"It's important to specialize, and you should lead with those two or three things that you are best at. If you specialize in everything, people won't know who you are," says Laraine Rodgers, founder of Navigating Transitions, a consultancy, and former CIO for the city of Phoenix and Xerox.
In addition to specializing, would-be consultants need to frame their services in the context of real-world needs, Rodgers says. "I created a business plan and tried to figure out my core value proposition. I first listed the 50 things I do really well, and then made a list of the things I really love to do, and then another list of what's needed in the market," Rodgers recounts. Because "if what you're passionate about isn't what is needed, you ain't gonna make a penny."
Although it may be tempting to take on whatever work comes your way, it's a real mistake to do so, according to the experts. Stick to your specialty. Otherwise, you run the risk of doing long-term damage to your credibility.
Companies also hire consultants for very specific reasons, notes Thomas Pettibone, a former CIO at Phillip Morris USA and founder and managing director of Transition Partners, a management consulting company. "Consulting is quite a bit different than being a corporate CIO," he says. "The corporate job is all-encompassing and focused on improving all aspects of the company. The consulting role is very focused to an engagement, which is written in a particular way to solve particular problems in an organization."
"Every single consulting job you do is like sending up a billboard on Main Street or in Times Square," says Barry Mathis, a former CIO at Bradley Memorial Hospital (renamed Skyridge Medical Center) who's now an IT consultant specializing in health care for H.I.S. Professionals.
If you perform a job poorly because you're not a specialist in that particular area, word gets out and the references fall off. "And references are a consultant's life," he notes.
Another option is to team up with consultants who specialize in areas other than you do and refer work to one another. "We consciously created a network of consultants both nationally and internationally," says Strider. "We bring them in on projects and they refer projects to us. Always be on the lookout for connections," she advises. "It's more about connections than selling per se."
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