Three years ago, Miriam Krasno, 41, decided to go it alone in Chicago as an independent career coach and life planner, work she did part time before taking the step to free agency. Krasno helps individual clients and corporations map career paths, and free agency is becoming a more popular career path for which she finds herself dispensing advice these days.
One common problem free agents experience is the loss of the informal support networks that exist in many organizations — the water cooler chats that form the basis of relationships and professional support. Krasno recommends that free agents put significant energy into building their own networks. Here's how:
Don't think needing help is a weakness.
Krasno says some people shy from seeking a professional support group because part of the appeal of free agency is doing things yourself. But other people can provide a valuable support network of contacts, resources, advice, and feedback that you might not be able to provide yourself.
Usually, people realize that after they've worked as free agents for awhile. Suddenly they need help meeting financial goals, finding an accountant, or tracking down information. Networks can help you do your work better. "I don't like the phrase 'support groups' because it conjures up emotional support and group therapy," she says. "I help clients get involved in action-oriented networking groups-success teams."
Welcome diversity, but have common goals.
If you're an independent consultant, your networking group doesn't need to include only consultants. While people doing similar work might encounter similar challenges and concerns, it's not important that they all do the same thing —just that they have the same goals. "It doesn't matter how old they are, where they're going or what their background is. The important thing is that everybody's in transition," Krasno says. "But if someone's looking for an emotional support group and you're looking for resources and contacts, that person might be better off with another group."
Don't let anyone lead.
If the networking group is going to serve each member equally, it's important not to identify a leader, Krasno says. Instead, install a group process and structure that allows the meetings to run themselves. Taking cues from Barbara Sher, author of Teamworks : Building Support Groups That Guarantee Success, Krasno encourages people to experiment with process-driven groups and self-learning. "There really shouldn't be a facilitator," she says. "Structure becomes the leader. If you have good structure, the group will run itself."
Tie the team to the time.
For Krasno's group in Chicago, which includes executive recruiter Joanna Baker, that structure means a stopwatch. Each of the four people in the strategy group opens with a five-minute recap of the month's accomplishments. Then they take a minute or two to talk about challenges before brainstorming on solutions together for 10 minutes. At the end, each member takes a minute to set goals for the next month. Krasno says the structure, while not totally regimented, keeps the team on track. "Before the meeting, we chat. And afterward, we hang around some," she says. "But after an hour and a half or two hours of meeting time, nobody's listening."
A version of this article appeared in the December 1997/January 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.