As a consultant, have you ever had a nagging feeling that you didn’t fit in while providing your consulting services? That you were different or somehow out of place?
Maybe someone told you you’re not enough ‘X’. Or you were told that you were too much ‘Y’.
Have you struggled with what everyone else assumes is ‘normal’ consulting services? Yet, you just can’t help yourself and prefer an alternate approach?
We tend to consider these kinds of qualities as negative—however, through my process of overcoming the early challenges in my life, becoming a leader, then an independent consultant, I’ve realised these qualities are what set me apart from the rest. And far from being negative, I can attribute nearly all my recent success to the many strengths of being an outsider.
If you have asked yourself the questions above, this may mean you are a Black Sheep Consultant, like me. And it likely means you have something to offer the world that you don’t yet realise or consider to be a valuable skill set.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let me explain how I got here.
How I discovered I was a black sheep
I was always attracted to the outcasts in school. They were nerds, chess club members, and comic book lovers, like the punk kids who loved theatre, or the science nerd who loved dance class—in other words, general badasses.
I moved schools a lot as a kid—I went to three schools for every year of elementary. As a result, I found it hard to settle into any one new group. I always bounced around until I found the ‘weirdo’ group, and then I made friends.
Because I was awkward and lonely. I was embarrassed that I was a welfare kid, that I often went to school without supper the night before or breakfast that morning. I wore well-used clothing, and I couldn’t join a team sport or club because I moved around too much.
And the weirdos were more accepting of a fellow weirdo.
What did I learn from this experience?
Because of these very gypsy-like elementary school years, I had some serious catching up to do when I finally settled down for grades 8-12. I was at a deficit in many ways, but thanks to my outsider experiences, I developed abilities that many other kids around me didn’t have.
I realised that the things I had been embarrassed about, that I was told was ‘bad’ or weaknesses, were actually what made me resilient, creative, adaptable, and tenacious. For example, though I:
- was often considered an outsider, I became tenacious about learning how to make friends.
- moved back and forth and lived in many different communities (with various cultural backgrounds), I became adaptable. I am now able to appreciate and value diverse perspectives.
- grew up primarily poor and didn’t have money, I became creative in how to earn it and use it so that today I am conscious of my client’s investment when engaging my services, and I ensure they receive value they appreciate.
These types of traits drove me towards a better life. But most importantly, they taught me to have faith in the ‘silver lining’.
Black Sheep Consultants look at the so-called ‘bad’ and purposefully find the silver lining
This is a fundamental quality of a Black Sheep Consultant—they look at the so-called ‘bad’ and purposefully find the silver lining. They take the time and courage to reflect on feedback people provide, separating what is ‘true’ from what they choose to do ‘something’ about. They work at not taking the feedback personally. Instead, they face the parts that are true so they can learn and grow.
This is not always an easy or ‘fun’ thing to do. Yet, this approach and perspective is a fundamental part of who I have admired as Black Sheep, who I am today, and how I run my consulting business.
I think if I hadn’t discovered that silver-lining perspective, I would have blamed the world for all the hurt I had experienced—and it was a lot of hurt. When I was younger I was often told I was a mistake, a failure, I didn’t fit in, I wasn’t wanted, and I wasn’t cut out to do more. All because I was from the wrong side of the tracks—well…I’m sure you can fill in the rest. I easily could have just become another statistic or show up as sad evening news.
Later on, I was told I was too idealistic, too energetic, too focused, too creative and didn’t have enough formal business education, not ruthless enough for business, or failed in not attaining an MBA or taking that Director position.
“Mistakes have the power to turn you into something better than you were before”
Thankfully, I’ve always had a preference for being curious of what I could do to help myself, how I could take another path, how I could learn not only from mine, but others’ mistakes as well as successes.
What did these experiences teach me?
I am an outlier, an anomaly, a weirdo—a Black Sheep—and that’s how I run my consulting services business
I have definitely taken a different path to becoming a consultant than most. But I have also advanced quickly and surprised many around me. I am more than the typical consultant who is “a person who provides expert advice professionally.” I tend to go the extra mile to watch out for my client’s best interests and set up systems that keep supporting them long after I’m gone.
