Episode 64: How I Finally Let Myself Become A Consultant—with Deb Zahn
Deb Zahn: Hi, I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. So my guest today is actually me. I am going to answer a question I've been getting a whole lot recently, which is Deb, “How do you actually become a consultant? And what are the steps you need to take to actually set yourself up for success?” I've been getting that a lot recently. I think the reason is probably because folks are realizing that what they thought was job security in their current employment isn't certain. Or it isn't as certain as it once was. Or, sadly, a lot of folks have been laid off or are worried about getting laid off and either feel like they have to become a consultant, which hopefully isn't the reason. Or they've always had this desire and now they actually want to do it, but they know that they have to do it well in order to succeed and probably succeed in a short period of time.
So I'm going to talk about my process to becoming a consultant and how I did it and some of the things that I learned along the way. Hopefully, this is helpful as you think through it.
Then at the end, I'm going to tell you about a free training that I'm going to give that goes into all the details about the steps that you need to take to become not just a consultant but a profitable consultant who has the life that you actually want.
This is basically my story of the long period of time it took me to take the leap into consulting. And I wish I had done it so much sooner. The reality is I was thinking about it. I wanted to be a consultant probably before I could ever voice it. So I never actually early on said, “Oh, I think I want to be a consultant” because I don't think I really knew what one was. But I do know that over and over again I wrote in my journal—and I do yearly assessments to sort out my life and what I want in it. And one thing is I would always assess my career and ask, “OK, what matters most to me?” And the same things kept popping up year after year after year, which is I wanted freedom. And in particular, I was looking for the type of career where I could have autonomy.
I wanted authority. And I didn't mean authority in terms of being in charge of things, but I wanted to make my own choices and have the ability to help push things forward. And then I wanted flexibility. I wanted flexibility in my time and in my schedule and all of that good stuff. And I wrote about that over and over and over again. And yet I kept picking jobs that didn't give me that. Now, some jobs gave it to me more than others. So I'd have more freedom in this job and a little more authority in that job. But I kept going to employment thinking that, “Oh, that's OK, financial security means more to me so I'm just going to go down that road.”
And then what would happen is I'd get into a job, and I would always do a really good job and learn things and enjoy being there in a lot of ways. But I also always had this entrepreneurial desire that just kept popping up. So I'd be at a job where they do a particular thing. This is how they've done it, and they've sort of always done it this way. And I'd say, “Hey, I think we should really think about going into this because if you look at what's happening in the larger industry, we could really position ourselves...” And in most cases, that's not really what they did. So I was constantly frustrated because I kept thinking of new and better ways that we could help and serve the folks that we were working with. But that's not what the purpose of those jobs were. So, again, when I thought about it, a light bulb go off in my head and I thought, “Oh, well, Deb that really sounds like you want to be a consultant.”
And I would think about it occasionally. But the thing that always, always held me back was my fear of financial insecurity. The regular paycheque gave me a feeling of security, and I put aside any other desires I had for that purpose. I always was worried that if I became a consultant what if it didn't work? How am I going to pay my mortgage? How am I going to pay my bills? And those were the things that always stopped me from thinking about going down the path that I ultimately wanted.
So fast forward I'm in my 40s. I've been working at jobs my whole life. I always have a desire for something different, but I basically keep stuffing that down. And then there was this moment of choice in my career where someone who I had known for a long time showed up and said that she worked at a consulting firm, and it was growing. And they were going to start a New York City office. I was working in New York City at the time, and she wanted to talk to me about becoming a consultant there.
And at the same exact time, another person I had known for a really long time showed up and said, “We're starting this new initiative, and we want you to come and lead it. It's got all these cool and shiny things; come do this for us.” Without doing a job search, I had two folks showing up. One saying be a consultant. The other one saying just get a new job. And this new job is cool. And I had a choice to make. Now keep in mind I knew the things that matter to me. I knew that I wanted to be a consultant, but I was still really afraid. But I had that choice of what road I wanted to go down.
And I blew it. I didn't do it. I didn't become a consultant. I took the “road most traveled” back to employment because I really thought the financial security would be greater in that job.
Now keep in mind…this is how deep this fear was for me…keep in mind that the consulting firm actually would have paid me a regular paycheck. So I would have had a paycheck just like I had at the job that I ultimately took. And I still didn't believe that I could do it and succeed. So I was worried. “Well, what if I'm not good at it? What if I can't get business because that's part of what they expect me to do. And what if I get fired?” That was my big fear I had, even though I had never been fired from any job I'd ever had. So I had no reason to think that I couldn't show up just like I had done in job after job and figure out what was required and come up with solutions and get good at something.
I was too afraid, and I made the wrong choice.
And not just because the job that I ultimately went to, wasn't a fit for me. It was definitely not a fit for me. I had less freedom and autonomy and all of those things that I said I wanted than I had in the job that I left. And there were plenty of signs before I said yes to that job that that was going to be true. So it wasn't like I showed up and I was like, “Whoa, this is totally different than I thought.” I had plenty of signs that I wasn't going to have the freedom, flexibility, and autonomy that I was ultimately after.
