Paid Slave, or Trusted Advisor: It’s Your Choice

I’m taking a break from work at the moment. It’s been a long time coming, and something I should have done at least 6 months ago. That was the original plan, but work commitments to a client project took longer than expected, for a variety of reasons.

The reason for taking a break is pretty simple: I’ve been working more or less flat out for the last 11 or so years. I had a few months downtime around 2002 due to the tech wreck, but that wasn’t exactly relaxing; forced unemployment is rarely fun. Aside from that, though, I’ve not taken more than 3 weeks off at a stretch the entire time. I’ve been fortunate enough to be pretty healthy, so I really only took a week or so over Christmas to see family, and maybe one or two other quick breaks through the year. I changed gigs when I felt I was losing interest, or getting burnt out, usually without a break between them. “A change is as good as a holiday” after all. Bzzt. Wrong.

I know a few other consultants who take several months off between gigs. There’s one guy who works for 6 months, and then takes 6 months off. Having regular breaks from working, particularly considering the hours required at times, is really important. Work hard, play hard isn’t about effort so much as focus. You need to be able to give up work mentally so you can concentrate on play. Then, you’ll be refreshed and able to work more effectively, rather than doing a half-assed job of both.

I’ve also realised I’ve been making a critical mistake all these years. Pretty much all of my gigs have been onsite consulting gigs, and I’ve approached them as if I was an employee of the client company. I honestly thought that by keeping the needs of the client company at the forefront of my mind, I would be best able to provide excellent service. I seamlessly inserted myself into their corporate structure, the better to provide a good ‘cultural fit’, I suppose.

The problem with this approach is that you end up being treated as an indentured servant. Most companies aren’t very good at using consultants as supplemental to their own workforce. For a variety of reasons — lack of business justification for headcount, poor employee career management policies, etc. — consultants end up filling in for regular employees, because the work needs to get done. Yet you’re not an employee, so you don’t get paid leave, training, career management, and you have to pay for your own Christmas party.

You can’t hire and fire, you can’t authorise spending of money, and you can’t have full management authority. You’re never fully part of the team, yet you’re not really an external entity. Worse, the client ends up viewing you as just a really expensive employee. Instead of getting good value from you, you’re just another body who gets ordered to do things, and because you’re getting paid a lot of money, the client feels that they are perfectly justified in getting you to do whatever they want. You’re a highly paid slave. This is entirely the wrong approach, and I’m not alone in thinking this.

I can’t remember where I originally read about this idea, but here’s a reference from a bit of quick Googling:

“Now I’m a trusted adviser that everyone longs to be instead of an indentured servant to people who don’t appreciate me.”

That’s a quote from a book by Mary Rowland, called In Search of the Perfect Model. I’ve not read it, but this quote encapsulates what I’m trying to say.

The mistake I’ve made, and it’s entirely my own fault, is that I’ve been behaving like an indentured servant in roles where I’m supposed to be a trusted advisor. It’s a rare client who can recognise this mismatch and pull you up on it. Most of them just get frustrated with you, but don’t know why. They react by giving you more orders, thinking that you’re just not doing as you’re told. You comply, but get frustrated because they’re not listening to your advice. It’s the mismatch of expectations that causes the trouble.

Once you’ve fallen into this trap, it’s near impossible to change roles from indentured servant to trusted advisor. The client has a particular mental model of how you fit into their organisation, and to change your role would mean completely changing that model. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to effect this change without a lot of effort. You’re much more likely to simply frustrate the client even more.

The best way to approach this is to behave in a way that befits the role, from before you start the gig. I’ve seen others do this very successfully, and I was confused as to why they were able to do it when I wasn’t. I now understand that the mistake I made had happened long before I realised something was wrong. My whole approach to these gigs was skewed toward the wrong set of behaviour, which ended up frustrating both me, and the client.

This break serves two functions: the first is to get some rest. The second is to rebuild my own mental approach to the work I do. My goal is to approach my next job as a trusted advisor first, and a doer-of-stuff second.

What about you? How do you approach your job? Are you a trusted advisor, or a paid slave?

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  1. The key part-word for me is “trust”. People might listen to your advice because they pay you a lot of money, but they will not trust your advice because they don’t have an established and strong relationship with you. Especially when you come to an organisation – initially – as an outsider.

  2. Good points, Craig.

    Yes, you need to build rapport with a client, and that begins from before you even start paid work for them.

    Yet I wonder about someone who pays you a lot of money but doesn’t trust your advice. Why do that? Isn’t that just a waste of time and money?

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