One year as a consultant

This week saw my one year anniversary since becoming a consultant. I wrote this when I started, and what strikes me the most about that post is a fear of loss: losing touch with people’s heritage, missing out on that daily contact with the people for whom we work – our visitors – and no longer working with one and the same team over a long period at the same site. And I must tell you that yes, one year on, these have indeed turned out to be the things that I miss most.

But I have gained other things that I’ve come to value just as much. I did mention last year the expectation and hope that I would be able to do more in-depth research, and that has certainly proven to be true. In the last year, not counting my PhD work, I’ve learnt more about visitors, motivations and behaviours around heritage more broadly than I ever did as a staff member at any one site. And because the questions that needed to be asked were those that would provide the greatest insights for our clients, I’ve been more ruthless than perhaps I was with my own work. As a result, some of the stuff that’s come out has been a surprise even to me.

And then there’s been the strategic research, like the review of English Heritage’s National Heritage Protection Plan, which has raised many questions and provided many insights for me personally about what heritage and heritage management means to different players in the field, and how central their personal concerns are to how heritage is framed nationally. In theory, this was all obvious, but seeing it played out and applied to a framework that aims at tangible outcomes was quite a different matter.

The other aspect that I’ve really enjoyed is working with so many brilliant client teams. It’s been an inspiration seeing how others work for the benefit of their sites and audiences, and learning from them too. But most importantly perhaps, I’ve been impressed by those clients who brought their expertise to the table but really listened to us as their critical friends, too. That’s when I’ve found the journey to be most rewarding, and when I’ve blessed the day I decided to take this job.

Now that statement begs the question whether there have been times when I wished I’d stayed put. The answer is no, but I do understand better now what I’ve heard other consultants say before: how important clear briefs and expectations are, along with good communication, and mutual respect. There is definitely a professional ethics to consultancy – you need to value and respect clients’ knowledge and insights, and build a good project with them as collaborators. But as others have said, I would agree that there should also be a professional ethics to being a client. In some cases, that would have made a better project, and frankly given the client more for their money.

Personally, I am immensely glad that I’ve worked on site before becoming a consultant, and in different organisations too. I think it’s made me more compassionate, and aware of limitations ‘behind the scenes’ and possible questions I might need to ask. However, consultancy has turned out to be a very natural step in a new professional direction for me, and almost an extension of my PhD. I’m enjoying the journey, and I’m looking forward to another year of exciting projects, and great people.

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