  Connections can and should be made with a wide variety of people. 

My UA Intern experience was part of my networking strategy.  My class had 32 people, and many years later, I continue to connect with several of them.  As I met other interesting people, I added them to my network.  Another aspect of my strategy was to network with people I knew throughout the company I worked for.  Travel was extensive in my job, so I would “drop-in” when I traveled to someone’s location.  Thereafter, I used e-mail and quarterly phone calls to stay in touch.  An hour in an airport was always enough time to make a call or two.  I also continued to stay in touch with co-workers as they left for other companies.  Now, I use a quarterly newsletter and meetings for coffee to keep my network working for me.

Reputation—Getting involved in the development of visible projects placed me in a position to prove my value.  I worked with great people and together we created high-quality, fresh offerings.  Always doing my best gave me a reputation for excellence within my organization and company.  And, my reputation was further enhanced through my positive working relationship with outside vendors.  And now, I’ve also co-authored two books, so my reputation is expanding.

So, what has happened?  I started on my own in 1998.  Immediate activities included sending 185 letters to my network (and anyone I thought might care), putting together a description of my offerings, and building alliances with two very reputable training and consulting companies.  Then, the phone started ringing.  I’m pleased to say that my groundwork paid off.  My first year in business, I exceeded all of my goals, and with the exception of a slight dip after 9/11, I continue to be very successful.

The bottom-line is: referrals.  Being a consultant requires you to know some people who respect your skills and will vouch for you.  Every time the phone rings with an opportunity, it’s either someone I know or someone who had heard of me from my network.

So, you want to be a consultant?  Then remember these three tips: assess your skills, evaluate your network, and consider your reputation.  This will help you to decide what you need to prepare to become a successful independent consultant!

© Susan K. Gerke. All Rights Reserved. Susan K. Gerke is the president of Gerke Consulting & Development.  You can visit her web site at

 Susan Gerke
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