International Strategy for Higher Education Institutions

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Posted on by Vicky Lewis

Observations on going independent

It’s coming up for the fifth anniversary of setting up my business, Vicky Lewis Consulting, which specialises in international strategy development and marketing planning for higher education providers in the UK and beyond.

Vicky as a child steering a boatI’ve had a lot of people ask me what I like best about working for myself. That’s easy to answer: the flexibility; the opportunity to make a difference quickly; the chance to get to the nub of an issue that a client has been grappling with internally (and may have misdiagnosed); the ability to say no to projects that I’m uncomfortable with; the credibility accorded to a neutral, external party; not having to be sucked too far into internal politics. I could go on.

My children were five and three when I started my business and it was a huge bonus to be able to work around their school and nursery day, rather than having to fit their needs in around my work commitments. The immediate impact was reduced stress because I didn’t constantly feel guilty: guilty towards my employer for not working the very long hours I did before having kids; and guilty towards my children for not feeling able to get away from work for class assemblies and sports afternoons.

Yes, there was less money coming in for a while, but it was absolutely worth it.

The twin challenges of self-belief and self-promotion

Recently, someone asked me what the hardest thing about moving into consultancy was and I realised I hadn’t reflected on the challenges nearly as much as I had on the benefits.

My initial response was ‘self-belief’. At the start, I would be approached to do projects and my instinctive reaction was that I hadn’t done anything quite like this before so I should probably say no until I’d got a bit more experience under my belt.

I often had to give myself a stern talking to and remind myself that I had a wealth of transferable experience already and was perfectly capable of applying that in new contexts –and gaining valuable learning (for me and for my clients) in the process.

Gradually (over a period of years), I got to the point where I could say yes to projects even if they took me outside my comfort zone; and I also felt confident about saying no to projects if they didn’t generate that buzz of excitement or didn’t chime with my personal and professional values.

The second (linked) challenge was self-promotion. I’d previously been a Director of Marketing and Communications and had been perfectly comfortable promoting my institution at every opportunity. But promoting myself? Ugghh!

I was very fortunate that my first few contracts came from known contacts (there were advantages to having worked in the HE sector for the best part of 20 years). But I didn’t feel I could rely entirely on my peer network for work. I tried targeting some HEIs that – based on publicly available data and information - I thought could do with some help. That didn’t really work.

Building niche expertise

Then I figured that a better technique (and one which I’d actually enjoy) was to position myself as an expert in specific areas via academic research (leading to journal articles, conference presentations, book chapters etc.) and other channels such as delivering webinars and workshops, writing blogs (including guest blogs) and so on.

The consultancy projects that came in my direction still seemed to do so via serendipity, but there was often a link to something I’d written about or presented on. I was already at the back of people’s minds when they got to the point of thinking ‘we could really do with some external input on this’, so they’d look me up on LinkedIn, maybe check out my website, then get in touch. This also led to some highly relevant projects which further built up my expertise in specific fields of internationalisation.

The verdict

It probably took about two years before I had a really steady stream of work coming in. And about three before I stopped worrying about where the next project would come from.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve done a lot more work in collaboration with other consultants. Sometimes I lead the project and bring in external expertise to fill in gaps and provide extra capacity; sometimes it’s the other way round. It’s hugely important to work with people you respect, who have a similar ethos and approach to consultancy, while also bringing a complementary skill set and knowledge base to the project.

All in all, I’m extremely pleased that I took the plunge of going independent and working for myself. It’s been a great confidence-builder as well as being hugely rewarding to feel that I’m making a real difference to my client institutions, helping them to move from a messy mass of questions or challenges to some clearly laid-out, practical and realistic next steps.

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