Have you ever wondered why CFOs become independent and start a consulting practice? I’m not sure I’ve ever had a CEO ask me that question.
While I have two good stories to explain why I’m a Free Agent CFO™, Roger Martin provides the best answer I’ve ever heard on why professionals decide to become solopreneur consultants.
Roger is the author of one of the most practical books on strategy I’ve ever read. The title is Playing to Win, and his co-author is A.G. Lafley, the former Chairman and CEO of P&G. He’s also the writer of one of the best business blogs written for lifelong business learners.
Near the end of one of his posts, he writes, “I wanted to be Switzerland.” Here is the full context:
For several reasons, I chose instead to be a solo practitioner. One key reason was that I wanted to be Switzerland — a neutral player.
I don’t and can’t compete with McKinsey, BCG, Bain, and Monitor Deloitte for revenues because my revenue capacity is miniscule, and they are multi-billion-dollar entities.
I wanted to be in a position to disseminate my ideas and language system freely for anyone who wants to use it.Roger Martin – Are You Building a Strategy Tower of Babel?
The Positives of Being Switzerland
Being Switzerland can be difficult and lonely. I am in charge of marketing and sales, and I’m a one-person operating team.
The positives, however, and immeasurable:
I determine the direction of my practice, which means I can reinvent myself freely and whenever I want. I create the agenda instead of being a bullet point on another person’s or firm’s agenda.
Being Switzerland generally means I can establish closer ties with clients, which can last for a very, very long time. I’m not saying that can’t be done if I am not part of a bigger team. Working solo offers more opportunities to focus on relationships than working around the clock by generating billable projects for another organization.
Being Switzerland can be as lucrative compared to running a small firm. My clients get their big payoff when they sell. I get my big payoff monthly after I collect fees for the value I deliver. I only need to live off about 40 to 50 percent of what I take in. I invest the rest. There is no waiting for the big payoff. It’s ongoing.
I create my own language when I’m Switzerland. I was part of a larger CFO firm for about six or seven years. Since I enjoy writing and creating simple frameworks (one of my unique abilities), I felt stymied using another firm’s language. Plus, my own language was considered open-domain content–anyone could use it as their own, and that happened more than once. When I’m Switzerland, I can create my own IP (intellectual property). This could possibly be the most important benefit of being Switzerland.
I’m pushing the envelope of the Switzerland metaphor, but I’m going to bookend this list by stating that being neutral is being skeptical. For just one minute. let’s assume Switzerland is known for being skeptical instead of being neutral. Being Switzerland means I have the freedom to see the flaws in other management frameworks, no matter how popular they are.
Gino Wickman and Verne Harnish are sometimes right, and sometimes, they are not the right answer to certain growth issues. We can say that about OKRs, strategic planning, The Balanced Scorecard, one-page business plans, best practices, and numerous other management methods that over-promise results. Being skeptical is healthy and could save my clients time and money from going down too many rabbit holes with these tools and methodologies.
Before wrapping up, I want to highlight a concept that Roger Martin mentions in Playing to Win. He explains assertive inquiry in chapter six, Manage What Matters.
Skepticism runs in my veins. I’m on constant yellow alert when it comes to hearing and reading about management practices, especially the ones that sound good in print but are disastrous when executed poorly by small business owners.
As Roger points out about assertive inquiry, this type of communication means expressing our thoughts and ideas while soliciting the same from others who may think differently. I can be skeptical and collaborative at the same time.
Sorry for this small sidebar, but I felt this quick advice was necessary on my role of being skeptical in the proper context. In short, being skeptical is not the same thing as being dogmatic or a curmudgeon.
Parting Thoughts on Being Switzerland
As much as I like Roger’s idea of being Switzerland, I have two more perspectives to balance this discussion.
Dan Sullivan is one of the greatest small business coaches around the globe. He uses the term ‘rugged individualist’ a lot. We hit on that concept numerous times during my first year attending his firm’s quarterly workshops.
A Switzerland mindset doesn’t mean I’m a rugged individualist. I can still be an active member of other people’s like-minded tribes with similar goals and aspirations. Being Switzerland doesn’t mean being alone.
I have a small circle of roughly thirteen people I can turn to for advice, feedback, and just being a friend when I need it from a professional point of view. I may be Switzerland, but I’m not neutral regarding strong relationships.
My final perspective on being Switzerland is that it’s not forever unless I want it to be. I can be Switzerland for five, seven, ten, or twenty years. I can join a team anytime I want or expand my practice with other consultants like Daniel Martin did at Agile Strategies. Walking away from Switzerland is not a failure.
Being Switzerland is a mindset based on my ‘why’ for doing what I do. About annually, I find continual peace of mind in revisiting why I’m a solo consultant.