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EP 206: Relaunching in Your Industry on a Consulting Basis and How it Works, with Nicole Diamond

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Episode Description

Nicole Diamond is a rare disease pharmaceutical industry specialist focused on the business side of pharma. She left her successful career at Shire Pharmaceuticals and took a four year career break to care for her children. When former colleagues moved to other companies, they asked Nicole if she would be interested in consulting for them; she has now been consulting for seven years. Nicole discusses how she managed the evolution of her consulting business while maintaining the schedule control she wanted. She also shares her insights on the benefits and challenges of her consulting arrangement. This episode is full of helpful advice for anyone who may be thinking about starting their own consulting business.

Read Transcript

Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman, Cohen, CEO, and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. Today we welcome Nicole Diamond. Nicole is a rare-disease pharmaceutical industry specialist, focused on the business side of pharma, such as commercial operations, marketing, international expansion, product launch, strategy, patient advocacy, alliance management, and financial analysis.

Nicole had a successful career at Shire Pharmaceuticals during which she moved to roles of increasing responsibility in marketing and international business development three times in four years. Nicole left her full-time role at Shire and took a four-year career break. When former colleagues moved to other companies, they asked Nicole if she was interested in consulting. We will discuss how Nicole managed the evolution of her consulting business while maintaining the schedule control she wanted as the lead parent of her two young children.

Nicole, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.

Nicole Diamond: Hi Carol. Thank you for having me today. I'm really happy to be a part of this.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Well, it's great to have you. And let's start by talking a little bit about your career path before your career break. And then we'll talk more about how you relaunched by consulting in your former field.

Nicole Diamond: Sure. So I attended MIT as a biology major, where I was recruited into management consulting, and gained some really valuable skills that helped me later on at two large management consulting firms.

While I was there, I became increasingly interested in moving into industry, specifically on the business side of biotech. It was a little bit hard to be taken seriously as a candidate, without having worked in marketing or sales beforehand. And so I went to Harvard for my MBA and pursued opportunities in the rare disease space afterwards, which is when I joined the Genetic Diseases Business unit at Shire.

I loved my roles at Shire, where I was fortunate to work in global marketing analytics, market research and competitive intelligence, and international expansion into Latin America and Asia Pacific, as well as in a US brand lead role, during some of the most exciting and challenging growth stages of the company. But when I eventually had my first child, I knew immediately that after years of fully throwing myself into my career, I wanted to have the same comprehensive, fully immersive experience, a life experience, of full-time parenting. But I really loved the rare disease space and the people that selected to work in it. And somehow I just felt like I wasn't totally finished.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So you take the career break, you're on career break for four years and then, how did you get into conversations about consulting in your field? What was the timeline? And were there any conversations along the way, or suddenly a pivotal conversation happened that came out of the blue?

Nicole Diamond: So shortly before I left my job, I became aware of a very valued colleague who was there at the time. And due to her commute, she had made an arrangement with the company to switch from being a long-term, full-time employee into a consulting role. And it turned out to be a huge win for both her and the company.

And I sort of saw the whole evolution of that. So it was sitting in the back of my mind. And when I had that hard day where I shared the news with my company that I was going to depart after having that first child, I did have it in the back of my mind and said to them, "Oh, someday it would be nice to do consulting work for you or work for you again."

But it was a very passing comment and really, I just stayed in touch personally with several of my colleagues. It wasn't networking, it wasn't business-based, it was very personal just having that interest in them. And, a few years passed and it's four years down the road. And one day I got a call. There was a bright colleague I had worked with, we had been on the same level in the hierarchy of the company years back. We'd been in the trenches together. We both knew the other person worked really hard and really well. This colleague was very successful, and during his time at Shire he leapt up the ranks in his part of the business, which I was not surprised to see. Actually, while I was still there, he eventually hired me into his team when he had an opening. And so at that point we went from being coworkers and friends to him becoming my supervisor. So fast forward now, four years out after I've had my first child, the phone rings and it's him.

