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10 actions to smooth your transition from employee to entrepreneur: Things I learned while leaving corporate and launching my own consulting business

As I write these lines, it is precisely 100 days ago that I officially worked my first day without the backing of a multinational corporation. My choice to start a business, especially during an emerging global crisis when I could have chosen a stable corporate role, has raised eyebrows. Before you ask, let me share that […]

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As I write these lines, it is precisely 100 days ago that I officially worked my first day without the backing of a multinational corporation. My choice to start a business, especially during an emerging global crisis when I could have chosen a stable corporate role, has raised eyebrows.

Before you ask, let me share that I am doing well professionally, intellectually, and from the perspective of balance. Yes, every day brings a new challenge. Yet at the same time, every meeting opens the door for new opportunities and potential clients. It is an exciting time!

Despite fears around world events and a change of employment, becoming an independent consultant and coach was the right move for me.

Maybe it could be your path, too?

Although fear is a natural part of any major change, there are things you can do to make the transition feel more natural, and your fear … less fearsome!

The key to a successful transition is to start before you start.

Start before you start.

My transition was smooth because of ten actions I took before the leap. Here are those actions – or should I say – approaches to begin to build into your existing business life.

1. Seek out and stay in touch with inspirational people.

I attended an Insights Discovery Accreditation course a few years ago. I met many impressive people; however, I felt especially drawn to one of the leading coaches of the program, Jean Davidson. I approached her at the end and expressed my observations about her strong presence, caring leadership style and sharp intellect. We stayed in occasional touch without any concrete reason at first. Our friendship has, by now, boosted my life’s journey in many ways. For example, Jean became my guide and coach during my international relocation last year and very recently, we made a recording as part of “The Fear Project” together. As much as Jean has enriched my life and continues to be my inspiration, I am hopeful I bring some of the same elements to her journey. Jointly we are open to infinite possibilities ahead.

 Dana Poul-Graf and Dr. Jean Davidson

My advice to you?

Trust your instincts. When you’re drawn to someone, don’t be shy to express it and stay in touch! You’ll be surprised by how many unforeseen great things those connections will lead to both for you personally and for your business.

2. Nurture relationships and you won’t have to do everything alone.

It may seem scary at first to have to do everything yourself in your company. It’s as if you suddenly must become an expert in all aspects of business. The good news is that if you nurture your relationships, you won’t be alone, and you won’t have to do everything in isolation.

While I was employed, it never occurred to me what amazing skills and knowledge bank my long-term friends represented. To my surprise, they were open to sharing their business knowledge with me when I asked. Thanks to them, I learned, for example, about tax advisors, local influencers, and the specifics of online marketing.

I created also powerful business alliances with some of my friends based on a level of trust you can’t build overnight. And some of my high-profile friends invited me to join large initiatives and introduced me to potential clients and networking groups.

The point is: when you invest in your relationships, you can only win – together. 

3. Care for your reputation consistently. 

In one of my recent coaching sessions, a client and I discussed succession planning. We spoke about his big disappointment with not being promoted into the role of his ex-boss, who left the company after repeatedly reassuring my client that he’d be in line for succession.

Sounds familiar? What went wrong?

Like many other leaders I work with, my client had an excellent reputation with his boss and customers. He took care of his team as well. Peers, vendors, and business partners were also on his list, although he confessed that his reputation with those non-priority stakeholders wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t ideal.

It is precisely those second and third priority groups and their experiences with my client that may have made the difference in the final decision between him and a second, equally skilled candidate. In the end, it wasn’t my client’s boss who’d decide who would be appointed to fill his role, although I’m sure he was consulted and may have put my client’s name forward.

My client underestimated the power of word of mouth and the need for a consistent reputation.

What can you do to secure your reputation?

It’s unusual for one person to decide on a proposal. Even in those rare cases when there’s only one decision-maker, that decision-maker may informally consult others before making a final choice. It’s the same process as when you ask for references or check reviews on the best masseuse, restaurant, or future coach.

Treat everyone as you would your customer. Honor your commitments, propose solutions, anticipate needs, and look after your joint interests.  Your reputation will then become a competitive advantage.

4. Invest in others

As a young professional, I was instantly turned off by a leader who said, “Well, no one taught me this, so you should figure it out yourself.”

