Not My Circus - How To Stay in Your Lane as a Freelancer

 

Freelancers naturally care about the overall success of their clients. We love to solve problems, deliver outstanding products, and bring projects to fruition that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. This dedication to broader success can sometimes come up against our clients’ more significant structural and organizational issues.

A freelancer, by definition, is a fractional worker who completes specific tasks or projects for their clients. When you’re “fractional,” you’re contributing a small piece to a larger puzzle that makes up the client’s business. When that puzzle has missing or broken pieces, it can mean that your “fractional” contribution doesn’t have the same impact it would have if everything were functioning efficiently.

You can knock your project out of the park, and it still won’t have the intended impact if the overall organization is dysfunctional, if they don’t have the other pieces in place necessary to support your work, or if they can’t embrace the changes that they paid you to implement. This can come back and bite you when the problems outside your control make it look like you didn’t do your job.

Here are some real-life examples:

  • An HR consultant is hired to revamp a recruitment and hiring process, but the company sucks at onboarding their employees, so even when they get great ones, they never stay.
  • A project manager is hired to build a program, but the leader hasn’t thought through how that program fits into their larger goals, so there is no internal buy-in, and it eventually fails to launch.
  • A graphic designer is hired to design a new logo, but the company hasn’t thought through its overarching brand, so the new logo lasts only a few months before it is revamped again.
  • A VA is hired to make emails and calendars more efficient, but the people the VA supports don’t want to change their ways.
  • A business consultant is hired to create a strategic plan, but it is never operationalized, so it just sits on a shelf.

No business is perfect (lord knows mine isn’t), which means that freelancers will always have to navigate how their fractional contributions fit into the bigger picture. Here are a few ways to stay in your lane and manage your sanity accordingly.

Assess client readiness

Many of the issues that fractional workers encounter can be diagnosed early with an effective client screening process. I have a set of questions I ask every client up front that helps me spot nightmare ones from a mile away.

In addition to your client screening questions, think about the other organizational pieces that come before or after your work and will ultimately mean the success or failure of what you were hired to do.

  • Ask about their hiring and onboarding practices if you’re a recruitment consultant.
  • Ask about their overall brand and messaging if you’re a graphic designer.
  • If you’re a project manager, ask how the project fits into their overall goals and how they plan to implement it once you’ve completed your part.

You should also ask questions about whether or not the client knows how to work with freelancers effectively. Many companies don’t understand the difference between a freelancer and an on-call employee, and this distinction can be crucial for an effective engagement.

Cover your ass with an air-tight scope

This is a constant work in progress, even for an experienced freelancer like me. I still have engagements where I look back in hindsight and think about things I should have spelled out more clearly in my scope. 

With that said, an effective client screening and onboarding process will go a long way toward helping you write a clear and concise proposal/scope that spells out exactly what you’re hired to do. Make sure your scope also outlines what the client is responsible for and the conditions that dictate the success or failure of your work (e.g., if you don’t know what your product is…I can’t build it).

Focus on your locus of control

Not my circus, not my monkey, has become a daily mantra for me in work and life. I inherently try to solve problems that are not mine to solve, which leads me to get deeply involved in chaos that is not mine to manage. When you care about the success of your clients’ businesses and your own reputation, it can be hard not to worry about the factors outside of your control that will impact the success of your work.

If you’ve done your due diligence upfront, hopefully, your work is clearly spelled out, and it is easy for your client to measure success. There will also be times when you do your thing, knock it out of the park, and it just sits on a shelf and never changes anything for the client. I can’t tell you how many projects, systems, and products I’ve built for people who never use them for various reasons. In these instances, I reflect on what I could have done differently to understand better what they needed or how it would fit into their work. I have also learned to let it go because; I got paid for completed work, and it is up to them to use (or not use) what I made them.

Finally, you have to learn when to let clients go. Sometimes the barriers to success are just too high; no matter how good you are at what you do, the mental anguish isn’t worth it.

Have a deep bench of partners

If your client screening questions make it clear that your clients aren’t ready for your work or don’t have the systems in place to put it into action after your job is done, being able to recommend other freelancers to provide wrap-around services is a huge value-add.

If you’re a graphic designer, find people who are good at branding and advertising. Find someone good at operations and implementation if you’re a business consultant.

Having freelancers adjacent to your work will help you stay in your lane and still get your clients what they need.


Being a freelancer is entirely different from being a full-time employee. Instead of being a cog in a larger wheel, you are an independent business offering your clients a discreet product or service. This doesn’t mean that you don’t care about their overall success; it just means that you are not completely responsible for it. As my friend and fellow freelancer, Leah Meyers recently told me, “You can’t care more about their success than they do.”

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