And he says, "Nicole, I need your brain." And at that point, he had moved on to a completely different company, still in the rare disease space. But he had a need for another set of hands and another mind on a project that he needed to get done. And actually, because of his level of responsibility and his clear need and his budget, it actually was very straightforward within a few weeks. We had a confidentiality agreement signed. We spoke about the project, had contracts, allocated budget, and a PO was the last thing that I needed to get going with him and we were able to make it happen.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay, so much wrapped up into that. First of all, I just want to highlight for our listeners who are anticipating a future career break, the example that Nicole's colleague set when she ended up in a consulting relationship after working for the company in a more traditional full-time role. And just to think about presenting that as an option to your employer, if you're contemplating a career break that maybe, it's not a complete career break, maybe it's some sort of different type of role, but on a consulting basis. So, I wanted to highlight that for a second.

But also Nicole, you're illustrating perfectly the whole concept of being frozen in time. Because yes, you had stayed in touch with this former colleague and boss. But several years had gone by, yet when he reached out to you, he remembered when you worked together as if it was yesterday, even though a number of years had gone by.

Nicole Diamond: Yes. That's exactly true. That's something that has always been in my mind ever since I read it in Back on the Career Track, Carol. It is exactly true that we get on the phone and it's that day I've been standing in their office having a chat and not four years later with my laundry basket.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. That was one of the first topics that we put forth, that we thought about putting forth in the book because both Vivian and I, when we wrote Back on the Career Track, we were writing that book in 2004 to 2006, and we had experienced exactly this. When we had returned to work, I had returned to work working with people who I used to work with before, even though they were now in a different company. And they remembered me from a dozen years before.

So that frozen in time concept has proven itself over and over again, no matter how long the career break. It was really good to hear this perfect example of it. So, you get this call right away, all these steps take place. You're in a contract, you're starting the work.

How did you even know what to charge, or how to put in a contract, or how to set up the statement of work? You hadn't done that before. What was your guide in those pieces of the process?

Nicole Diamond: So it was actually really a straightforward and simple arrangement. It was the first time I had done this and it was with a colleague that I trusted, that trusted me and that I knew worked with integrity.

And so it was about as simple as it could be. The company had a standard contract that they used for situations like this. The confidentiality agreement was very standard, and I had to figure out my billing and my rate. But, I actually don't think, this is now going back some years and I'm thinking about my other projects and other consulting work since, there isn't often a heavily detailed statement of work. Because in my case, my clients like to keep it very broad so that they can leverage me as they need to, and that's one of the upsides of them having me as opposed to a full-time standard employee.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I just want to highlight that for people who are contemplating consulting arrangements. Keeping the statement of work broad, so that is applicable in certain types of consulting, and other types of consulting you might have to be very specific, but the idea that the statement of work is kept broad in your case, Nicole, seemed to be the perfect way to have a lot of flexibility in what the work would be.

Nicole Diamond: Yes. That flexibility is actually a huge sell for me in terms of there being upside both for me and the clients that hire me, because they know that they can give me all different kinds of work or tack something quickly on. They can call me with a fire drill. We can modify what I'm working on. It does not have to be in line with a special title that I have. And they can give me work that I'm willing to take without worrying about developing me for the next role or what my future path with the organization will be.

It really takes a lot of burden off of them. And also, if they have holes to fill or gaps, they can really leverage me to help them with that. And so they get a lot out of it in a way they can't always with a typical full-time employee.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So I'm also wanting to highlight everything you're saying right now to relaunchers who might be contemplating using a consulting arrangement to relaunch, or to not take a complete career break when you're leaving, because the language that Nicole is using right now, you can take pieces of it verbatim in making your business case for why it would work. So if you want to rewind and listen to that again, I think that there are some real gems in terms of the actual language that she's using, that makes the case for why a consulting arrangement is such a win for the employer as well as for the relauncher who wants to have some schedule control, and, actually we should talk about that.

