Transitioning from Large Firm Management Consulting to Independent Executive

The case study of how Steve transitioned from management consulting to independent executive

Independent executives come from a variety of backgrounds. Here’s an example of how one executive took his mix of consulting and Fortune 500 experience and turned it into a growing independent practice of his own.

Case Study: Knowing Your Audience

Steve Kerler has been independently consulting for more than fifteen years. In his career, he has worked with more than sixty clients, mostly in the Fortune 500, across twenty industries, in eighteen-plus different business functions. He ran the western United States division of a global consulting firm and has been an independent executive several times in his career. So, what can those of us who didn’t take that path and don’t have decades of consulting background learn from his experiences?

Like many, Steve was a senior executive who was laid off during the post-2007 recession. He quickly began networking, met some people who were doing consulting, and found some projects he could help with. He was back working as a consultant, this time independently, and has continued doing so ever since. Steve really enjoys the variety of the work.

There was, however, one big challenge for Steve. He’d spent most of his career changing roles and consulting under the umbrella of a large consulting firm. How would he narrow down his expertise in terms of clients and how could he solve their problems? As Steve puts it, “That makes it very difficult. I think clients, mistakenly these days, are looking for that old purple squirrel that everybody talks about; they want to go very deep and very specific on needs.”

Years ago, Steve got some advice from someone he thought could sell ice to an Eskimo. Steve asked him one day, “What makes you successful? What’s the magic sauce here?” The friend said, “Steve, it’s really easy. All things being equal, people buy from people they like, know, and trust. All things not being equal, people buy from people they like, know, and trust. That’s it.”

That answer really stuck with Steve. Now, twenty years later, he finds it couldn’t be more true. Once you start practicing building trust with people through stories and through your experiences, they will grow to like you, trust you, and then want to hire you.

Instead of going into a sales pitch‘ or a conversation and just talking about your technical capabilities and your resume, start using words that resonate with the client’s problems and empathize what they’re feeling on the other side of the table. You’ve been there. You’ve sat there.

Steve tells this story: “I remember one large presentation I did. We won a $30 million deal with the City of San Francisco. I was one of four people on an oral presentation team. We had a bunch of technical people up there talking about all these wonderful detailed technical things that were frankly making the audience’s eyes roll. Our presentation lead whispered to me in the middle of the meeting, ‘Steve, you need to finish this off for us. This is going downhill fast.’

“I went up, and my talk at that point turned impromptu. I said, ‘Look, all of you sitting at that end of the table. I’ve been there before, and I know right now your eyes are rolling. It’s obvious we’ve got people here who really know their stuff. You may not have understood a lot of this, but you’ve got to walk away knowing that we also know our stuff. You’ve seen a whole list of clients we’ve done this for before, so you know we have the experience. At the end of the day, like you, I’m sitting in your shoes, thinking of the four firms you’ve just evaluated. Who would I like to work with? Who would I trust to do this?’”

Steve turned the conversation around to empathize with where they were at that point and related to that. They won the deal because the customer felt a sense of comfort that his firm could do the work without giving them a lot of technical speak. Connecting from their perspective was key.

Steve has created a successful business by rethinking who his customer is and who could benefit most from what he has to offer. Steve developed a channel of small- to medium-sized partner firms that don’t have the bench to staff people with his expertise full time, so they bring people in on a 1099 basis for certain projects. As it is with many companies, they would get business, celebrate, then turn around and worry about how they were going to get the project done. Steve has developed a brand that addresses these clients’ biggest problem: Keeping their clients happy. They know they can trust Steve to get the job done. If the work isn’t in his comfort zone, he recommends someone who is right for it. If it is, they have confidence that he can take all the experience he has, pull it together, and add value, to the point at which the clients are happy and asking for more.

Steve used his background to understand his audience and found a way to leverage his wealth of experience and longstanding career in the industry. He created a brand that solves problems for both the companies he serves and the larger consulting firms who use his services.

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