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Flexible consulting exit opportunities

I connected with Nicola a few days back due to her coaching cards, but I don't want to steal the thunder away from the story.She is a former business change consultant who worked with Accenture, KPMG, and EY. She now works with female professionals looking to make a change in their career, helping them and annihilate the self doubt and the fear of judgment so that they have the confidence to carve out a career that fulfills their passion and allows them to showcase their talent.

She's a certified mindset coach, NLP coach, timeline therapy, hypnosis practitioner, mindfulness teacher, she is also qualified in the British psychological society's levels A&B. And she's also a Mental Health First Aider and a coach trainer for the mindset coach Academy.

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Why did Nicola get into Consulting?

Before that, when she was leaving school, she had no idea what she wanted to do. So she went to university and did a degree in international business and modern languages. And the reason that she did that is because everybody told her this will give her a really broad base, you don't have to specialize in anything. And when you don't know what you want to do, it is best that you have a really good foundation, and you'll be able to go on from there and get a job.

She got to the end of five years at university, she still didn't know what she wanted to do when she grew up. And so she started to look into Management Consultancy, because again, it was going to give her those broad options. She didn't have to specialize in anything and it was going to give her a really good grounding.

So she got onto the graduate program at Accenture over the next few years to build up her skills. Then she became very interested in human performance and business change consulting, and effectively worked her way through the graduate program there and then into the consulting ranks, up to manager level.

While she really enjoyed the people that she was working with, she knew that she wanted to do more of the human performance and business changed work. this was quite some time ago, And at the time, there wasn't a massive amount of that available within Accenture.

So she made the move over to KPMG on the basis that that was the work that she was interested in and wanted to do and would have the opportunity to do more of, was available in KPMG Consulting. But they were growing very, very rapidly. And she actually got the opportunity to become the Chief Operating Officer (COO) within their government advisory unit, which at the time was a very small unit of 50 people. After she took on the Chief Operating Officer role, and over the course of the next 12 months, they scaled to 250 people. What was required there was getting processes and infrastructure in place to help the consulting arm grow rapidly. And because of all the experience that she had at Accenture, And so I was able to use my experience and my exposure to those methodologies and help the KPMG government advisory practice set themselves up in a similar capacity.

And for anybody who has not worked for Accenture, it is important to note that it is a well oiled machine. These systems and processes and methodologies are as slick as you will find anywhere in the world.

And so she did that for a couple of years. She then knew that she wanted to make a move into management, development and talent development. Those opportunities weren't quite there at KPMG at that point.

That was when I moved over to Ernst and Young and ironically, was in talent development for about a year, at which point there were lots of change going on. So, she ended up back in a consulting role where she was just able to use all of the skills she had amassed over the time that she had been within consulting. And then she went off on maternity leave, never quite sure if she was going back or not, because she always had this hankering to do her own thing. After her maternity leave, she came back and had the conversation about what role she would be taking on, and she realised she would be going back into the internal consulting team where there was still a lot of travel required. And she had a nine month old baby, and a husband who worked full time. They didn't live close to any family, so they had to make some really difficult decisions about the type of family life that they wanted to have, and the type of upbringing that they wanted their children to have.

It was at that point that she quit consulting. In the end, it was actually a very easy decision because she knew that at some point, she wanted to do her own thing anyway, that it was the right time for her to exit consulting at that point in time.

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Nicola went into consulting, wanting to have this really broad experience, and then became very interested in human performance, people development, and wanted to hone her career in that direction. When she left consulting, she had so many options available that it then became really difficult for her to decide.

“I've got a really clear memory of sitting on Tooting Common with my daughter who was 10 months old. And she was playing around in a blanket, and I sat down. In fact, I've probably still got it somewhere. I sat down with a notebook and brainstormed all the things that I potentially could do. And it went on for pages and pages and pages. And actually, quite a large part of those first few months was trying to figure out, what the heck do I do next?”

It's a nice position to be in. However, at the time, she thought she had to get the answer right.

“If I was to approach the same situation, now I would do it very, very differently. But at the time, I thought I was picking the thing that I was going to do for the next 20 years of my life.”

Now she knows that is not how the world works. And that's not how entrepreneurship and solopreneur ship works.

“But at the time, I was very fixated on getting the right answer.” she says.

