It was a personal crisis that led Wendi Peck into the world of consulting. Her first husband passed away and the experience caused her to re-evaluate everything in her life – including her career.
At the time, she was working at a telecommunications company, overseeing the department that developed proposals in response to federal RFPs and then managing the awarded contracts. She started receiving and responding to requests from outside associates for help with problems related to her area of expertise. She was also beginning to take note of organizational issues within her own company and offering to assist outside the regular scope of her job.
Working for free for a while “allowed me to see issues in other parts of the business and test my own capabilities,” she said. “It gave me the chance to hone my skills, refine my approach, and burnish my reputation. I was able to build up my resume and portfolio that way.”
She found she liked the role of “problem solver” so much that she wanted to do it full-time. More than 15 years later, she’s a successful management consultant and CEO of Executive Leadership Group, Inc.
Her business partner, fellow consultant, and husband, Bill Casey, did the same. As a management consultant just starting out, he held brown bag lunches for IBM. “I was literally giving stuff away to build up that resume.” His advice: Find recognizable clients and look for ways to prove yourself with them.
He adds that having those high-profile names on your resume helps mitigate the risk clients may associate with hiring a consultant. “Once you have a solid resume, a client will look at it and think ‘if IBM used you, then you’re good enough for me’.”
All that said, working for free certainly isn’t recommended for every consultant looking to go out on their own. Obviously, if you’re experienced and have a solid consulting portfolio, then you shouldn’t need to.
But if you work in some other capacity (say you’re an HR director) and you want to dip your toe into the waters of consulting (to become an HR consultant, for instance), then taking on unpaid projects is one way to do that. Plus you’ll gain a better sense of whether the consulting career path is the right one for you.