Nina Spencer

Going it Alone: Hanging out your shingle in training and development

I once saw a Gary Larson cartoon , where all these dogs are standing on one side of a busy street and one lonely dog is standing on the other side. He picks his moment, darts across the street, dodging cars and trucks, nearly getting hit, and he makes it to the other side, where all the dogs cheer and pat him on the back, and the caption reads, "Hey, Sparky's in the club!"

I love facilitating professional development workshops and keynote speaking! It certainly has turned out to be my calling. How do I know that I'm in the right profession for me? Thirteen years of positive client feedback helps but, even beyond that, I use the litmus test of this question, "If I won 649, what would I want to do, to make a professional contribution (after I've spent endless months "slumming" on the French Riviera)? My answer... workshop facilitation and keynote speaking!

Every now and then I ask that question of people I meet. You'd be surprised (or maybe not!) by how many people say something other than what they're currently doing to earn a living! What would you say? True enough, turning your professional life upside down, going out of your comfort zone, taking a leap of faith, etc., and daring to pursue the profession you really want, may be easier said than done, but life is short. What things might you regret not doing when you look back at the end of the metaphoric day?

I serendipitously ended up in training and development in the mid 1980's. If I was marking milestone events in my life, getting that opportunity would be a real "biggie"! I learned my workshop facilitation and presentation skills well, servicing the professional development needs of a staff of thousands, over a ten year period. By 1996 I'd never been happier with my professional development nor with my employer, but two significant emotional events simultaneously happened:

  • The political climate of my company changed radically, leaving me to seriously examine my future.
  • My dear mother, who was well all day on May 29, died suddenly. On the night before my mom's funeral, it hit me like a whack on the side of the head, "I've got to quit my job!" There are few things I've been so sure of but I was sure of this, I HAD to quit!

When I shared this "secret" with a couple of colleagues, they begged me to reconsider, worrying that this was not my truth but rather shock and grief speaking. I respected their feedback and acknowledged the possibility that it was grief so, to be sure, I gave myself six months to incubate on this revelation. At the end of six months I felt stronger than ever that I was right to quit and so, with my professional bridges in excellent repair with my employer, and on my 39th birthday, I quit, in the old fashioned way that people used to do before the era of negotiating for "packages" came around.

Yes, there were some who thought I was absolutely "crazy", especially since there were murmurings of the organization negotiating packages in the new year, but they were rumours and I couldn't emotionally wait any longer! Colleagues and family members said the classic lines, " "what about all of your seniority, your pension?" They were really saying, "Don't you want your security? Don't you want your guaranteed income?" I'd been around long enough to know that those things were illusions anyway.

I left to hang out my own shingle! I knew my skills were ready to "go on the road ". I knew that my chosen profession worked very well entrepreneurially speaking. I also knew that the most progressive and enlightened organizations embraced professional development for their staff and that they frequently looked to partner with independent facilitators and speakers to "get the job done". I knew that this was the perfect time to strike out on my own!

When I left, so many of my colleagues expressed envy and wished it was them going! Since then, many have continued to call, expressing their fantasies of becoming an independent, but they're still mustering up the courage to take the first step. They like to keep in touch with me because it's a tangible reminder that it can be done! I now get the occasional call from "friends of friends" in training and development, that wish to have a chance to speak with "some one who has done it" and about how to mustered up the courage to "go", how to get clients, set up, and get going.

I always enjoy these conversations because I know there's a lot of people out there in our profession that would be GREAT at the entrepreneurial approach to training and development, but first they've got to get their "‘butt" kicked! If I can help play a part, that's a nice lift for me!

If you fantasize about being in "Sparky's Club", or perhaps it's more than a fantasy but you're just not sure when you're going to ever execute your carefully thought out and strategized plan to become an "independent", I humbly share with you some of my pearls of wisdom from my own leap into the world of independent speaker and workshop facilitator:

Be sure that you're "good" at what you do before you leave the fertile training ground of your organization's fold (you'll know this most obviously from your internal client's feedback of your professional contributions to their development over the years. Remember to save some of your client's written testimonials... with their permission, these testimonials could come in handy for your first bio!).