This is what I hear all the time from people I work with: my peers, my friends, my colleagues, my clients. I find that consultants typically have the opposite problem from the rest of the people because you have the problem of choice, while the rest are struggling to find a job. But consultants have quite the opposite problem. Too many options, what do I choose?

How did Nicola decide on what to do next? Why entrepreneurship?

“I almost fell into it.” she says

Her first stab at entrepreneurship was creating an agency called “Life after Maternity Leave”. While she was going through this whole process of what to do after maternity leave, and was having conversations with so many people at the time. She set up this consulting service, whereby people could come to her and we could thrash out what their options were. It was an online platform. Bear in mind, this was back in 2009.

This was about consolidating the information that was out there to help people make decisions, and help people to decide what was right for them. And that operated for three and a half to four years. And then that led her on to the next part of the journey.

“You start to learn that you don't want to do things forever.”

She had learned a lot of things about setting up a business, setting up an online presence, becoming visible on social media. So she created The Mum’s Business Academy that kind of followed through from Life after Maternity Leave. A lot of people decided to go back to the role that they were in, some people decided to completely devote themselves and be at home with their children, some people decided to set up their own business.

And that was the crowd that The Mum’s Business Academy was catering to. It was an online course to help people from start to finish, like that very first moment of what are the ideas? How to get that idea from an idea to an actual viable business that is running. And again, she did that for about two and a half to three years.

At the same time she was running face to face networking groups for people in her local area who had children or were working around children, and created networking for them. It was really important at the time when you've got young children, and also growing and developing a business, that you've got your network around you, and people who understand the challenges that you're facing. And that was what she created through those networking groups. So the networking group was the local piece, and The Mum’s Business Academywas online.

How did you pick your niche? Connecting the dots backwards… following the breadcrumbs?

Follow the breadcrumbs. And this is something Nicola talks about with clients now. At the time, she didn't know that's what she was doing. It felt really clunky and uncomfortable. And she used to get frustrated with myself, because she would wonder why she can't just stick to one thing.

“I get to the point of being- I've done that, and this is probably the consultant in me, because it's very difficult for a consultant to then go into a functional role and be happy in a functional role where they are doing the same thing day in, day out, month, in month out.

I have a friend who's a management accountant, and she, like she can map out the next 10 years of her life based on her month ends. She knows when her month ends are gonna fall, she knows what her year end will fall, she knows her peaks, she knows her troughs.

That is not for me at all. I like the variety. I like mixing it up. And so I have recognized in myself that much the way you are as a consultant where you work on a project by project basis, that my business is going to be cyclical, that I will always be evolving and changing and growing and developing and moving on to the next thing. And I used to give myself a hard time about it. Because I was thinking why can't I just stick with one thing, but actually I've now come to accept, that's okay. Because there's a common thread that runs through all the work that I've ever done. And that is around human performance and people development. And so in a corporate context that was very much around organizational

development and development of teams that are on a larger scale. And now it's much more about personal transformation.”

Management consultants, because of the variety that we are used to, because of the short and snappy projects that we are used to, the implementation or the functional, deeply functional roles are harder to enjoy. There will of course be some consultants out there who really enjoy that deep expertise. And I myself like to go very deep on certain things.but only as long as there’s enough variety in there.

And it's also very interesting to me that Nicola said that you are okay with your business changing and evolving. And that she is a solopreneur and doesn't want this to be anything bigger in the next couple of years. And that's a conscious decision.

I tend to talk to a lot of consultants who have aspirations of starting their own venture backed startups. That is great- if you want to go ahead and see a startup through, make it a unicorn, that's great!

But I think there are quite a lot of folks out there who are entrepreneurial, but are not quite sure about what they could do other than their job. They are waiting for this crazy idea to strike. O”nce I have an idea, I will set up a business” is the usual line of thought.

And what Nicola says is quite different and quite refreshing to hear.

Why solopreneurship and not a start-up with employees? Did Nicola know she didn’t want a venture backed start-up?

“No, no. This is a long and winding road and quite a time is quite a painful road as well, because other people have expectations of you. So other people have expectations of your education, your background, your position, the things that you could potentially do.

And actually, it's probably worth talking about how my work evolved after The Mum's Business Academy, because I genuinely believe you teach what you need to learn. And so I each phase of this journey, I have been teaching other people what I have needed to learn myself. And so moving on from The Mum’s Business Academy, my business morphed into more general mentoring rather than specific to business.