How have I done this?
- I applied the same silver-lining principles to my career and business.
- I was willing to learn from my past and from those around me.
- I found strength in my differences and embraced my weirdness—I used them to my advantage to help myself and others.
However, ultimately, I embrace who I truly am – the good and the bad, and find ways to use both to my advantage.
These are keystones to my business.
I am on a quest to find other like-minded Black Sheep Consultants—Are you one?
Have you been feeling out of place or seeking a different group? A group that isn’t easy to find and doesn’t gather in huge flocks?
In the hopes of finding other like-minded consultants, I am sharing how I perceive Black Sheep Consultants provide their consulting services while working with their clients. In a future follow-up article, I will focus on how Black Sheep Consultants manage their business and themselves.
I hope you’re curious enough to take a moment and consider, maybe, you’re a Black Sheep Consultant looking for others like you.
How Black Sheep Consultants differ in providing consulting services for their clients
Black Sheep Consultants are those who aren’t afraid to do things a little differently—to stand out from the rest. They have developed unusual qualities that serve them much better in the long run. And more specifically, they apply a high level of emotional intelligence and mindfulness while:
- providing consulting services for their clients.
- managing their business.
- handling themselves compared to many other consultants in the market.
Below are 7 traits Black Sheep Consultants apply in their day-to-day work with their clients.
Consultanting Services Trait #1: Black Sheep collaborate and encourage collaboration
Consultants are often just hired guns to provide solutions to their clients’ problems.
In this traditional approach to consulting, we are only visitors. We join an organisation for a short period to help make a difference. And most of the time, we don’t bother to get involved beyond that. Traditional consultants often see collaboration as a nuisance or overhead cost—a distraction from their efforts to deliver on the client’s expectations.
Black Sheep Consultants choose to go beyond just delivering results their clients expect
In contrast, Black Sheep Consultants make it their goal to leave a lasting difference—they want to work collaboratively. They seek out the employee or two who genuinely want to grow and adapt their role and responsibilities to support the solution long after.
They trust that the experience of working together will provide value and help everyone involved do more than they could have done on their own. In fact, black sheep consultants look for client contracts that encourage them to be unofficial mentors or leaders within a team. The team and client benefit from working alongside the consultant, and each member can grow in a multitude of possible ways.
This is how I personally make a difference that I can be proud of—usually one practice, one tool, one process, or one person at a time. These are the stepping stones in the legacy I am leaving behind.
As an employee, I benefited hugely by working with seasoned consultants
These consultants knew how to position ideas, organise activities, and influence others to either join the effort, support it, or get out of the way. And by encouraging this collaboration within the team, employees like me learned these traits too.
“I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things”
– Mother Teresa
Consultanting Services Trait #2: Black Sheep are curious and continuously listening and learning from their environments
The ability to learn continuously is closely tied to the ability to collaborate (which are both superpowers if you know how to use them). And you can apply the power of collaboration to more than just people. Let me explain how.
One of my consulting services is developing Change Management Practices for departments or organisations. These practices integrate into and leverage their pre-existing methods, tools, processes, systems, teams and culture.
To successfully integrate my approach with my client’s, I seek to understand all aspects of my client.
I am curious what my client and their environment can teach me
This requires I be mindful and collaborate. It requires me to listen first, to consume the information, to confirm my understanding with the client, and then to mindfully respond (and not react off the cuff).
I look for patterns and opportunities to align the new practice or solution within existing ones. I seek to show how the two:
- can fit rather than disrupt,
- add value rather than be difficult,
- respect the ‘old way’, yet improve and create a ‘better way.’
The alternative approach is to bulldoze and push—to ignore the people who are impacted by the solution. And though I have seen that style used ‘successfully’ to produce the requested results, I have yet to see it genuinely stick for long. In most cases, the team, department or company begins to slide back into their old habits and tools; whatever they did before the consultant came along.
Black Sheep Consultants do the opposite—they are always curious about how their services will actually fit into the client’s environment. They mindfully figure out how to do it, with respect for the existing structure. They seek to collaborate with and learn from employees so that their solutions will last for the long run.
