Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Freelance Rules #7 - Keep Developing

While out and about last week I ran into a guy who used to freelance regularly for me back in my Barclays days. 'What are you up to now?' I asked. 'I'm pretty much out of the comms game now,' he responded. 'I do a bit of book keeping for my son, and have a sideline in importing specialist wines, but the comms work dried up a few years back - I think the market just moved away.'

It was a bit of a shock to hear this, as the guy had been one of the best independents I'd used - and is only about 10 years older than me. He was a magazine specialist, with a long background in printed magazine journalism. His problem, it seems, is that's what he did. As comms moved ever more electronic and then social; and as the skills of an organisational communicator moved from packaging information to facilitation/corporate conscience/leadership coach and all the other areas that have built on the basics of an ability to tell a story, he was rather left behind. 

When you're out of the corporate world, it's very easy to get left out in the cold when it comes to training and development. But our world moves pretty quickly now, so it's incumbent on any freelancer hoping to keep up with the game to stay on top of the trends and keep finding new ways to apply our skills.

Straight-forward commercial training courses from the likes of Melcrum and similar outfits in the market are a non-starter for most microbusinesses. They're aimed at corporates and thus are premium-priced. Given that independents pay twice for any training opportunities (cost of attending and opportunity cost of a lost day's work), I've always reckoned the best way to take part in such a course is to present it! If you have a skill that's in demand in the market, train people on it. You'll probably gain as much as you impart - and if my experience is anything to go by, you can generally barter a couple of days delivery for places on other courses.

Make the most of associations too. I've been to a number of IoIC conferences and IABC events down the years without ever paying full price - instead, I've given something in kind to hear the latest industry presentations. In the days when the IoIC was CiB and even BACB, I've presented sessions; covered the conference as a news event and even driven exhibition kit up and down from Newcastle for a conference place. I've gone on waiting lists for standby tickets to events and have even stepped in when clients have had to give up a paid-for ticket.

Never forget that associations deliver training too. It may not be as flash as a Ragan or a Melcrum, but IABC or IoIC training days are likely to be a fraction of the cost - and often with the same calibre of expertise.

These days, LinkedIn groups are a great informal developmental source. People throw out questions and the collective brain power of the group quite often gets involved in an electronic brain dump - often there's great insight to be had: free of charge.

Just because you work for your own business, don't neglect on the job training either. So often we work as part of a major change project or large corporate initiative where our clients grow and develop through the experience. Why shouldn't we do that too?  Wherever I can on a big project (and the comms team is a great place to be) I've looked to suck the brains of leaders and experts dry. I suspect every new thing I learn now will be applied on future work further down the line.

Finally, I've found another route to keep developing. I went back to university in 2007, first gaining my MA, and now working towards a PhD. The research has little directly to do with my current job, but often opens up new avenues of thought to me. Sometimes just sitting with fellow students talking about each other's work can set me off thinking about a project I have in my work-life. And it's weird how people expert in Hungarian economics, Arctic politics or sovereignty among Native American nations can spark off a great idea for a thorny comms problem. Perhaps it's just being among people devoted to learning, but it;s given my own development a new lease of life - and may even open new areas of opportunity to me in the future.

The bottom line is that however good you are at what you do, the business world will keep evolving. If you don't, the only way to go is the way of the dinosaur.

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