And the banner for all that was called Good Life Well Lived.”

Nicola still does a lot of work around a Good Life Well Lived. It is about living a life where you're completely unashamedly living in line with your values, and placing your time, energy and attention where you want it to go- not where other people think it should go. But where you want it to go.

So she had to become very clear that she wanted the bulk of her time, energy and attention to go towards my family until they are of an age, that they are fully self sufficient.

“And it has taken me a really long time to own that decision. Because it always felt like it was a bit of a cop out that actually I should be doing all of these other things that people thought and were expecting me to do. But actually what's really important for me now is what interests me, and that allows me to develop my skills, and also those need to bring in an income as well.

And to be able to do that, for me, that meant being a solopreneur. I'm not looking at setting up a business where I would be responsible for other people's salaries. That is not a responsibility that I want to have at this point in time. And that's not to say that I won't want it in the future. But that complete self sufficiency is something that's very important to me at the moment.”

Who are the people and what expectations do they have?

Nicola says, it’s mostly family, and friends.

“I was at the top of my year at school, I went to university, I've got a first class degree, I was top of my year at university, I was accepted onto the Accenture graduate program, which I don't even know what the stats are like. But lots of people apply for the Accenture graduate program, or they certainly did back in 2000.

Lots of people apply, and they aren't as successful. I got onto that programme. I was then able to move between organizations within the Big Four. And I took the decision to walk away from all of that. I took the decision to walk away from a stable paycheck, which, quite frankly, for my family, for my parents, was very difficult for them to understand. Why would you do that?

But I had to be true to the way that I wanted my family life to be. And so to be completely honest, when my children were very young, I felt as though I wasn't good enough, because I wasn't juggling all the balls. And that I wasn't.

Back in 2012, my daughter was just under three and my son was about five, six months old. And the Olympics came to London. And quite a few of the people that I had worked with Accenture had actually joined the London 2012 team. And I remember just feeling “Oh my god, here I am. What am I doing? I am spinning solids into mush and wiping bottoms, and they're out there making the London 2012 Olympics happen.

And, you know, I felt very much less than at that point in time. And it was only probably in the six months after that I could really reflect about the direct impact that I was having. By being there. I was still effectively on maternity leave at this point, but the direct impact that I was having on my kids, and I knew that that was something that was important to us at that point in time.

Definitely the London 2012 opportunity was not the right one for me at that time. But there were plenty of opportunities out in the world that I could go for. But I was only going to get one shot at seeing those little people when they were little, and being the one to help guide, grow and develop them. And, yeah, let's be clear- that's no easy job. And it's often not so fun, but also lots of fun.”

When the kids were very little, it’s indeed a very difficult time. And so Nicola published a book called Staying Home with Kids, which was all about her experience of being a stay at home mum during that period of her life, and offering advice to other people about how they could make that decision for themselves, if that was right for them. It was not only to teach them but also to give them some validation, because so many people will say, “Why are you giving everything up to do that? You can get a nanny, you can pay somebody to do that!” and you absolutely can. But you need to make the choice that's right for you. And it's not the right choice for everyone. At that point in time, it was the right choice for Nicola and her family when they were very little. And then her work ramped up again, as they got into nursery and primary school.

Having lived through this experience very recently, I know it's definitely not an easy job to stay home with kids. So many women think they are giving up their careers. But I don't want to say that they give up their careers, because there's no giving up in there! You are coming back probably as more credible than you were before, because you now have that ruthless prioritization skill added to your list of skills.

And the thing that is great now, which definitely wasn't around five to seven years ago, is that there are so many large organizations, have these returner programmes. So people that have taken time off to be with their kids, have that structured programme to help them return back into the workplace, which is just fantastic.

When I was with Strategy&, PwC, there was a return to work policies, I definitely think that it's come a long way. But sometimes all of the folks that generally happen to be in my audience and my circle, are very, very high achieving. And when they hit that point of family or job, it's almost a choice. And you are almost made to feel a bit bad because you are educated, you are empowered. And why would you do that? You need to be this role model for other women coming after you. And that such a huge burden to carry as women!

It has to be a decision about what's right for the individual. But Nicola sometimes flips it the other way.

“So you are so educated, you are so capable. Wouldn't you want that to be the person that your children are around all the time?”

