Turning Down a Consulting Opportunity: A 5-Part Framework

May 27, 2022


I recently had a start-up company approach me to come on board as a founder. They wanted me to establish the coaching arm of their business, to complement the software and other services they're providing.

At first, this seemed like an incredible opportunity for me. It was the intersection of what I love - coaching and software.

I quickly started down the mental path of figuring out how I could make it work.

But, something was nagging at me, holding me back from it being a "hell, yes."

I couldn't put my finger on what was creating the hesitation.

  • This was a great opportunity...who "in their right mind" would say no?
  • This was a chance to get in at the beginning of another software start-up, and to have another big exit event in my career.
  • Why was I hesitating?

I started asking myself a lot of questions, to get to the bottom of it. And, I figured out that I had approached this opportunity backwards. In other words, my immediate response was that this should be a yes, and to figure out how to make it work.

I never truly asked myself if this is the next best step for me and my business. It was only after I started asking those questions, that I figured out what direction I wanted to take.

I'll tell you how this story ended. But first, I want to share the decision-making framework with you, so you can apply it to decisions you're making in your own business.


How This Applies To Your Consulting Business

As an independent consulting business owner, you're constantly making decisions about how to spend your time and resources:

  • New client work to take on
  • Client work to turn down
  • When to propose follow-on engagements
  • Agreeing to or turning down partnering opportunities
  • Agreeing to or turning down speaking opportunities
  • Bringing on sub-contractors or team members
  • Responding to full-time roles that are offered to you
  • And so on....

I find that it's common for independent consultants (like you) to agree to take on work and other opportunities without truly vetting them. This especially happens when you have a dip in your pipeline or are in between projects. And, of course it would be natural because you as a consultant are great at figuring things out, and making them work.

But, when you agree to take on

  • that non-ideal client or
  • that non-ideal teaming arrangement or
  • agree to speak at that conference that isn't full of your ideal clients,

you dilute yourself.

And, you reinforce that you don't fully believe you can be successful in the niche you truly want to work in. So, you play smaller taking whatever comes to you.

And with this, the results you're trying to create take longer and become so much more difficult to achieve.


How To Avoid This, By Using The 5-Part Framework to Vet Consulting Opportunities

To avoid falling into this common consulting trap of agreeing to opportunities that are short-sighted and don't align to your business vision, you'll want to implement this 5-part framework:

1. Test the opportunity against your business model

Figure out if the opportunity truly aligns to the vision you have for your business. For example, do you want to create a simple, lean, highly profitable business where you're selling and doing the work? Or, is your goal to eventually create a consulting firm where you're overseeing others who are doing the work?

  • Is this opportunity aligned with your business plan?
  • Would you agree to take on this opportunity if you were fully utilized?
  • If this was for someone else’s business, what would you recommend?


2. Ask Your Future Self

It can be incredibly helpful to create some distance for yourself as you're making the decision. One way to do this is to zoom out 3-5 years and ask the version of you who has already achieved the goals you've set for yourself, and has the benefit of hindsight.

  • When you think of yourself as a highly sought-after consultant who’s exceeding your revenue and lifestyle goals, would you say yes?
  • Imagine it's 5 years from now and your practice is exceeding all your expectations. What would that version of yourself advise you to do?


3. Check In With How You're Feeling

As humans, we do everything we do in order to either create a feeling we want or to avoid a feeling we don't want. Exploring your feelings is an important (and often overlooked) aspect of decision-making.

  • Do you feel pressured and forced to make this decision?
  • Or, are you feeling self-assured and calm?
  • Think about how you would feel if you said yes. Would you feel relieved that the decision is over and you don't have to "let anyone down?" Or, would you feel excited to begin?


4. Notice Your Inner Dialogue

It's so important to avoid people-pleasing and making decisions from a sense of obligation. Ask yourself:

  • Where are you thinking "I should" as part of this decision?
  • In what ways could you be people-pleasing?
  • Why is or isn't it a hell yes?


5. Make it earn its spot

Most of us ask, how can I make this work and we figure it out. We’re resourceful as consultants. Instead, look at your decision from the opposite angle. Start off with "this is a no" and then make the opportunity earn its spot.

  • What will you gain by taking on this opportunity?
  • What is the cost(s) of agreeing to this opportunity?
  • If you give this opportunity a spot on your roster, what would you remove in order to make the space? note: this would be current and future opportunities
  • Why should this opportunity earn a spot, and consume some/all of my business capacity?



To wrap-up the story I shared with you at the beginning. I went through these 5 parts for myself. And through this mental work, I figured out what had been nagging at me, holding me back from this opportunity being a "hell yes" for my business.

I realized I had been going through the motions, agreeing to partner with this start-up because I had a fear of missing out on a great opportunity. I also didn't want to let that company down, and force them to start over looking for someone to bring on board.

After I was really honest with myself, I quickly realized I didn't like these reasons for saying yes. And so, from the vantage point of this opportunity earning a spot in my business, the answer was no.

So, I politely and honestly said no, and have moved forward with my own business plan.


For You - Putting This Into Action

I recommend implementing this 5-part framework anytime you're deciding whether or not to move forward with consulting work, business development activities, teaming, etc.

Make the opportunity earn its spot vs. agreeing to the opportunity by default and then diving into figuring out how to make it work.

This might be painful in the short-run at times. It might mean leaving revenue on the table. It might mean turning down opportunities from long-time colleagues.

Being discerning and saying now is the path to growing a fruitful and fulfilling consulting practice that you're running on your own terms.


For More

For more on this, listen to episode 063 of the Grow Your Independent Consulting Business podcast:

Also, be sure to take my Independent Consulting Business Predictability Assessment. It takes about 5 minutes for you to answer a handful of questions, and then I'll provide you with a personalized report for improving the predictability of your solo consulting business. You'll have tangible, actionable next steps to increase the predictability in your business.

Learn About Private Coaching for Independent Consultants

Learn More