Consulting crushed me

I’m not doing NaBloPoMo but seeing a bunch of people embarking on the challenge has convinced me to finish off a few blogposts that have been hanging around for a long while.

So I’ll start with the one that has been hanging around for about a year. Why and how consulting broke my spirit (okay – that is overly dramatic but you get the idea.)

My consulting career was a bit of an accident. I was having a horrible time at mySociety and my confidence was on the floor. I really wasn’t sure what to do next as a retreat to public service felt like a backward step and as ever more private sector roles were neither appealing nor exactly banging my door down with offers.

Then Tom and James got in touch from Notbinary (or NotBinary…or Not Binary…or more often than not Non Binary…we never really nailed that) and offered me a vaguely defined role to support their work at a Civil Service outpost in Swansea. I liked the people, had personal reasons for wanting to spend a bit of time in Swansea and needed an escape plan. So I went for it.

It took a while for me to really get to grips with things. I didn’t really understand the difference between being an independent contractor and a representative of a consultancy for a long time. Year one was up and down but I had some interesting assignments, met some great people and started to become involved with more of the business than just the delivery side and that grew in year two.

This was initially great. I enjoyed learning more about the commercial side of things and getting involved in proposals, pitches, hiring and some of the cross Group work. I helped with branding and comms, wrote a bunch of reusable copy and was supported to experiment with my ideas about working in the open. I hired some great people and shaped some of our delivery approach beyond just my own teams.

When it was good it was great…

…but over time I started to come unglued a bit. My days would bounce from client meetings, to team stand-ups, to technical discussions, to recruitment conversations, to commercial sessions, to cross Group activities, to marketing and then back to a client. Often there were multiple clients in a single day. Multiple teams. My head didn’t stop spinning for about a year.

Commercial challenges often meant I had much less control over what work we’d go for than I’d have liked and we never won what I expected. There was always a trade-off between what we could provide commercially on a project and what I wanted to do. For the record I never felt like we under delivered for a client anywhere I was involved but the constant juggling of people, features and ways of working it took to do that was exhausting.

I came to dread looking at the various ‘resourcing’ spreadsheets.

Thing is this was all a bit boiling frog. We were busy most of the time and when we weren’t I was busy trying to make us busy again. I didn’t realise the extent to which I was fraying and kept taking on more. Then at the back end of 2019 I had a bit of a mental health wobble and stepped away from some of these additional responsibilities (by this point I was on the Board, was a Director with Companies House and was leading some of the cross Group work as well as still acting as a Principal Consultant, line managing a few staff and doing my recruitment thing across almost all our projects).

Looking back I think part of the problem – and it long predates my consultancy days – is that I have an exaggerated sense of responsibility when it comes to work and find it hard to disengage from it at the end of the day like some healthier friends and colleagues can manage.

Anyway rolling into 2020 I was mainly focused on being a Principal Consultant and in an effort to reinforce this and get myself out of the firing line I had accepted an assignment in Oslo for a few months. This was delayed a bit and then when I finally did head out there…well Covid happened but that is a different story.

There were lots of behind the scenes politics and shenanigans in the Group – the most disruptive (for me) were the various merger talks. Then there was a successful merger and Notbinary became Foundry4 and significantly grew overnight but it was still a manageable size and I felt like the role that was emerging for me in the new structure might finally provide me with some guardrails about where my responsibilities were to begin and end. 

The problem was at this point I’d had a rough time with [long] Covid and my accident and really hadn’t properly recovered from feeling depressed at the turn of the year and just kind of tried to fake it until I could make it and initially this seemed to work – but unfortunately those guardrails soon fell away and I was getting pulled into multiple projects and roles – unable to really give my all to any of them…and feeling guilty about that…which further affected my mood.

My anxiety just built and built and built. Every client and commercial call was preceded by a panic attack and there are big swathes of time where I was totally on auto-pilot and remember next to nothing (turns out I did some decent work during this period!)

One of the things that helped me keep it together at all through all this was I still believed in our scrappy little consultancy despite the fact we were growing beyond the original core. I knew the team had my back and despite some changes and being part of the wider Group I was proud of the culture we’d built and I knew if I could get some space they’d support me long enough for me to put myself together again.

Then it was announced that most of the Group companies were going to merge into one massive consultancy. I literally started drafting my resignation during the Zoom All-Hands where it was announced. All I could see was a future of disruption and distraction. While I believed it was probably the best thing for the business(es) I could not see a path to the Good Place for myself.

So I left – I was talked out of resigning and instead took a sabbatical that ended up permanent when we couldn’t agree on a role for my return. This was probably the best thing that could have happened to be honest as I was on auto-pilot again regarding my return and it forced me to look much harder at my recent patterns and make some big decisions about what I really wanted to do.

Because here is the thing – I really struggled at times but I definitely got blinded by the money a bit! My salary was never less than great and towards the end it was great. I also lucked out with the timing of my share options as well…and all of that is what allowed me to take the time to recover and then accept a job that was exactly the right shape for me – that all those hard earned lessons from consulting help me do.

So I don’t regret it – but I suspect needing to take a year to recover means it wasn’t quite the right long-term fit!

2 responses to “Consulting crushed me”

  1. Thanks for sharing your story Matt. We met briefly when you worked at Defra, quite a few years ago now!

    I’m about to embark on a slightly different journey leaving the Civil Service after 23 years to become an independent contractor. Any advice you might have on your experience of working with independent contractors would be greatly appreciated.

    Hope you’re enjoying your new role 😊

%d bloggers like this: