How Can You Learn When You’re All Alone?

One of the great benefits and great disadvantages of being a solo practitioner (or of being a consultant in a firm who works out of one’s home) is being alone. The freedom and non-bureaucratic nature of the job are excellent, but it sure does get lonely at times.

A potential casualty of such a life is ongoing learning. Without daily interaction with colleagues, and particularly when you’re at home working the phone or doing research, there is little opportunity to grow and learn. I’ll grant you that most of the casual talk in formal offices may be about the horrible coffee, the weather, or last night’s reality television programming, but there are also the debates and discussions about how to deal with a client, best practices, and innovative suggestions.

Yet I can make a case that it’s more important for a solo practitioner to maintain the learning curve than it is for the conventional employee. So how do we go about achieving such learning in a near-vacuum of human exchange? Here are some suggestions:

  • Use your clients. Establish relationships with implementers and stakeholders which enable you to run ideas buy them and freely exchange views. Sit in on relevant client meetings. Have lunch with people on-site. I’ve never been a great socializer with clients, but creating interaction which fosters learning and growth makes a lot of sense. Just remember, the customer is not always right!
  • Become involved with trade associations. I have to admit (disclaimer: I’m a member of the national board) that I’m shocked and saddened when a consultant questions whether he or she is “getting money’s worth” from due for the IMC (Institute of Management Consultants). It is the largest professional association representing independent consultants as well as the largest certifier of professional accomplishment (the Certified Management Consultant designation, the standards for which have recently been toughened). By utilizing local chapter meetings, national conventions, publications, and networks established through membership, one can constantly participate in both formal and informal educational events.
  • Read the literature. My guess, based upon my speaking and mentoring activities, is that less than half of all consultants read The Wall Street Journal every day. I regularly cite articles in Business Week and Fortune which others haven’t seen. There is a gamut of literature, from Harvard Business Review and Academy of Management Journal on one hand, to Training Magazine and HRMagazine on the other, which provides debate and discourse about management and consulting. (Almost any issue of Fast Company will have something sarcastic to say about the profession.) The publisher of this newsletter, Kennedy Information, also publishes Consultants News, for example.
  • Use your family or significant others. I’m constantly asking my wife’s opinion on judgment issues (usually when someone claims my humor has offended them!). Others don’t have to know consulting or your clients to be able to render opinions on ethical conduct, propriety, validity of critique, priorities, and so on. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that only you can understand what you do. None of us is engaged in rocket science, even if we’re consulting for rocket scientists.
  • Attend programs. There is a plethora of events, from breakfasts and half-day talks to extended seminars and workshops, which provide development in a wide variety of areas. And don’t go to hear only those you suspect you’ll agree with! Listen to opposing views and unpopular opinion. On one hand, you may just have your solo thinking swayed; on the other, you’ll have more information to oppose the view when necessary to do so. (My favorite candidates for exile are those who condemn books which they’ve never read, or critique approaches with which they are wholly unfamiliar.)

Life-long learning isn’t difficult. We merely need the life-long discipline to engage in it.