Posted on by Vicky Lewis
When I became an independent consultant in 2013, I was happy to escape the confines of university life (and politics) and relished the opportunity of being able to fit in a modest amount of academic research alongside my consultancy work. The plan was that the latter would pay the bills, while the former would keep me sharp, relevant and credible.
What I didn’t expect was what happened in 2021, which turned into a year of two halves. The first half was focused almost exclusively on research and the second half on consultancy.
For the first time in several years, I didn’t have any consultancy work lined up at the start of 2021 (I blame the pandemic…), so I decided to throw myself into a research project exploring the global engagement strategies of UK universities, which I’d started late in 2020. I was fortunate that I’d previously had a sustained period of steady consultancy work and could afford to step out for a few months and invest my time in unpaid research.
The main output from my research was my April 2021 report, UK Universities Global Engagement Strategies: Time for a Rethink?, which generated positive responses from colleagues in the UK and around the world, along with various articles, blogs, conference presentations and webinars from May onwards. I am glad that I made the most of the lull in consultancy work to do something productive.
In the summer I was presented with an opportunity for an intensive consultancy assignment that would keep me busy until Christmas. After my income-depleted first half of the year, you’d think I would have leapt at this, but I had to think long and hard about it.
It was a significant commitment of time and would involve being much more embedded in an institution than I had been since leaving my Director role at Bournemouth University over eight years earlier.
All sorts of questions were going through my mind. What would it be like providing leadership for a team again? Having been a solo operator for so long, would I even remember how? Which other skills of mine might be rusty? How effective could I be when working largely remotely? Would such an all-consuming assignment mean turning down other opportunities?
Having talked things through with a trusted friend who is a fellow consultant, I realised that I was searching for obstacles mainly because it would take me out of my comfort zone. I wrote a list of pros and cons and concluded that a sustained period of working with the same institution and getting involved in day-to-day challenges would bring numerous benefits and make me a better consultant. So, I took the plunge and said yes.
It was the right decision to embrace this particular challenge (despite my initial reservations) and it didn’t close off other opportunities. Although I couldn’t take on much in the way of other consultancy work, I found that other clients were willing to accept whatever time I could offer or wait for me to become available, which was very flattering.
I was reminded that it’s good to feel part of a team – and that I hadn’t forgotten all my leadership and management skills. Previous experience was still there to be drawn on.
This assignment updated my knowledge, brought me closer to the issues that university staff are contending with, and helped to ensure that I didn't become detached (as some consultants do) from the realities of current HE life.
I experienced the fulfilment of applying my expertise in international strategy development within an institution I felt part of, helping to set its future direction.
I could appreciate first-hand once again that International Office staff are incredibly hard-working and dedicated, with a strong belief in the transformative power of international education.
Above all, it was rewarding to be able to make a positive impact and confidence-building to receive wonderful, affirming feedback – both from my immediate team and other key stakeholders.
Although I benefited hugely from this intensive assignment, I’m pleased to have resumed working on a range of less all-consuming consultancy projects, coupled with writing a few articles and getting back to my blog, which was completely neglected for several months.
2021 was a year that starkly epitomised the classic freelancer scenario of ‘famine or feast’. I’d like to hope that 2022 will be a bit steadier, with the kind of varied work that spices up a consultant’s life.
And I'd be interested to hear how 2021 was for other consultants out there. What are you hoping for in 2022?