I’d just finished giving a keynote presentation to a group of around a thousand teachers. As is common with speaking, some people stick around afterward to talk, which I love to do. The first person to walk up to me was a woman who quickly introduced herself, skipped the niceties and jumped right into her statement and question.
“I want to be you. How do I do that?”
While it sounded flattering, it wasn’t intended that way. This was a real and practical question. She wanted to get invited to give keynotes, to conduct workshops for schools and boards, to provide “expert” advice to learning organizations. She wanted to become a speaker and educational consultant.
Fundamentally, a consultant is someone who provides advice professionally. Some use the term broadly enough to include speaking to large groups at conferences, while others think more about going into an organization, learning about their problems or needs, and trying to give them help on next steps. There are countless forms of educational consulting, but it always comes back to providing insights or advice that help a person, group or organization move forward.
Consulting can be a wonderfully rewarding line of work, whether you do it as full-time employment or on a part-time basis along with your day job. The first one requires a different financial model, but it also allows for more time to invest in the needs of clients. The later has more time limitations, but it can be a win-win experience, where what you learn through your consulting provides you with more income, but it also helps you bring insights back to your organization.
Now back to the question. How do you become an educational consultant? There are many pathways, but here are five good starting points.
1. Build a Deep Well of Knowledge & Expertise
Some people will tell you that you just need to stay a bit ahead about your client. That is true. There are plenty of educational consultants who function that way, but if you really want to have an impact and offer great value, that requires an immense investment in your ongoing growth, development and learning. The benefit of a deep versus a shallow well is that the deep well is more likely to sustain you in times of drought, when things are most difficult. That is when consultants can be most valuable, amid really complex challenges. I know that many consultants will disagree with me on this, but I believe that the calling of consultant is a commitment to the most rigorous ongoing thinking and learning. If this excites you, then consulting might be a great option for you. If not, I suggest finding a different use of your time.
2. Choose an Area of Focus
This is one of those do what I say and not what I do suggestions. I happen to have an unusually broad set of areas of research, speaking and consulting; but it isn’t the advisable route. If you have diverse areas of expertise, you risk developing small followings around each, which can be a problem if you want to be a full-time consultant. Instead, what works best for most people is to have deep expertise in a more specific area. What is the area where you want to be one of the top ten most thoughtful and informed people in the world? Make your answer the that question your goal and your consulting focus. Don’t try to be all things to all people.
3. Create a Means of Sharing Your Knowledge & Expertise
You can start a blog, a weekly newsletter available to people who subscribe on your web site, a podcast, host free webinars, a Twitter chat, guest blog for others, write articles for online and paper publications with a large reading in your area, and submit proposals to speak at different conferences. However, if you want to be a valued consultant, you need to start by sharing what you are thinking and doing. These are great outlets. For more ideas, check out my past articles on building a personal teaching network. As you go about sharing this knowledge, focus upon the questions and problems that you want to help answer and solve. By the way, the newsletter subscription approach is a tried and tested method for many consultants because you are also generating a list of people who might be interested in paid services at some point.
Whatever you choose, do it consistently. This is something that will and should require sharing on a weekly basis. If you persist with this, you will soon find that people searching for information about your speciality will persistently run into your name, and that is how you will start to get speaking and consulting opportunities.
4. Build a Robust Network
If you want to be an educational consultant in a specific area, ask yourself who the leading experts are in that area and learn from them. Reach out to them and offer them value as well. These are not your competitors. They are your collaborators in addressing important issues in a shared area of interest.
5. Be Kind, Curious & Candid
Some consultants have a chip on their shoulder and clients put up with it because their expertise in such demand, but there is a better way. Make it your goal to consistently show kindness and focus on how you can be helpful to other people. Be curious about their needs, experiences, challenges and questions. Once you’ve established rapport and a relationship, then you also have opportunity be candid, which is often what we need to make progress.
When the person asked me how she could do what I do, here is what I said. Be a relentless learner. Focus that learning on a specific area of passion and need in education. Freely and consistently share your knowledge with others on this area. Connect with others locally and around the world who share this passion. And finally, as people begin to reach out to you, be kind, helpful, deeply curious about their needs, and then give candid advice. Do these five things and you have a solid foundation for becoming an successful and effective educational consultant.