December is turning into busy, chaotic, social calendar-driven nightmare. This year is much worse than other years, because I am a newly minted self-employed consultant with lots of clients who seem to like me. The lunches, dinners, holiday parties, office parties, receptions, and other untitled festivity invitations have been hitting my inbox and mailbox for the last month. I have been doing my level best to ignore them after sending an appropriate RSVP or regrets – very few regrets, but the actual dates are now here and I am facing the music.
Wednesday night M and I attended a dinner event with a client I have been working with since October. There were probably 60 people present, of which I knew about 15 and M knew none until I made introductions or we were introduced. Other running enthusiasts were seated at our table for dinner so M was happily engaged in conversation with peeps from a foreign tribe for the 2 hours we spent eating and socializing. I think our stop at the kava bar helped enormously with his social anxiety/nerves as well, so much so that I’m considering purchase some for at-home tea brewing to get him though the rest of this month.
Thursday I had lunch with the staff from my soon-to-be-employer firm, a light-hearted occasion and event paid for by the partners. Friday I had lunch with lovely clients from my former full-time job, a tradition that has spanned the 10 years I have been with that firm. They are the ones who brought the See’s candy for me. Last night (Friday) M and I had the first of 3 different holiday events with my other original freelance client, but that was okay because it was smaller group and we knew everyone from prior years, prior events.
Tonight (well, it will be last night by the time I get this written and posted) we have another large holiday party – another dressy affair where M must wear his suit – and then he’s off the hook until next weekend, but I still have several other events throughout the week.
As a consultant and professional worker bee, I have always thought of work-related meetings as having to be “on” while on the job, the time for my A game. Whereas when it’s just me and the boss or other staff I can relax, be myself, and not be watching what I think, how I feel, and precisely what I say out loud quite as closely … more my A-/B+ game as I cruise along through work. Composing my expressions is something I have to really work at, and even then it is likely pretty obvious I am trying hard to maintain the proper social mask to match the occasion.
The clients I work most closely are small businesses or small units within larger firms. The client staff I work with seem to appreciate my candor and my terrible poker face. I strive for diplomacy, but I am pretty open and direct about what I am thinking. My best relationships are where the feedback loop is established and clearly understood on both sides. In those situations it feels like my A game just became my A+ game, because while I might slip and let my fatigue or frustration show, I am always honest about where my head is at in our interactions. If clients are retaining me for my expertise or efficiency in my realm of professional services, they will accept that I am never going to compromise my integrity for their business interests and my honesty is not in place to pump up my own ego or to make them feel or look bad. I want them to be successful, make boatloads of money, and to stay out of trouble with the laws and agencies that regulate their business practices. To desire or work toward any other goal is to demonstrate my own incompetency and they should by rights fire my ass immediately.
Even my present bosses understood from day I tell them the truths they would rather not hear in the most professional, dispassionate manner I can muster. I have never been a “yes boss” type business manager for them or anyone else and I know they realize it’s only because of me or someone like me that their operations remain fair and legally sound. My predecessor, who chose to go part-time when she had children, is technically competent yet abrasive. Her in-your-face self-righteous attitude is extraordinarily annoying to all of us, and despite her unsubtle hints of her desires, I already know they will not be reinstating her to my job once I depart the as their employee. That will be another post once that domino effect goes into play.
But the socializing with clients outside of work requires a whole new skill set, one that is not normal or natural to me. I find small talk extremely stressful with people I do not know, know well, or interact with outside of work. Anxiety, insecurity, plain old FEAR tend to take me from normal, reasonably intelligent, and earnest person to the incredible shrinking and almost mute woman. I can and do manage, yet it’s like 2 weeks of deadline-driven stressure packed into a 2 hour meal.
Maybe that’s my super A game, and this year it looks and feels all new to me. No longer am I just an employee of the firm; I am my own firm. For the last 10 years I have had one office luncheon, a few clients and vendors coming by with gifts or inviting me out for lunches during the holiday season. Now it seems like I have all these events to attend and it is a new kind of challenge. Work I can handle. Updating my social skills is a whole other ballgame.
A big giant part of my concerns about self-employment has always been marketing and self-promotion, something else that does not come naturally. Thus far my referral sources have come through for me and the connections I’ve made and secured have earned me more than enough work to keep me well occupied with steady work. But creating a website, a professional Facebook presence, or even updating other business-related profiles and networking have all been brought up to me by others in the same or similar professional services type industries. I am resisting. Strongly. Kicking and screaming and planning to get another full-time job instead type resistance. Maybe it is necessary, maybe not for the smaller scope of my own ambitions. I don’t know yet; this is all so new to me and I am feeling my way along and getting overwhelmed with “shoulds” from all sorts of sources on a regular basis.
What I know is that I have no great burning desire to build a big giant firm. I can and do respond to inquiries and referrals and hustle to deliver superior service when I am retained. Between income from my new part-time engagement and the various other steady contract gigs M and I should be successful in continuing our life and present modest lifestyle and continue to save for the future. There are maybe 12 more years for me to work, if I can continue to save aggressively for retirement and other projects on our horizons. Expanding my marketing and networking is something else to consider in 2016, but right now I’m almost over scheduled with work.
And I really must get through the social events the rest of of December and the first couple of weeks in January. I may actually have to invest in another little black dress for evenings out, because the one I have is a little big (go me!) and getting quite a workout this year.
I’m bringing my A game to the job, and trying burnish the rust from my social skills for that aspect of self-employment. M has been a trooper and supportive arm candy when required, and we may invest in some kava tea to keep him loose-limbed and relaxed. It worked once, perhaps it will again. Tastes pretty damn awful but was pretty effective when he needed it.
I know what you’re thinking – first world problems going on over here. I am grateful for my clients and the opportunities. I just should have planned better for the silly season and the now required socializing.