Top Tips for Freelancers: advice from the Choix Network
Our network of freelance experts and consultants share their perspectives on setting up for project success, approaches to career progression and looking after your well-being and work-life balance.
A helpful list for seasoned freelancers, those who are just starting out - and everyone in between!
1. Before you sign the contract
Assess your clients carefully: know yourself and the way you work. Are you going to be able to add value here? Will you be able to work well with this client / this team? Are there any red flags? Be prepared to walk away if things don’t feel right.
Ask your client LOADS of questions: try to get as 3D a sense of the project landscape as early as possible - understanding the context / motivation behind the project etc. will help you to evaluate success likelihood and spot opportunities and obstacles ahead of time. Why does your client want to do this project? Why now - why didn't they do it earlier? What constitutes success? When have they seen something like this work (or not work)? Where can you go for information? Who’s backing it? Is there likely to be resistance? How does the project fit into the broader business strategy & vision?
NEVER overpromise: either you'll deliver sub-par work, or you’ll be late! It’s your reputation at stake, so you MUST find a way to give yourself the room you need to deliver well.
2. Setting up for success
Make sure you’re addressing the right problem: clients might not have fully explored the root cause of an issue before bringing you in. They’ve felt pain - but it’s only a symptom. So before you start it’s really important to step back and make your own diagnosis.
Align expectations: agree on what success looks like at the outset. Once you've done this, you can work backwards to create your plan. Then it's time to reconfirm. Make sure you start on the same page - and make sure you stay there!
Communicate your requirements upfront:. What do you need in terms of tools / support / stakeholder access? What will the impact be if these needs can’t be met? As well as clearly understanding your client’s needs, you MUST communicate your own.
Secure and deploy the voice of authority: ask your client to prepare the ground before you come on board - to set expectations with the team, explain what you’re there to do and that you’re there with their backing.
Push for face-to-face contact at the start of a project: it’s important for building relationships. Do the same if you’re interviewing or pitching and for key / large meetings.
Lay the foundations for strong consistent communication: you need to be in lockstep with your client from day one. Agree a communication framework and process early on, keep them updated, and make sure they stay focused on the priorities.
Flag risks / issues upfront: encourage full transparency around issues / concerns - nip them in the bud!
Create a visible, tangible project structure asap: get meetings in diaries, set up Slack channels - use whatever tools are at hand to make sure the project feels real, and your team are contained, supported and focused.
The political landscape: acknowledge, understand - even embrace it! The better you understand people and their agendas, the easier it will be to spot where they might come into conflict (or compliment), and the more likely it will be that you're able to build coalitions in support of your end goal.
Be sensitive. Listen. Customise solutions for the particular people they’re aimed at: Give time and space to genuinely understanding the people you’re working with, so the solution that you’re building can actually land. Think laterally. Read between the lines. What’s not being said?
3. Looking after yourself
Identify your preferred work pattern & rhythm - and work towards creating it! Are you better working in intense bursts and then taking breaks between? Do you prefer to have multiple clients at the same time? Is it better for you to have a mix of sweet-spot and stretch projects (where you’re learning) running simultaneously, or do you prefer to alternate - take on a project where learning is high followed by one right in your comfort zone?
Prioritise balance! What do you need to do to enjoy life as well as work? Be specific. Do you need to make any changes right now? How are you going to maintain the balance? And remember, even if you've got great balance now, keep an eye on it - it’s easy for it to slip away!
Create support structures and networks: what do you need to feel supported? Do you have a mentor? What about a group to bounce ideas with - maybe there are people you’ve worked with / studied with / met who might be interested? What about a monthly social where you can get together with other freelancers and vent / chew the fat?
Developing your career
Define what career progression looks like for you: is it building skills in areas related to your core offering so that you can broaden your pitch? Is it running larger teams? Managing higher value projects? Is it translating your skills across into a new industry? Identifying the work you need to be doing to move towards your career goals, means that you’ll be better placed to find it.
Define your career goals: short, medium, long term, and talk them through with someone - a coach / a peer. Consider how you might achieve them: what are the options through existing clients / returning to old clients? Do you need to go back out to your network for introductions?
Evaluate opportunities in the context of how they’ll develop you: this doesn’t mean you should turn down work that you could do standing on your head - but it does mean that you’ll always be clear as to why you are taking it on.
Keep moving into new areas & work in different industries: try not to just do the same thing again and again - whole disciplines can become redundant. What are the growth areas / new trends? What do you need to do to get into them? Working in different industries means you’ll have a more diverse perspective to leverage - you can apply learning from other contexts, and often drive more creative solutions.
Keep learning, reflecting, staying curious: you’ll learn new things on every contract - take the time to notice what they are. Keep building your skills out too - what’s the next thing you want to learn? Do workshops, go on courses, get reading...!
Build some coaching skills: particularly at senior levels, consulting is heavily focused on enabling and facilitating internal teams and transforming capability - getting some coaching training will REALLY help you to up your game on this front.
Build a network of peers: on projects, at conferences, on holiday…! Stay in touch. If you have a great network you have sources of advice and information - peers to learn from and soundboard with; you'll have people who can recommend you for work, people you can bring onto projects: the list is endless.
Finally, be your own CEO. You need to push the agenda. Take responsibility. Take ownership. Be accountable. You’ll drive benefits with far greater success!
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