Published: 26/05/2005, Volume II5, No. 5957 Page 35

I have worked in the NHS for 20 years and for the past 10 I have worked clinically, managerially and educationally in community hospitals and the community setting. A couple of years ago I decided to take a ninemonth career break. Now, having had the opportunity to go travelling, I am not keen to return to the rat race.

I work part-time, three days a week as a senior manager in my local primary care trust. I mainly do project work to plan the future of bed-based and dayassessment services with the local acute trust.

I am thinking of using this opportunity to undertake some independent consultancy work, with the aim of developing this as my career.

What is the best way forward? I have begun speaking to colleagues and am aware of some of the practical issues.

I have identified an accountant, who I will be talking to soon. But I need advice about setting up, marketing and going into formal agreements with organisations.

Kate Gordon says

First of all, consultancy is just another rat race, but with different rules of engagement.

It may appear easy to work three days for the PCT and do two days' consultancy, but you may have to do more than your agreed hours for both. Many consultants work six or seven days a week initially.

There is also a potential conflict of interest with your work at the PCT. Have you had discussions with your manager about your intentions? You may need to declare formally a conflict of interest.

You need to ask yourself what your unique selling point is. How will you manage your consultancy time to build networks and maintain contacts? Many consultants plan one day a week for business development and administrative work.

Develop and maintain your networks and think about your career plan and what, how and when you want to develop your new career before launching into it.

Finally, have you spent some time talking to management consultants about what it was like when they started out? It would be well worth your while.

Jan Sobieraj says

There are two things you should be considering - the mechanics of consultancies and the impact this new venture will have on your lifestyle.

For the first, you should seek legal and accountancy advice. More practically, though, learn from other consultants.

The step-by-step approach you describe seems sensible. How about joining a consultancy firm first to learn the systems before you branch out?

An important thing to do is define your market. Who is going to pay you a daily fee? What is your area of specialism and how many organisations are there, over what distance, that could buy your services? It is essential to talk to other PCTs and trust leads in your specialist area and ask them if they would pay for your services.

Do not underestimate the shift from employee to consultant. It is a huge change. How will you cope with an uncertain income? How flexible can you be about time? How will you continue with your pension? Will you miss working in a team? Write a list of the issues and then ask yourself: 'Can I get what I want from my own organisation first?' Your marketing plan should cover your target market, how you will create awareness, how you will deliver and market yourself, a sound financial analysis and a robust risk assessment.

There is a lot of advice available from banks, business links and websites.

Jenny Rogers says

Think about the psychological difference of being selfemployed. Along with the freedom goes the anxiety of only being as good as your last project. Knowing how to sell is vital and you need to feel comfortable and confident about that.

Test your market and yourself by carrying on with your present work. It can take six to 12 months to build a sustainable business. Use this time for thinking, planning and marketing.

Identify your skills. Which will clients pay money for? Many independents make the mistake of describing what they do in consultant-speak ('managing change', 'working in partnership' etc) but clients want someone who can reliably provide a solution to a specific problem. Position your offer in terms of the problems you can solve rather than in generalities.

Think narrow rather than broad.

You need to think hard about your natural clients. Who are they? Why would they take you on rather than a competitor?

What are clients paying for your kind of work? Who are your competitors? What are they offering and at what rate?

do not waste money on smart brochures in your first year. But do invest in professionally designed business cards, headed paper and a dazzlingly impressive website - it is not a task for the geeky son or daughter of a friend.

www. businesslink. gov. uk

Our panel

Bryan Carpenter is HR director of Bournemouth and Christchurch trust.

Kate Gordon is an independent nurse consultant and qualified life coach.

Sally Gorham is chief executive of Waltham Forest primary care trust.

Hazel Henderson is physical fitness co-ordinator for Wandsworth PCT.

Neil Johnson is director of education and training at NHSU.

Jenny Rogers is an executive coach and director of Management Futures.

Jan Sobieraj is chief executive of Barnsley District General Hospital trust.

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