That is such a different perspective on it!

It's again about choices. She could choose to pay somebody to be with her child all day. But actually, maybe she would rather they were just with her.

“Now, the reality of that sometimes drives me crazy. And I have to admit that when they both started school, and I had proper time to focus on my projects and my career, I was a much happier person. Or a much more balanced person. Because when I think back on it now, I was getting up and working from 5am to 7am before they got up in the morning. And then we'd have time together and they'd go to nursery or whatever it was that they would do. And I'd have pockets of time for them to start school and actually have proper time to devote. And that time has only increased over the years. And so I've been able to flex my work around that.”

Nicola mentioned self doubt and the feeling of not being enough. Is that where hercoaching cards came from? They are called “You are enough”

“I became very interested in mindset and I did a mindset coaching certification and have subsequently become one of their coach trainers where I support new coaches coming through the program.

And there is one therapy that we use called timeline therapy. In the first phase, we get to the heart of what are the limiting decisions and the negative emotions that hold people back. And then we use timeline therapy to eliminate those emotions and decisions as I work with people on that.

Often, when you track back to the root issue, it is that people don't believe that they are enough. And that shows up in lots of different ways for people. So it could be, I can't go for that promotion, because I'm not experienced enough. I can't be visible in my business, because I can't show my face on social media, I can't do video on social media.

And so when you actually dig down and explore further, what does that what does that actually mean? And what do you actually believe about yourself?

More often than not, when we track it back, the belief that they hold is that they are not enough just as they are. And so I wanted to create something that was going to be thought provoking and inspiring. And to get people really to think about this idea that they were holding on themselves that they weren't enough. And so I've created these 52 coaching cards, which have a message on one side and an affirmation on one side.

On the flip side, there's a lot more detail on there are some little exercises or prompts or things that people can do to help them embed the belief that actually they are enough, just as they are.

I tend to talk quite a lot about affirmations because I honestly live by them. Using affirmations changed quite a few of my beliefs and I have worked around quite a few of my beliefs. And at the end of the day, everything is a belief whether we like to admit it or not.

Has Nicola come across this set of cards or affirmations being called to woo woo? And how does she work around that?

“I've had to own my woo woo!

I went for a very long time saying, I am not really into this stuff. However, I have tried EFT or I'm not really into this stuff, but I've just had homeopathy or you know, and then a couple of years ago, I had to kind of hold my hands up and go actually, maybe I do believe in quite a lot of what people call woo woo. I now feel confident enough in myself, that if anybody challenges that in any way, then I can just say, Yep, that's fine. You know, if you want to call it woo woo that's absolutely fine. But I know that this works, and I have evidence that this works. So that's all that's important to me.

And I think your point about affirmations is a really interesting one. So when people think about mindset work more often than not the thing about journaling and affirmations, and meditation, and all of these things are great. More often than not, they do not work in isolation. So if you have the affirmation that I am enough, and you think that saying that to yourself 10 times in a day is going to make you believe that you're enough, then unfortunately, you're just kidding yourself.

So the way I see things like affirmations, and journaling is almost like brick work where you've got the bricks, and then you've got the cement to hold it together. For me, when I'm working with a client, we work on the bricks- we work at a conscious level, at an unconscious level on the actual bricks, but it's things like the affirmations, and the journaling, that’s the cement that holds it together. It's the follow up piece. It's the additional piece to really solidify what's there already.

But it's so important that you work on the bricks as well. So if you are struggling to feel that you are enough, telling yourself 10 times in the morning, where you look in the mirror, brushing your teeth, that I am enough, isn’t going to cut it. You've have to dig deep, you've got to understand, where is that belief coming from? Why is that holding you back?

How can you let it go? And then use the other things to support you to strengthen that belief that you have.”

On how to use meditation in combination with the other things

I have a regular meditation practice. And since I think I've picked up meditation, I feel like some of my neural pathways have loosened. That's one of the things that I think is well documented scientifically as well. Meditation helps you untangle your neural nets.

“Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And there is scientific evidence to back that up. And the way I talk about meditation, and in particular, mindful meditation, because that's the type of meditation that I use, the whole point of meditation is not to make you feel relaxed or to calm you. It's about helping you learn how to take control of your thoughts. And so meditation is a tool that you can use to help you learn how to take control of your thoughts. So when you're doing mindful meditation, the goal is not to empty your head or not to have any thoughts, the goal is to be able to direct your thoughts, where do you want them to go.

