The 7 biggest mistakes of my consulting career


What sort of idiot consultant would publicize his biggest mistakes to all the world? I guess that would be a confident, experienced, and successful one who has begun to value transparency and authenticity more and more as he ages.

That’s me, if you haven’t guessed. I’ve been doing this for 19 years by myself after owning a marketing firm for 6 years before that. I’m 52, now, doing my best thinking but realizing that the window for having the sort of broader impact I’d like to have is not as widely open as it was before, and I want every piece of content to count.

So here they are – my biggest mistakes in consulting. Maybe this list will save you from making some of the same mistakes I have.

1. I gave it away

I’ve gone a little bit too far in giving away thought leadership instead of charging for it.

I’ve still made plenty of money in consulting (and in charging for content, via books and speaking), but it’s likely hundreds of people decided they didn’t need to hire me because they got the advice they needed from the position papers on my website and the articles I’ve written for national publications.

Right now, for example, I have 64 position papers, another 24 ready to publish and a bunch of podcasts on iTunes. My justification for this is stated on my website: “Our fees are high enough that you have a right to as much information as possible.” That’s true, of course, but I could have done with slightly less free content.

It’s a tough balance. You must make some content available for free to demonstrate your expertise, but it’s a balance I did not achieve.

2. I didn’t know myself

I should have gone to therapy sooner. I started going weekly 3+ years ago. It’s helped me understand myself, deal with my upbringing, understand my tendencies, understand how I impact people positively and negatively and learn how to be less self-centered and more kind and patient.

My consulting advice in the days before I saw a therapist was still excellent advice, but it wasn’t always delivered in the best way to prevent clients from becoming defensive and resentful.

On top of that, I assumed that people would accept all of my recommendations – even the difficult ones – and change in order to implement them. Neither of those assumptions was true, and only when I realized I needed to simplify and prioritize my recommendations did I began to see more success from my work.

3. I didn’t fire bad clients

I should have had the courage to never work for firms that didn’t value my advice. That possibility occurred to me very early on, but I was too drawn to the money and not courageous enough.

In my consulting career I’ve worked with public relations firms that didn’t listen to my advice on positioning narrowly and structuring roles. All this in spite of nearly $550,000 of primary research validating my findings and the experience of working with 700+ firms.

I didn’t take the courageous path and wasted their money and my time. I thought I was special and could overcome it. I wasn’t.


4. I let ego take over

I fell for the allure of some speaking engagements that I had no business accepting, simply because of the limited ROI.

I understand the idea of taking a few of them while you climb to the top, but being invited to speak is always flattering to me in more ways than it should be, and because of that I wasted time and money speaking to too many very nice and hungry people who will never become my clients.

I’m not in the charity business, and I should have remained more focused. Now I speak up to 35 times a year, but I make sure they are all worthy uses of my time and that the ROI makes sense.

5. I got impatient

I have never had a clear picture of how slow change happens. I picture change happening faster for my clients, but that’s because I’m an outsider without the emotional and financial connections that constrain their own choices.

I’ve learned (and explained to my clients) that the direction of movement is more important than the speed of movement, and I honestly believe that.

I should be more encouraging and accepting of clients who struggle with the tough decisions that come with change. After all, very few of us have successfully changed anyone, even those close to us. So imagine the chances of affecting deep change in a client.

6. I hid behind words

In the early days of consulting, I hid my own insecurities by delivering 80-100 page recommendation documents, essentially hiding behind a thick pile of paper because I wasn’t certain that I knew what I was talking about.

My hope was that clients would be so blown away by the sheer volume (most of which was a template that was copied and pasted, truthfully) that they would ignore the fact that there were few really congent, “aha” observations.

As I’ve gotten older, smarter, and more confident, my recommendations have gotten narrower and deeper, and many (most?) are related to personal elements in their lives. Now they are 5-6 pages. And the proposals themselves are emails with 3-4 paragraphs.

7. I cared too much

I’ve frequently found myself caring more about the results of my work than my clients care.

When I first noticed it, I was shocked, thinking that I just landed a bad batch of clients. But since then, I’ve found it to be quite common. A client comes to me desiring an “8” solution, typically wanting to pay a “7” fee. What do I do? I deliver a “10” solution.

Not because they care or they’ll notice the difference, but because I’m internally motivated to do that. But unless you regularly charge enough to cover the real labor/thinking behind “10” solutions, you only have one other choice: care less.

That sounds awful and even wrong, so let me say it differently: determine how to measure their own level of care, and then peg your level of care to match that.

If you don’t do that, every time you deliver a solution far beyond what the client wants, recognizes, or even needs, a little part of you dies that does not regenerate, and you’ll begin to be resentful and leave the field … or just stay in it as a grouch.

And one thing I did right

I hope this blog post is helpful to you. Learning from others is one thing I’ve never regretted my career. Here are some people that have been helpful to me:

Photo courtesy Alex E. Proimos on Flickr

  • Maria Lee

    This is very true information why people didn’t success because of these things. thanks for posting this.

  • Jocelyn Wilhelm

    Thanks for sharing. Great to hear we’ve all been there.

  • James Tonn

    As a young man leaving a full-time career to do consulting I’m actively seeking wisdom – thanks for sharing some of yours David.