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Published in Inside Careers, Management Consultants 1999

 

 

The Sole Practitioner

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Tony Page helps people in organisations to manage change. He left PA Consulting in 1988 and since then has been self-employed. In 1996 he published Diary of a Change Agent (paperback, 1998, Gower, ISBN 0566 08093 1), illustrating the diary method for personal growth and change. Married for 19 years to Helen, also a management consultant, they have two children.

 

Name: Tony Page

Age: 44

Occupation: Consultant specialising in the management of change

Qualifications: FCMC, Chartered Psychologist, Member of Institute of Personnel & Development, Fellow of Royal Society of Arts, Member of Strategic Planning Society, B.Sc (Hons) Occupational Psychology.

Employer: self-employed

Location: Kingston, Surrey

What I enjoy about my job: Never knowing what the next opportunity will be.

What I don't enjoy: Never knowing what the next opportunity will be!

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It's a simple enough question - what are you doing on Friday? But often I will be unable to answer it without peeking in my diary. You learn to keep a lot of plates spinning. In this occupation, time is money and, when you take holiday, you know you are giving up fee earning time. But you know that if you didn't you would burn out, and what or who are you doing this for anyway?

 

Take last week for instance. Sunday evening I was preparing for a project kick-off meeting with a group of 5 senior civil servants who are now getting serious about delivering reductions in crime. This means working differently from the buck-passing Yes Minister tradition and engaging in some (dreaded) new ways of working. It means coming out of the ivory tower, talking with real people in the police, prisons and probation about collaborating to deliver results. Working Sunday night isn't so great really. You wonder sometimes what happened to the weekend. I'm passionate about this project though, and perhaps I value it all the more since we only won it after months of patient talking.

 

At the kick-off meeting on Monday, working with a self-employed colleague called Fiona (ex Price Waterhouse), we used post-its and flipcharts to create a shared view ofall the agencies involved in the reduction of crime, and of the offenders journey through the system from cradle to grave. This helped us to plan what has to happen over coming months: a series of one-to-one meetings and workshops leading to defined roles, projects, programmes and measures, that might stand a chance of making a difference.

 

I suppose this project underlines how, as consultants, we no longer position ourselves as the outside experts: now we specialise in engaging the people who need to be involved. We help clients to notice patterns of ineffectiveness and resistance in their organisations and in them, harnessing their resources, finding new ways of leading and engaging their people to raise the intelligence of the whole system.

 

Tuesday was a day in the office clearing the desk. There was a report to finish, bind and post. There is no army of support staff here. Helen, my wife posted it on her way to a meeting as an NHS non-executive director. The report describes some workshops we facilitated for Area Directors from two High Street banks that are merging. These 21 directors are going through the classic phases of personal transition: denial (it's no problem, just another challenge), ill-informed optimism (we're going to be proactive, leading the integration process), well-informed pessimism (no one round here knows what we're supposed to be doing, itís a complete shambles), realism (it's up to us to pick this up and run with it, we need to speak with a single, clear voice)Ö..and we hope in a few months, confidence (we've got this back on the rails).

 

Also on Tuesday I collated evaluation forms from the Relationship Management workshops I have been running for actuaries in a life assurance company. The moment they most remember and value is when we bring a few of their real life internalcustomers (managers from HR, Sales, Strategy and Operations) into the room to practice having one-one meetings. Scary at first, but the ice quickly melts and it becomes clear that 15 minutes spent face to face with their key internal customers every month can remove hours of frustration and time-wasting questions.

 

I also finished a proposal for University of Ulster to run an advanced development programme for facilitators working with small and medium sized firms both sides of the border in the north west of Ireland. And I dropped in on my neighbour five doors away: a software developer who is helping to design a web page for us. Tuesday was busy, but pretty quiet and solitary until our kids came in from school and argued about who would have first turn on the office computer.

 

You get some great opportunities, but sporadically. This can cause mood swings from grandiosity, to boredom and mild depression. For example from Wednesday to Friday this week, I'm staying in a luxury hotel in Switzerland, in a spa town beside Lake Neufchatel, working with my colleague Didier, another self-employed consultant, to co-facilitate a workshop called Navigating Change - Shaping the Future. It is difficult to explain to my envious friends that this is an extremely tough assignment, working with some change weary senior managers.

 

If you are considering this line of work, you need to understand how it feels when the phone isn't ringing and you wonder when you'll work again. You need to be ready for a decade-long struggle to build your reputation and times of extreme pressure andfinancial instability. You need good strong relationships around you, soul mates, who help you to express your anxiety, to regain your objectivity, to learn, to renew your energy and continually to reinvent your approach.

 

Looking back on my career, I left university in 1976 not knowing what I wanted to do. 50 or so unsuccessful job applications suggested that I was ill-prepared for earning a living in the big wide world. Still I persisted and when I was offered my "first proper job" my priority was to fit in. Over time I became quite expert at playing the career game: getting jobs and fitting in, eventually getting totally absorbed in my work and losing myself on the way. Only with the new responsibility of parenthood did I notice a drift and one day, decisively, I resigned from PA and started down the rocky road of self-employment. This decision taken 11 years ago seems to some people to be brave, to others, foolish. I feel it was necessary for me to grow and I suppose I was young and willing to take the risk. The alternative was a life of compromise and suffocation.

 

If this sounds a bit dramatic or weird, why not ask someone who has made a career change why they did it and how it felt? Career shifting is not uncommon: most self-employed people have done it and it can feel strange and lonely. At the same time, this step set me on a path towards the fulfilment I feel today in my work, and since my work is helping people to navigate change, it provides an invaluable source of real life experience to draw from.

 

Tony Page

27 April 1999

 

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