I know a few people who quit and didn't really start prospecting opportunities for almost a year because they felt they needed to develop their brochure, their image, their logo and their overarching mission statement, etc., before they started! That's fear talking, they were too afraid to pick up the phone! Yes, a plan is a good idea but, in the beginning, it's hard to know what direction you'll end up in, so don't trap yourself into a look, spending thousands of dollars on materials, until you actually know what you want your look to look like! (and that may take a few years)

The same thing goes for your company name. Don't spend endless hours, days and weeks trying to figure out a cute or creative name for your company. Call your company YOUR NAME so that, in the beginning YOU get the publicity and exposure, not your company's name!

  • develop a profile / biography which includes:
  • your professional background (what gives you the right to be offering these professional development services?)
  • your diversity, perhaps some interesting, non professional information about yourself, something that will help you stick out and be memorable, ie. I share that I once was a professional figure skater!
  • topics on which you speak or facilitate workshops
  • a sample of your clients
  • a sample of client testimonials
  • "one sheets" of information on your core topics/workshops (which include the objectives or benefits of the presentation)

Make a list of everyone you know, who is in a position of influence or authority, who would sincerely be interested in knowing that you've gone out on your own. Those who would sincerely be willing to refer you to someone they know, who looks for workshop facilitators from time to time. Keep that list available at all times because you'll start thinking of another person and another person, at the darndest times, and you've got to remember to put everyone's name down (and their phone numbers too). Remember, one of your biggest leads in your first year could come from your neighbours, sister's husband's brother! You know what I mean?

On the first day of your independent work, start calling everyone on that list! Let them know that "You finally did it!" and graciously ask them if you may send them a copy of your bio, and do they feel comfortable sharing the name of someone they know who may be interested in using your services (and remember to ask their permission to say they referred you to the new potential client).

Work on your telephone manner. The phone is your biggest partner! Make sure your outgoing message is warm and friendly and makes people WANT to do business with YOU! You've got to trust me on this one. It may seem like a silly little thing but I know that it's helped me! Change it everyday and play it back until you're satisfied that it represents you EXACTLY as you want your potential clients to experience you. Use the same philosophy for the voice mail messages you leave for your potential clients. Play it back as many times as it takes. Make them WANT to call YOU back to hear more. You have more power over that than you may realize!

Approach all kinds of associations and networking groups (many of them meet monthly and are often looking for speakers and workshop facilitators)

Explore trade publications that would be NEXinterested in what you have to write on your subjects of expertise (how do you think I ended up in the Training Report, eh?) It gives you a by line, more exposure, will add diversity to your profile sheet and will give your professional ego a boost to boot!

Remember, if you leave your employer with your fences in good repair, it may very well be that one of your first independent clients is your "old" employer"! This happens more than you may think! They already know your good work and probably sorry to see you go in the first place!

Persistence, Perseverance and Passion are Prerequisite. It's up to YOU to follow up, not the potential client. Do give them a few days to respond but then it's up to you to call back, always with a pleasant manner—no righteousness about not getting your calls returned (and trust me, there'll be a lot of calls that won't be returned!). Persevere to a point and then try this philosophy, "Some will, some won't, so what... Next!"). There truly are thousands of "fish" in the training and development sea! keep casting your net!

There's so much more to share but these are the "biggies" for starters! Using this approach I had the honour of providing my independent workshop facilitation and keynote speaking services with 16 clients in my first year, 32 clients in my second year, and so far this year, 21 clients, and some bookings into 2000 and 2001! It can be done! You can do it too, if you really really want to!

I wrote earlier about the "Significant Emotional Event" that caused me to dare to "Go it Alone". Significant emotional events can happen in all shapes and sizes. It doesn't have to be the death of a loved one. Perhaps it will end up being just one teeny weeny little thing that makes you "wake up" and SEE where you want to go next. By the way, have you noticed that the acronym for Significant Emotional Event is S.E.E.?

Is their a little of "Sparky" in you? If so, I do hope that you let it grow and "join the club!"