Can you talk to us about, besides, I guess schedule control seems very obvious, but what have the benefits been to you of this kind of work arrangement?

Nicole Diamond: So, hand in hand with the schedule control is the payment arrangement, which you mentioned in your last question. So there's both the schedule control, which is I have my long-term schedule, my short-term schedule and then my very short term. So long-term, I can set a number of months that I want to work with the client, which is great. Because for me as a part-time worker, I like to know that I have a little more flexibility in the summer when my children are out of school.

And I like to really make sure that as I'm doing this, that I'm keeping the benefits as to why I chose this path instead of a standard career path in the first place. So I am very focused on keeping flexibility where it's most important to me. I do give a very clear, hard deadline on when projects need to be wrapped up to the clients that I work with very early on.

And I find that if I'm very clear about that early on, it's very comfortable for them too, because they can manage it. I can manage it. And usually if they need the help, me needing to stop some number of months out isn't going to change anything. They still need the help. So as long as we're clear and transparent, that's the easiest part.

The short-term schedule, funnily enough, I'm my own worst enemy. So I do think about it in terms of hours per week. And my sweet spot for my personal needs is around 20 hours a week working. I work hourly and I bill hourly and I have never really had a problem with any of my clients pushing back on 20 hours a week.

You would think that would be hard, right? The hard sell? But actually, because they know this is what I'm doing, and this is my arrangement, when I tell them 20 hours a week, they're completely supportive. Where the hard part is because I want to deliver, sometimes each project isn't so perfect that it needs exactly 20 hours a week, each week.

Sometimes they're cool with me only giving 20 hours a week, but I actually choose to give more because I know if I'm going to deliver excellent work, I'm going to need to give a little bit more by my choice. That can be the part where I'm tested personally as to how I prioritize. And then probably the most challenging part are the itty-bitty meetings where I'm working with an organization and there is some legacy meeting where 12 executives from all different parts of the company dial in and suddenly it's critical that I be on that.
I can absolutely not ask to have that entire team move that legacy call because I need to dial in, and it's often at the worst possible time.

And so those are the challenges for me in terms of just having to build a little flexibility into this arrangement, even in ways that I might not have anticipated or in ways where it's harder to control.

Another way that I'm able to control, not just the actual schedule, but my utility or fulfillment from this arrangement, is that I have set my compensation as an hourly rate and not as a project basis. So I'll be the first to admit that for a lot of my projects, I can't anticipate what the right cost would be in advance of the project.

There's often a lot of scope creep, and even my clients, it's usually the nature of their need that they are so behind or so desperately in need of help that even they don't realize how much they need when they come to me. So it's definitely the right arrangement for me to do it on an hourly basis.

But that's also great for both of us, because sometimes they're so disorganized that they don't give me any work for a week ‘cause they haven't even figured out what they need done. And then they don't get charged for that time. On the other hand, there are weeks where I work just a bit more than might be ideal for my part-time arrangement with my other personal responsibilities and commitments and endeavors. And at least on an hourly wage, I'm getting compensated significantly more if I'm getting burdened significantly more.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And so you mentioned this concept "scope creep," and I just wanted to highlight that because anyone who is contemplating a consulting arrangement has to think about, how do you control that? So you have a certain, in your case, you have it very open-ended in terms of the statement of work, your deliverables, and because you're charging an hourly basis. Have you had any conversations with other people who do consulting in a different way where they price by project, or by amount of dollars saved, or on some kind of monthly retainer, and any kind of impact on scope creep in terms of deliverables? Any comments on that?