And so the way that I talk to people about meditation is, it's a bit like, if your child was going to learn how to ride a bike, you wouldn't send it off down a busy main road, you would make sure that you took the child to the park, and you put a helmet on, and you put elbow pads on, and knee pads, and you might have stabilizers to start with. And you'd hold the back of the bike, and then slowly but surely, you'd like the bite goal. So meditation, in terms of taking control of your thoughts, meditation is you as the child at the park, with all of the support in place to help you train your thoughts, where do you want it to go. And so that, for me, is the best way of kind of holding in your head for what meditation is all about. And the process of meditation has been scientifically proven to change the neural pathways within your head. So that when you are out in the real world, and a situation arises, you're not going to say, “Oh, sorry, excuse me, I need to wait one minute, I need to go meditate for five minutes.” But actually, you're going to be able to take control of your thoughts, take control of your behavior, and that is the impact that meditation can have on day to day life.

I quite like Nicola’s analogy about layering affirmations and journaling.

The one Not-so-Corporate thing that Nicola recommends, that has helped her in her career and life

“My answer to this would definitely be following my intuition.

So in the corporate world, you're very much conditioned to have your rational response, to assess all of the options that are available to you, and make a decision based on that data. And actually, what I have learned and what I have experienced since leaving corporate and it took me a long time to get there. But what I know is that tuning in, I call it my inner knowing- it's that voice inside my head, it's that feeling inside my body about what is the right thing to do, and it's what is the right next step and just choose.

Again, in listening to right, what is the next right step for me, and then trusting when you get that response back, whether it's a feeling in your body, whether it's a thought in your head, it's trusting that and going with it, rather than bouncing back to the logic and the rational side of the brain, it's about feeling into things. And the only way I can describe it is having that knowing,”

How do we know if it’s our intuition or our brain trying to “chicken out of the situation” with a thousand excuses? How do you know that it's not another excuse that you are giving to yourself for not doing something that you are really terrified of doing versus something that you really don't want to do or are probably not meant to do?

“Yep. And that is an excellent question. And I think the answer I'm going to give you is very unsatisfactory. But it's just that, you know. I remember asking a friend this question, probably about 10 years ago, like, How do I know? And it's getting to a point of trusting yourself enough that when you know, you know, and so trusting yourself really involves tuning into yourself and tuning into yourself means taking time to be still to be quiet, to do that meditation, if that's your thing.

Some people don't enjoy meditation, but they might enjoy going for a run. Or they might enjoy going for a walk, or they might enjoy going for a swim, like whatever meditation means for you. Spend more time doing that. I can't remember the exact wording of it, there is a quote from Confucius, which is- if you don't have time to meditate for 20 minutes a day, then you need to do it for an hour.

So you know, it's basically if you feel if you think you've not got the time, you need to do as much as you possibly can, because you need to find the time to do it. And so I'm not advocating that everybody sits down cross legged and meditates for hours every day. But you do need to spend that quiet time alone, in whatever form makes sense for you. And just allow yourself to get quiet, get comfortable with yourself and just listen to what is coming through for you. And that doesn't happen overnight. That takes practice. But once you start to do that, and the way that I describe it to clients is about having inner confidence.

Confidence doesn't necessarily have to be really showy. And standing up in front of 500 people and giving a presentation. inner confidence is about trusting and knowing that you are doing the right thing for you. And developing that inner confidence is so powerful, that it changes everything.

And you get that inner confidence when you can tune in to your intuition, to your knowing. And you just instinctively know when you're on the right path.

Sometimes people hear the word meditation and go, Oh, that's not for me. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Try it and see what happens. Try it with no expectation of yourself and see what happens. But equally, if that doesn't work, find something- gardening, walking, fishing, whatever the thing is, that's going to allow you quiet time with yourself. Find that and make sure that you're building that into your day.

Yeah, I completely agree with that. And I will take that one step more and say that there are literally hundreds and hundreds of ways of meditation if one doesn't work, don't give up on meditation. If you are interested in that, drop me an email and I’ll send you some.

Also, there are a couple of good resources. There's the Insight Timer app and Nicola has a few downloads on her website if people want to find them from her.

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