Bill Ross is a former energy industry executive, presently principal of Vercerta, a consulting practice in risk management.
These days, many people start a second career, if not a third or fourth one, at a time when they are supposed to be thinking about retirement. I did – at the age of 55.
Times have changed since the original Freedom 55 retirement ad campaign by an insurance company decades ago. Despite what you may hear, your mid-50s is not a time when everyone should – or, let’s face it, can – hang it up. In fact, it’s an age when many people possess valuable knowledge stemming from their years of experience and can still make a difference. Any organization, big or small, would do well to take advantage of such people because they have a lot to offer.
As a former executive in a public company, I had often thought about using a lifetime of work experience to extend my career beyond retirement. When the opportunity crystallized at the Freedom 55, I took advantage of what I had learned and began a second career as an independent consultant, capitalizing on the lifetime of skills I’d learned.
I was well-connected, with a solid background in evaluating risks and alternatives for capital investments.
Today, many people start businesses in industries where they had previously worked as an employee, and yes, even at the age of 55. But make no mistake: It is a big transition. Your new business has a leaner cost structure and is far more agile at responding to customer needs than a large organization. That means you can offer your services better and cheaper.
What have I learned from this experience? Plenty.
First, accept the risk involved. It takes time to build a customer base and chances are your revenue generation will lag behind the required cash outlay, so be prepared.
But don’t forget why you made the decision in the first place. A trend in recent years is for large enterprises to focus on what they do best and seek external advice for the rest. This creates huge opportunities for small businesses and consultants who can concentrate on selected competencies. The successful ones maintain a competitive advantage.
Second, if you have faith in yourself – and you had better, or why do this? – it is good to establish objectives. Identify opportunities and what you can offer, and then sell. That means marketing, and for many in the big-business world, this is new.
For me, there was a strong need for my capabilities and experience from provincial governments, regulatory agencies, engineering and design companies, and organizations involved in the resource sector, telecommunications and renewable energy.
Third, your knowledge of the industry and contacts have positioned you well, so use all that to anticipate the market, but differentiate yourself from competitors. And establish a timeline to achieve your set goals.
A consultant can bring a greater degree of expertise in a particular field than the company may have internally.
The first task, of course, is to find target clients. The importance of networking, speaking engagements and industry seminars cannot be underestimated. You simply have to know what is going on in your space, focus on key developments and determine where your service offering may be useful.
But how do you approach organizations in order to work effectively with them and help them achieve their goals?
Any consultant must have a clear understanding of how to resolve a client’s problem. Equipped with this knowledge, the consultant must gain the respect and support of those inside the organization. It is important to have continuous dialogue and feedback to reinforce the solution to the problem, and build the client’s confidence in working with you.
Winning support means understanding the current employee environment. Change management is a skill that is equally important to employees inside the organization and outside consultants making recommendations.
The key processes are: explaining the issues, communicating the need for change, articulating the benefits of the change and continually responding to feedback.
What about the employer or manager who is now dealing with an outside consultant? And what if that person is a lot younger than the consultant?
Frankly, I have never had difficulty working with employees of different age groups. And my experience is that good managers won’t have a problem, either. They know it is important to understand the needs of each employee and each employee group. They also know to be respectful of the knowledge these people possess, listen to their ideas and have a compelling rationale on how to find solutions that resolve problems.
Start a new career at 55? Absolutely. For me, it’s a whole new kind of freedom.
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