HR contract roles have boomed over the past few years. What does it take to launch out on your own as an HR consultant?
In 2002, after 20 years working as a senior HR professional in blue chip companies such as Qantas and IAG, Felicity Mildon swapped her briefcase for a backpack and headed to The Peruvian Andes, where she trekked the Inca Trail.
The six months she spent backpacking around South America gave Mildon time to think about how she wanted to live and work. She wanted more flexibility and she wanted to travel regularly, two things that weren’t possible if she continued working for big companies.
When she got home, Mildon established her own consultancy, specialising in organisational and cultural change, executive development, and strategic HR initiatives.
Mildon isn’t alone. Faced with redundancy or looking for challenges outside the corporate model, many HR professionals are going solo.
According to research done by HR talent acquisition specialist The Next Step, the growth of contract openings was one of the major features in the HR market in 2016. Flexible opportunities, such as contracting and interim appointments now represent over a third of all roles in HR.
Mildon, who is currently undertaking HR certification via the Senior Leaders Pathway, says there are risks and rewards.
“You need to be okay with uncertainty,” she says.
It’s all about the contacts
Mildon had developed strong business contacts during her corporate career, was often approached to sit on boards or speak at conferences, and received several industry awards. All that helped when she struck out on her own. Among her first clients were people she had used as suppliers in her corporate jobs.
“The networks and the relationships and the profile you establish in your corporate roles are very important,” says Mildon. “I think a lot of HR people don’t network enough.”
Chris Steinfort was warned against entering the crowded consultancy market but after a long and successful career spanning private and public sectors he was ready for something different and established his own business earlier this year. Steinfort, who is president of AHRI’s Victorian Council, had also recognised the trend of organisations relying increasingly on a virtual warehouse of freelance talent.
“This is the way the world is going and I wanted to future-proof myself against that,” he says of his decision to leave Australian Red Cross where he had been HR director for eight years.
Weighing up the risks
Traditionally, a permanent job within an organisation represented a low-risk option but in today’s market, argues Steinfort, if that company restructures, you might lose your job. When you run your own business you can alleviate the risk by spreading your work over a number of clients.
To make a success of an independent consultancy you have to keep up-to-date with new HR tools and theories, and grow your network, says Steinfort.
He thinks HR needs to catch up with other professions by embracing industry accreditation and is keen to put his AHRI certification on his business cards and website. “It’s about validating my skills. Being a member of AHRI makes me part of a wider profession where I feel a belonging and a commitment to quality.”
Managing director of Kapability Solutions and 2015 AHRI medal winner, Dr Kim Schofield FCPHR, agrees. A former senior HR executive in the public and private sector, Schofield says one of the biggest differences between working for someone else and working on your own is having to market yourself.
“There is a lot of corporate downsizing at the moment so there are a lot of HR people setting up on their own. AHRI certification gives you a point of difference and demonstrates you have a range of HR knowledge and experience.”
Certification is useful even for HR professionals with a long track record in the industry. Well known in Western Australia where he had worked for many years, but now based in Melbourne, Schofield says certification helped raise his profile in Victoria.
If going it alone is nerve-wracking for an experienced HR professional, then it’s no surprise younger practitioners find it tough. Scotia Lockwood wishes she had sought more professional and administrative support when she established her own business after leaving a corporate HR role and pursuing postgraduate study.
“You need a strong drive. It’s a very different mindset to the one you have working inside an organisation,” says the Brisbane HR professional.
“You have to make an effort to get out and network, approach other people who are consulting so you have a network to leverage from.”
Lockwood learnt useful lessons along the way and has loved the creative side of the business and the variety of work she handled.
After running her own business for a couple of years, and finishing her studies, Lockwood decided the time was right to return to a corporate job and earlier this year took a Senior HR Business Partner role with Allianz Worldwide Partners.
“I do love the buzz of running a consultancy but, for me, it was just the right time to go back to a corporate job… I am really proud that I did it for two and a half years. I survived and I know that I can do it if I choose to go back to having my own consultancy again.”
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Image: Felicity Mildon on a visit to the Heavenly Lake, left, in north-west China.