That’s also why I’ve chosen to be a servant leader and to prioritize communications with my team. Later, I even engaged in multiple formal and informal coaching relationships. It certainly did take extra time, but it also led to me forming many allies who, for example, were open to provide testimonials, recommendations, or to become clients themselves.

Share your knowledge and insights. It builds your credibility, confidence, and potentially also your fan club. Most of all, what feels right, feels also good and helps you to realize something new about yourself by every interaction.

5. Continue learning.

Everything I’ve ever learned has been useful to me on my path forward. For example, my choice to widen my area of expertise from Executive Comms to HR and Learning & Development has led to many new open doors and contacts.

Don’t shy away from experimenting with your career and acquiring expertise in different areas. Raise your hand for the next project. Ask yourself: Did I learn everything I could on this job already? If yes, move on.  If you don’t enjoy a particular field, you can always change again. These experiences will pave the way to your next—and next next—opportunity.

6. Find new sources of motivation.

As a self-employed person, you will not receive promotions or raises to motivate you. Here are some questions to ask yourself occasionally to keep yourself “in the game” and enjoying the process:

  • What do I want to achieve today and this week? 
  • What do I want to accomplish this month and this year?
  • How will I know I have delivered? How do I define my success?
  • What level of quality does my service have to bring?
  • How will I know that I am a valued asset to my clients? 
  • What am I ready to compromise on from the above-described expectations, and what is a MUST ACHIEVE?

It’s easy to think that when you don’t have to motivate a large team or prove results to your boss, you can just wing it. The opposite is true – you need clarity for yourself, so you quickly recognize when it’s time to celebrate, and when it’s time to paddle harder.

7. Challenge yourself to work, and NOT work.

This habit crept in innocently, as I had the tendency to view those activities that I didn’t charge to clients as “not really work.”

Best practice shows that we’re most productive when short breaks are part of our routines. Be aware of how you use your “off” time and build in activities that will recharge you both physically and intellectually. Even Einstein took short naps during his day!

On the other hand, when your work volume drops, challenge yourself, catch up with nice-to-have business items, and reflect on questions from point number six. Invest in your own development, meet your stakeholders, and seek inspiration! You’ll be thanking yourself when it gets hectic again.

8. Create a strategy for dealing with setbacks.

Setbacks are unavoidable. Should you choose to become an entrepreneur, you may not have a direct colleague to debrief about a meeting that didn’t go well or about a failed sales pitch. You may not have the time or the possibility to go for a drink and “wash it away.”

Think about:

What relaxes you? 

What activity makes you forget about everything?

What brings you back into your full-power mode? 

I have a thing for learning. I’ve made it a habit to learn from anyone, anywhere, and anything that is of interest to me independently of whether it’s directly useful for my business. Learning helps me analyze situations that didn’t go well, and once I feel I cracked the code, I know I can let it go. I then feel excited to experiment with a new way of approaching similar situations in the future.

What works for you?

Write down notes as you experience setbacks and experiment with different ways of recovering.  Learn about yourself and improve. Speed up cleansing your system faster and more efficiently.

Your next customer will need and deserves you at your best!

9. Be like water, fluid and powerful.

As a business owner, you are the one to decide the direction of your business. You’re the one to decide what’s vital that week, that day, that moment.

Priorities may change within minutes. It’s exciting and energizing, as long as you’re a good juggler. The past 100 days, especially with COVID on the scene, taught me to continually, ruthlessly assess my priorities.

No matter what situation you’re in, the ability to abstract the essence and quickly decide what you let go and what you push forward may save your valuable energy and open new doors and opportunities.

As Arianna Huffington says, “[…] life is a dance between making it happen and letting it happen, and never forgetting that no matter how caught up we are in the world, life is shaped from the inside out.”

Let your next professional opportunity become an enjoyable process of creation, in which you’re just like water: flexible, almost fluid, and powerful.

 The Power of Water

10. Know that going from employee to entrepreneur is NOT a way out.

I have met many people who think that leaving a large organization means you don’t have to deal with what feels “uncomfortable,” “unpleasant,” or your fears.

Having your own business doesn’t mean you won’t have to provide critical feedback, face confrontation, setbacks, and crisis, or navigate around challenges in your professional relationships.

Focus on what is within your scope of influence and let go of the rest. It can be scary, but each fear-triggering event also brings opportunity.

What helped you on your way to becoming an entrepreneur? What did you learn along the way? Please share.

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