Nicole Diamond: I have actually seen the scope's creep more in the workplace when we're working with bigger agencies or market research vendors. And then all of a sudden in the middle of a huge project, someone senior will ask for a major change. And then because of all the red tape at those organizations to change the work plan, it's much more difficult. But really, personally, or amongst my colleagues, I don't see it being a problem as much, because we're so flexible as individual consultants, that scope creep can be very easily resolved either by not agreeing to it or by just going with it.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay, that's helpful. So can you switch gears now and talk to us a little bit about maybe the marketing side of this business? How do you get new clients? How do people find out about you? And how do you manage the ebbs and flows of having a lot of people get in touch with you or maybe sometimes not that many.

How do you even that out, or do you?

Nicole Diamond: Yeah, so my original foray into this work arrangement definitely started with people that I used to work with that just knew me and trusted me and reached out directly. I don't do any marketing. I don't have any digital presence and I don't attend any networking.

It's a very personal beast. And then, what happens is they'll bring me into a new company they're working at to work on a project with them, and I'll develop relationships within that organization by working as a team with other people. And eventually I'll often hear from those people, can I come on and help them now with something else that they're doing, maybe a similar product, but a different country or a similar product, but a different stage of the product's life, different things like that.

So I now have contacts that I work with that I only know from working with my original contacts at these companies. And then there's so much movement within the space, everyone starts to branch off to other organizations. And so over time, everyone is now just spread out.

I also have classmates from Harvard Business School that went on to work either in recruiting or work in the space that I've been contacted by, because they hear from me when we catch up that I'm doing this. So they'll hear about it casually, in a personal update. And then I'll come to receive a professional call from them.

And probably the most fun time that I've ever been contacted was by someone that once interviewed me. Their organization interviewed me over 13 times for a job that I wanted so badly and ultimately didn't end up getting, and it was heartbreaking at the time, but it was fine. And now, so many years later, we've stayed in touch. We've seen each other at industry events. They've come to me and brought me in and they're at a new organization, but I got the chance to work with them. And I've been brought in for other interesting work. And so it's just very funny how these things all work out, but those are the people-sources of how I get the work.

And then, yeah, sometimes it's shameless, embarrassing. Like I've reached out to be personally in touch with you four times this year. And I know you don't have time to write back, because you’re CEO or COO now, but I adore you as a person and a professional, so I'm just going to shamelessly say hello and see how you're doing.

And then, the person will write back to me a year later and be like, "Oh, Nicole, I'm dying to catch up with you. I'm so busy. I'm so busy. I hope you're doing well. Is there any way you can come on board and help me out?" And that's that moment of redemption where you don't feel so silly anymore for reaching out because they're busy.

But then, it comes back in the form of some really interesting work with someone you really know.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I love that example, because so many times when people are even in a regular job search and there's long delays between steps, we say, "It's not about you." And when this is such a perfect example, someone that you knew, you were in touch with, they didn't talk to you for a year. And then all of a sudden they get back in touch because they're so busy or maybe the emails somehow fell off the first page of their email list and got lost. And then they discovered it months later. And lots of times you find out that's the reason why they didn't respond. And then the other thing I love is the irony and the coming full circle of you consulting to a company that you were in obviously the finals for, and it sounds like a very in-depth process that must've been incredibly disappointing at the time, and have that come full circle with them, looking to hire you years later. Can't get over that.

All right. So can you give us an example of a consulting project, of course, without breaching any sort of confidentiality guidelines? I'm just interested in what actually is a project that you work on?

Nicole Diamond: So there is no perfect example. I am a jack of all trades and these projects are all over the map. And I think that's part of what makes me so appealing to those that do decide to hire me.

Sometimes it's an executive that needs a right hand man for some major thing that they need to deliver. And it will just be, the two of us become a two person, hardcore team on this initiative and take it all the way through to the end. Sometimes I'm brought in to replace an executive. So it's like I'm actually working on the team almost as an internal, typical employee with a team reporting into me.

Other times I'm their vendor. And then they ask me to manage other vendors, like conducting market research or working with their ad agencies. And sometimes it is just like a very classic project where I'll do something similar to some beloved projects in my past, where for instance, I'll be exploring the opportunity to bring the company into a new country with certain products and determining the opportunity.