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing”
– Albert Einstein
Consultanting Services Trait #3: Black Sheep continuously earn and retain their client’s trust and respect
Assumptions can be dangerous.
There is that saying, “if you assume, you can make an ass out of you and me.”
When I was still an employed leader, this happened between a consultant I had hired and me.
I hired him because I valued the skills he brought to solve a particular problem. Over a period of time, he met my expectations and earned my trust and respect. He, my team, and I worked well together and collaborated on various aspects of the solution.
Later, we were working together and preparing to deliver some critical results to my leader. The meeting was scheduled in advance, and the deadline was looming.
We created the outline and divided the work amongst us to get it all done. However, as we got closer to the deadline, the consultant wasn’t collaborating as much. He didn’t involve me in crucial decisions about the content. Moreover, he started to make assumptions about what he thought we needed to have in the presentation, based on his own experiences, rather than confirming his approach with me.
Thankfully, when reviewing the compiled complete content, I noticed some information the consultant had included that I knew my leader would find annoying and wouldn’t fit his expectation. So, I made the final edits, informed the consultant and why and provided a copy of the latest content to my leader, a couple of days before our pre-scheduled meeting.
Unfortunately, the night before the meeting, I got sick and couldn’t make the presentation. I asked the consultant to arrange to reschedule.
The consultant assumed that our working relationship was stable, that he could speak on my behalf, and that I trusted him fully. He told my team it wasn’t necessary to reschedule. Instead, he went to the meeting and presented the content, using his previous version, not knowing I had provided the updated material to my leader earlier.
The presentation was a disaster, but not because the content wasn’t valid. It was because my leader expected me to be…well…the leader and be ready to present the material myself and within the context of the conversations my leader and I were already having.
My leader shut down the meeting very quickly and informed the consultant that he would rather wait until I returned. When I did return, I had numerous emails from my team giving me a heads up. I also got my ass hauled into my leader’s office.
I was embarrassed!
Thankfully, my leader saw what was going on and used the experience as an educational moment for me. We talked through what happened and how the consultant had made assumptions. We discussed the feedback I would give the consultant on how he not only broke protocol for our department, he broke trust by not following through on instructions.
However, the biggest lesson I learned was never to assume that once you earn trust and respect that they can’t then be lost—no matter how ‘good’ you are.
Black Sheep Consultants do not assume upon their client’s trust and take an alternative direction than what was provided – they instead question, possible suggest an alternative – but then accept the decision provided by the client.
I took that lesson forward with me into my own consulting practice. I check-in regularly with my client that my approach and results are meeting their expectations. Moreover, others can often hear me say the mantra, “I constantly work to earn and retain my client’s trust and respect, I don’t like to assume.”
“Trust is earned, respect is given, and loyalty is demonstrated. Betrayal of any one of those is to lose all three.”
– Ziad K. Abdelnour
Consultanting Services Trait #4: Black Sheep are flexible—they are willing to change their ideas and approaches
Our experiences, approaches and ideas are our assets; they are often the reason we’re hired by our clients.
The consultant I mentioned earlier got into hot water not only because he didn’t do what was asked (reschedule the meeting), but because he also couldn’t accept the changes I had made to his content.
It was more important to him that his idea was presented his way.
Black Sheep Consultants don’t believe their ideas or approaches are the be all and end all
Black Sheep Consultants are always aware their ideas can be improved. In fact, they are aware that they always need to adjust their solutions to fit the client’s particular environment. This was the difference between the consultant and I—I had specially tailored my presentation to fit how my leader wanted it—both verbally and written.
“New ideas often need old buildings.”
– Jane Jacobs
Consultanting Services Trait #5: Black Sheep manage their clients’ expectations
Do you find your client’s expectations sometimes unreasonable?
Clients want you to solve their problems and not be a problem. They want you to do it quickly, with little impact on them (and to pay you less than what you believe your solution is worth). And once you are contracted, they may ask for more without adjusting the terms.
Managing your client’s expectations can be difficult. And if you are a person who struggles with negotiation and avoids confrontation, it can feel even more problematic.
