Feb 25

Leadership of One

A typical day in my work week is spent engaged as a Senior Project Manager, providing oversight for a given client’s technology initiative. From a functional perspective, I serve in the traditional role of project manager, monitoring the project schedule, budget, and scope of work. More often than not, I also find myself serving as a leader at the client site, giving resources direction, and sometimes even mentorship and advice as to their role on the project, within the client’s organization as a whole, and perhaps even industry / career guidance. My clients view me as a trusted advisor, and I work hard to find the right balance of professional and personal that allows me to connect with people in a positive way, and see projects through to their successful completion.

Like millions of other Americans, I also work for myself. I am technically the owner of a small business having established an S-Corp for my business affairs, but at the end of the day I am self-employed. I have been at it now for over eleven years, and, knock on wood, things have gone pretty well thus far. As with any career choice, it has its risks and rewards. I have the luxury of focusing on local clients and avoiding the road warrior consulting model, as I had earlier in my career. However, finding work that meets my criteria is harder, and opportunities are few and far between. I get to be my own boss, but have not had a performance review to discuss my professional strengths and weaknesses in a dozen years. I don’t need approval from anyone to proceed with a particular company expense, but the full burden of generating revenues rests squarely on my shoulders.

I am currently in a bit of a dry spell, having actively pursued some prospective projects for a few weeks now, but nothing that has closed yet. You quickly go through phases of first being happy to have a little down time to recharge, then energized to chase after a new project or client, and then anxious when some time has passed and find that you are still looking for the next opportunity. I’ve been fortunate that during the self-employed portion of my career this has not happened to me often. However, when it does, I remind myself that I have to stop and look in the mirror and provide the same leadership and mentorship advice to myself as I would anyone else. Without a boss or colleagues within my own organization, I have no one else to turn to but myself to work through these situations. Bill Bradley once said that “leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better.” Sometimes you need to look inward and unlock your own potential to become even better, and keep driving forward. This is the Leadership of One.

Have a Plan

The first thing I was ask someone in my situation is whether or not they have a plan. Each night before I go to bed I make sure I have a game plan for the next day. Who I am going to reach out to? Who can I reconnect with? What prospective clients do I want to target? What firms can I partner with? Sometimes, when I’m really lucky, a lead falls out of the sky right into my lap. But more often than not, the leads come from your network, referrals, and industry connections. In addition to the planning to find the next project, there is also the financial planning. What happens to me financially if I go a month before finding the next project? Two months? In the current job market, even as things appear to be improving, there is never any certainty. Many recommend having at least a few months of personal financial cushion in case the unexpected happens. This rule of thumb applies even more so to those who are self-employed. Be willing to ask yourself the hard questions and challenge yourself as to whether or not you can weather a financial storm. Those who can lead themselves to find new clients, and be disciplined enough to be financially prepared, will have greater success in the world of the self-employed.

Be Persistent

If you are self-employed, you are most likely a highly driven person. Most of the time the drive is out of desire to achieve a personal goal or objective for yourself. If you were leading or mentoring someone else who is self-employed, you would encourage them to keep at it and be persistent. Sometimes I refer to it as turning over rocks – if you look under enough rocks, you will eventually find what you are looking for. It then just becomes a numbers game, and with your persistence, you will make the right connection, be in the right place at the right time, and the circumstances will be such that next thing you know you will be engaged by a client and billable again. If you think these comments are a lot of rah-rah, then keep this in mind – if you are not persistent, if you just sit back and expect the next opportunity to come to you, your life among the ranks of the self-employed will be very short lived. Every morning, the leader in my mirror tells me to keep at it. Do not let up your pursuit of the next client or project.

Be Patient

Finally, I’ve put in a full day of emails, phone calls, and searching my network for other potential opportunities. Sometimes I feel like I have nothing to show for it, but it is never the case. The leader in the mirror reminds me that the seeds for future opportunities were planted today. Sometimes those seeds blossom and bear fruit very quickly. Other seeds I first planted years ago, but were worth the wait when the right opportunity presented itself. As eager as you may be to find the next project, and as persistent as you work to secure it, I would remind others that you do have to balance that persistence with patience. If you have the right plan, you can afford to be patient. The clients have needs, the work is out there, and it is the right balance of persistence and patience that will land you the right engagement for your skill set. In the same way the leader in morning mirror tells me to go after them, the leader in the nighttime mirror tells me it’s ok, don’t let up, but give it some time.

Working for yourself can be stressful, and at times even take an emotional toll on you. However, even when taking that into consideration, I constantly remind myself that if I can be successful leading others and providing value to client resources and team members, I must also be capable of leading myself. If on any given day I begin to doubt that, I just check in with the leader in the mirror.

The following originally appeared in February 2015 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.