It's just so different every time. Another time I was brought in to roll out a program across the company and it involved just contacting people in Europe every day, but really not working with anybody here. It is so radically different every time.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. Okay. That's super interesting. I realize there was a question I wanted to ask you earlier that I haven't asked yet. And that was when you came back in after the four year break, did you have to do any updating in your field?

Were you staying up-to-date in your field during the time you're on career break, or did you have to do a crash course? How did you handle that subject matter expertise piece of it?

Nicole Diamond: So when I came back, as it turns out, the business side of biotech hadn't changed too quickly the four years that I was out. And even today as I field new projects, sometimes I think about it as how many years is this since I was working in the office, in the building, full-time in a standard role? And that gap seems even longer than my four year career break, depending on what the work is. It doesn't really seem to change enough that it ever mattered that I took a career break.

What is really the learning curve is project specific. And that's where I feel most vulnerable, just like many people when you start a new project and you want to be valuable right away. And especially when you are a relauncher and people are aware of that. And they're aware that you are making a choice to spend time with your children or things related to your children, such that you're not a full-time employee.

There's always this personal feeling that I need to over prove and over deliver. And so I feel very vulnerable during the learning curve on new projects. But it definitely isn't as a result of the gap in time being out of the workplace.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And now that you've been back consulting for, how many years has it been you have been consulting?

Nicole Diamond: Just about seven.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So when people hire you, it's not as if they're hiring a relauncher who's just come off of a career break. They're hiring an experienced consultant who's been doing this for seven years now.

So there is that shift now because you've been doing this for a long time. And, I'm glad that you highlighted that feeling, how you might've felt at the beginning, because I think a lot of relaunchers feel that way. That they're not only getting up to speed and wanting to be valuable right away, but they're concerned about the perception of their ability to add value because they've been on career break.

That's a feeling that I'm sure that I've had, and I'm sure many of our listening audience has had. So it's really important to acknowledge that.

So any predictions on how long you might stay in a consulting role versus, I'm guessing if sometimes you're the interim person in a certain role and that's what you're doing for consulting, maybe sometimes you get an offer to just come on board and take that role. Do you think that will happen at some point?

Nicole Diamond: If I had to guess, I would say, I think I will try to avoid that. The best part about this arrangement is that I have been very true to myself about what is important to me.

And I also know so many incredible women with extraordinary careers, and we're all trying to struggle with this balance with our kids and our jobs. And I really feel like I've reached a place where I am deeply fulfilled by my ability to be both in the rare disease space, but also very active in other endeavors. And not just being in my house with my children, but other personal stuff and commitments and community related things.

And it would be a lot to give up, to go back to the standard arrangement. And there's also, professional fulfillment, jumping from project to project, this is so exciting and interesting. I get to see different companies. I get to see different teams with different functions, different products.

I work with so many incredible people. It's been really fun doing it this way. I don't know that I would want to go back to the other way. I do get approached with opportunities to either go full time for someone that I've had as a client, because they know they can trust me.

And I'm finding that all of this is just about their ability to trust me. Every job I got is because they know they can trust me. They like working with me. They know I'll work well with their team and they know I'll deliver. It just really comes to those. So there are these opportunities to come on full-time or to join a new organization that they're going to start.

And it's very tempting because I enjoy the work and I enjoy the people. And there's always a little part of me that's very sad to say “no.” But I have to stay true to the original purpose of this, which was to have this incredible balance and joy that I'm able to have because I found the right arrangement for me.

And that's one of the downsides of this, even within the consulting projects I'm doing, because of this set of terms that I've set for myself on how I want my arrangement to best serve my life, I have to sometimes turn down the most exciting projects. So I had an example where I had a chance to work by streamlining and shortening the time that some children with the disease took to get diagnosed, and therefore they could get to earlier treatment in two countries in Europe. This was a very interesting project proposed to me, and I had to turn it down because it just wasn't realistic for me to be able to go back and forth to Europe the way I would have needed to make this project have an excellent outcome.