I had a hard time with confrontation because of my experiences as a child and youth. I saw how quickly confrontation could escalate, and I learned to avoid it. However, this wasn’t a great tactic if I wanted to be a:
- productive and healthy member of a team, a leader in an organisation, or create my own business
- well-adjusted and functioning friend and a partner with my husband, Chris, in this adventure of life we’re having together
I’ve gotten some help with this over the years. First, Chris, who is a few years older with more experience in life and business, showed me I needed to actually take care of myself by managing both my and the expectations of those around me better.
I also dove deeply into the concept of Stakeholder Management as part of my Project Management education. I learned about applying it far beyond just the project construct. I also learned a great deal from my counsellor and from consultants.
Most significantly, I learned from the Black Cheep Consultants who came before me
I got the chance to observe older consultants ‘magically’ managing their or our shared client’s expectations, and I wanted to learn more. They would take the time to figure out what the client expected and chose what they knew they could or wanted to do versus what they didn’t or could not do. More times than not, they would package it up and position it with the client—usually creating a better solution and getting what they wanted.
Like I said, magical. And I wanted to do that too!
And to be honest, this was one of the first traits I realised a Black Sheep Consultant exhibited—the ability to understand and confidently manage their own and their client’s expectations, applying respectful and authentic negotiation all along the way.
“Manage your expectations and you’ll manage your disappointments…”
– Todd Lohenry
Consultanting Services Trait #6: Black Sheep do not presume their contract will be renewed
We’ve all heard that it costs more to acquire new customers or clients than retain them.
In the case of an independent business consultant, being renewed is often a badge of honour.
I see many consultants in my market who will do just about anything to be renewed rather than market themselves, have viable leads, and manage themselves as a business.
Recently, I was leading a team that was a mix of consultants and employees. The team and its function were set up to continue long after the consultant contracts were scheduled to end. As a result, I established an approach that acknowledged that as consultants, we might not be renewed. I asked that we not use our names but rather our role.
One of the consultants on the team didn’t agree. Instead, the person decided to place their name against all the future activities, alongside the employees. When I inquired about it, I was told the way to get renewed was to assume you already had the role—to insinuate that you’re indispensable.
We had very different approaches when it came to earning renewals…
This consultant would not be considered a Black Sheep Consultant. A Black Sheep Consultant is humble and understands the client only needs us temporarily to solve a problem. They do not create dependency. And a Black Sheep Consultant does not seek to line their pocket and make their life easier—at the expense of the client.
My style is to clarify the need for my role and outputs in the organisation. I do everything I can to help the client to integrate a solution. And as we progress, if it turns out that the best option is for me to remain, then we begin to establish the new expectations and associated contract.
“Don’t be too assuming, it doesn’t get you anywhere”
– Anne Frank
Consultanting Services Trait 7: Black Sheep value a project management approach to delivering solutions and use change management principles to help the client adapt to and accept the solutions
The final Black Sheep Consultant trait is an appreciation of Project and Change Management practices.
At the time of this article, there were approximately 1,420,000,000 results for ‘Project Management’ and approximately 1,840,000,000 results for ‘Change Management’ when I googled the terms. You can check yourself!
The reason why I think this trait is important to Black Sheep Consultants is, I believe we understand the value of these approaches when it comes to delivering our services. That a blend of them will help us provide high quality and well-managed services earning us a positive and attractive reputation.
“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently”
– Warren Buffett
Being a Black Sheep doesn’t mean your bad or wrong. Being a Black Sheep can be a positive experience, a worthy differentiator. So if the above seven traits sound like you, I would welcome hearing from you. It can be lonely in our business as independents and being a non-conforming one even more so.
I want to create a community where we can learn from each other. It has changed my business and life to find like-minded peers. I have been collecting Black Sheep Consultants here and there and created a small flock around me. I have experienced a group committed to helping one another, to share experiences and approaches, to share the work and pain—and to help celebrate the successes too.
And more importantly, I have found some exceptional true friends I am happy to help and who have helped me grow into a person who is proud to be a Black Sheep.
If you found this article helpful, please share it with your community.
Thank you for reading.
Founder and President
Stand & Deliver Inc.