Why I chose the life of an independent consultant

By Ruth Cornish (FCIPD), Founder Amelore Ltd, Co-founder HR Independents Ltd.

There’s never been a more exciting time to work independently as a people professional, with opportunities growing in the current climate. Although the CIPD’s People Profession survey 2020 found that 11% of the profession is currently self-employed, it’s likely the true figure is much higher and rising, since outsourcing tends to increase during periods of recession.

The value-add of independent people professionals

Independent people professionals are often senior and more likely to be Fellow Chartered CIPD members (FCIPD), bringing a unique external perspective gained from working with multiple organisations, often spanning many sectors, all at the same time. They support business recovery and drive success.

And, because of their experience and professional confidence, independents tend to be courageous and uncompromising when it comes to malpractice or unethical behaviours. A good independent will walk away from any client that threatens their strong professional principles.

However, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Both small and larger employers have profoundly different people needs – to the extent that independent people professionals are accustomed to developing a number of approaches to address the same issues.

Independent people professionals’ main areas of influence

Working with SMEs

Independent people professionals help SMEs create great places to work. They partner with both early-stage and scaling businesses to gear them up for speedy and sustainable success by focusing on their people and culture. After all, every growing business has similar challenges: 

  • Taking founders and management teams from 'do-er's' and executors to managers and leaders. This makes coaching skills more important than ever.
  • Attracting and hiring the best talent, and helping develop the employer brand (when the employer may not yet have developed one).
  • Building a team that’s highly engaged and super productive, with performance fully optimised. Organisational development is a core part of what independents offer, with 73% being strategically focussed.

Independents design and deliver great people strategies, sleek operations, and simple practices, allowing founders to focus on driving forward their businesses. They help define and create cultures that raise the bar for performance. In fact, that was exactly the brief when I worked with the founders of notonthehighstreet.com. They wanted ‘entrepreneurial HR’: Practices that would scale up, attract and retain talent and empower – basically, an HR function that said ‘yes’! Our biggest focus was on creating a culture we’d all dreamed of. That culture helped create an exceptional and highly successful business.

Working with in-house teams

Most people professionals who choose to work independently have 16+ years’ experience. They often support in-house teams by:

  • providing them with evidence for change
  • resourcing projects
  • resolving organisational issues.

Often the initial brief needs shaping, which is when independents use critical thinking and evidence-based practice to improve their practice. 83% of independents surveyed defined problems before providing or recommending solutions. I was approached by the MD of a large multinational engineering firm who wanted us to hire a number two for his HR Director because ‘he was not delivering’. Further probing revealed that the MD was newly promoted and the HRD was still working to the brief of the previous MD. We undertook an HR audit, which provided evidence of the competence of the HRD and helped inform a strategic HR framework.

Working with individuals

Many independents offer coaching services in addition to their generalist skill set. During the COVID-19 lockdown, many independent people professionals gave pro-bono advice to individuals who were made redundant (in addition to providing business owners with advice). Currently, independents can only provide employment advice and charge if they are registered and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.

Career purpose and meaning

What we all want from our career is to be happy and fulfilled. This is especially important for those working independently, who have traded job security for freedom. The CIPD People Profession survey confirmed exactly that: 93% of people professionals working independently achieved happiness through their work, with the figure lower for in-house people professionals (59%).

For advice on setting up and running your own independent consultancy, visit the CIPD’s dedicated hub for independent people professionals. On 30 September 2020 Ben Willmott, Head of Public Policy at the CIPD, will talk about the importance of professional, independent HR consultancy support in boosting small firms’ productivity and growth at the launch of HR Independents, which Ruth is a founder of.

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  • Thank you for this blog which makes being an independent people professional sound even more appealing.  One of my long term aims is to be an independent people professional but I'm just in the very early stages of my HR career so right now it seems a long way off.

  • Thank you for this blog which makes being an independent people professional sound even more appealing.  One of my long term aims is to be an independent people professional but I'm just in the very early stages of my HR career so right now it seems a long way off.

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