But, sometimes it's very disappointing to say “no.”

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah, in the field that you're in, talk about high stakes. These projects have real life and death implications in terms of how they get implemented and how successful they are. So I'm guessing that's part of why your field is so compelling to be in because the problems that you deal with are so important.

Nicole, I'm just interested in your perspective now, looking back. You said you've been a consultant now for seven years. It sounds like you did so much. But I'm going to ask you, is there anything you might've done differently?

Nicole Diamond: I don't think I would have. I look back and I don't really see anything that could have gone differently. I think that the big win here has been that I've been able to get this arrangement exactly how I'd want it. I think that within there are all these little, tiny losses, things that I can't control. And I can't say I would go back and do them differently.

I see talented colleagues that are able to do the full-time, traditional arrangement, and how beautifully their careers are rolling out. And I'm so happy for them, to be able to build something full time, all the time with the same organization and be a part of that history. The way my arrangement is, that won't be something that I'll have.

I've clearly prioritized what I want out of the arrangement. And so it's working for me, but it's just some little things in there that I can't control. Those would be the things that I'd change if I could.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. You're putting forth an example of a way of working, taking into account all of your different life considerations, and I think it's really unique the way you viewed it and the way you've developed your career with your different priorities in mind. So it's been really interesting to hear more details about how you actually made that happen.

Nicole, we need to wind up now. And I want to ask you the question that we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something that we've already talked about today?

Nicole Diamond: So I think if I were to give one piece of advice, and I feel like when we talk about relaunching, there's always this idea that that first job or that first opportunity is the crux of the relaunching stress and effort. But really, and I'm not just saying this because I'm in the rare disease pharmaceutical space, I would say, think about the pipeline while relaunching.

So, I think that in the early stages of relaunching, become very clear to yourself and to those around you as you're putting it out there, that you're going to be open to consulting or open to doing this work, what your real vision is, what you're offering. Be very authentic about the expectation of how people can view you as someone potentially to hire.

Because when there is a clarity and you're confident, and it's very certain to those that are considering hiring you for the first opportunity or down the road, I feel that in the long term, it all comes back in many more projects, because it's a better match for the people that come to you because they're getting what they expected.

And I don't know if I'm being very clear about that, but I think, the people that are coming back to me, they know they're going to get somebody that wants to do a part-time thing, is open to projects, happy to work with people. They know my skill set. And so by the time they've contacted me, there's already a high likelihood it's going to work out because so much transparency about what arrangement I need and what I will agree to has been put out.

And it doesn't end up being this push and pull about the part-time or the rate or what I'm willing to work with.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And I think fundamental to that is you started out with people for whom you already had a high degree of credibility and you were proven to them. And so having that group as your initial client base, I think, sets you on a road for success. Because after that you had a track record of consulting and you had more experience, having the conversations around what the work would be and all the different pieces.

But that was from a base that had already been established. So that's actually probably something to keep in mind too, is if you can have your initial consulting work be with people with whom you worked in the past and who know the value that you can add, then you're already much of the way there.

Nicole Diamond: Definitely. It's very funny. One of the last teams that I worked on at Shire was with a lot of the individuals that I now do work for. And I remember there was one other individual that had come up to me at one point and said, "You're so intense about the work. Someday you're going to have kids and you're going to realize you don't need to be so intense about all of this. And it won't matter so much." And it's so funny, because at that time I was thinking, "Gosh, working too hard or being too intense." But then it's that very team where multiple other people came back to me once I was worried about looking like the mom, or the stay at home person. And that is now the source of much of my work. So it's so funny how these things all play out.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's great. Nicole, let's wrap up there. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Nicole Diamond: Thank you, Carol.

Thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories.

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