I regretted that choice for over two years. Two years! Which is a really long time to be doing a job that isn't a fit for you. And you know that you had a chance just like I did to do the job that I really most wanted to do.
And then, and I consider this a huge blessing in my life, this really funny thing happened. Someone who I'd known for a while out of the blue asked me to do a small consulting engagement. I was still at my job, but I was allowed to do other things as long as it didn't conflict with what I was doing. And this is someone I knew and I had been in meetings with. She said, “Here's our situation. I want you to come help us. Can you do that?” And I said, yes because I thought, well, why not? There's no risk to me doing that. And what it was is there were two entities. They were under a parent organization, and they were being sort of force-merged.
They were brought together into a forced marriage. It was kind of odd in that they didn’t automatically go together. They were trying to decide, “Do we want this to just be a merger on paper? Or do we really think that there's an opportunity for us to do bigger, better, more things together under this merger.” They had a person who was from the parent organization who is leading this effort. As you can imagine, there was a lot of stress and uncertainty and conflicting desires and all of the things that you would expect in a situation like that. She came to me, which was interesting because she said that she knew that I was good at helping people in groups, sort out things when things were really uncertain and ultimately be able to make decisions together. She had seen me do that in meetings, and she thought, “You're the right person for this. Can you come help me?” And so I did it. I said yes. And I was allowed to do it as part of my job.
And here's what I discovered—and this is why this was such a gift for me—is I loved it. Oh, my gosh, I loved it. I loved that essentially I was airlifted into this really uncertain, really stressful situation. People were stressed out. There was all these different desires, fears, and options, and I was able to help them untangle it. I was able to help them figure out what the path is that they ultimately wanted and to be able to not just make decisions but learn how to make decisions together. I absolutely loved watching as I was working with them their stress start to come down, the uncertainty start to reduce, and especially see the excitement that they had about a new future that they hadn't imagined before.
And it just touched something in me and said, “This is me.” This is what I am on the planet, to do things like this. And I'm going to be better able to do it if I'm a consultant. So it's not like in jobs I hadn't done that before. Obviously I had because she'd seen me in action, and she knew that that's something that I could do. And it is my thing. It is my thing to help people, disentangle things and, especially groups, make decisions together. But I knew that consulting was the best way I was going to be able to do that.
So I went back to my friend who, by that time, had started the New York City office. It was two years in, but it was still relatively small. And they were still working on getting traction in the market. I said to her, “Can we talk again?” And she had this really interesting response. She said, “Of course. I’m happy to talk to you again, but I thought you like to run things.” And without hesitation, I said, “No, I like to run with things.” That's why I want to be a consultant is I can help things move forward, and being someone from the outside puts you in a unique position to do that. I had just experienced that and it was qualitatively different than when I did it when I was part of an employer. So I knew this was right for me. We started talking, and it took a while, but eventually the firm hired me. And so that's great, right? I finally became what I wanted to become. I became a consultant.
But I had a rough start.
I'm not going to lie to you. I had a really rough start. The reason that I had a rough start is because I didn't understand the business side of consulting. I knew that there were things that I could do to help people. I knew that sort of abstractly. I didn't know it in the detail that I really needed to. I didn't get that there was this business side of it—the things that you automatically have to do to be successful as a consultant. I didn’t know there were these steps that you had to take and things that you had to put in place and learn in order to really be adept at that business side of consulting. I had to learn that.
It was rough because I had to do two things. I had to bring in business, which I floundered for several months, actually many months, figuring out how to do that. Mainly because I hadn't really articulated in any sort of clear way what it is that I could do for clients and be able to say that in a way that was compelling and made them want to say, “Oh my gosh, come help us.”
Oh goodness, I had so many coffees and drinks and spent all of my time sort of spinning my wheels out there in the market, trying to get business and not really knowing how to do it. And then the other thing I had to do, because I was at a firm, is get on projects with colleagues. I had the same exact problem. I knew I knew how to do things, but I didn't really know how to talk about it. And then there was a whole host of other things that I didn't know how to do.
It was funny later. One of my first clients ,when she came to me said…this was sort of the problem I had. She said, “I don't really know what you do, but I know when you show up things start happening.” I thought, well, that's a great compliment, but I should really think about what I do that actually makes things happen when I show up.
So I had a rough start, and it took months of floundering to try and figure out how to get business. How do you describe yourself? What are the sort of basic ways that you want to show up in your market? There was a whole host of things that I just didn't know. And I didn’t have a handbook on how to become a consultant, and you picked it up and you learned how to do it.
So the good news is, I eventually figured it out. I eventually backtracked and took the steps that I needed to take to be a consultant, things that I wish I had done either right at the start or before.
So fast forward nine years. I'm at the firm, and great firm to work with, but I had another inflection point. I ultimately had to ask myself the question, “Do I want to stay at the firm or do I want to leave and become independent?” And this was a tough question because the firm had been really good to me. I was treated really well. I did actually have a lot of flexibility and autonomy. I'd been successful. I knew how everything worked. I had this infrastructure that was backing me up, but I still had to ask myself the question, “Is this right for me or do I want to be independent?”
I had really important reasons behind asking that question. That is, in our lives and the lives of my family we had about two years where just a lot of people died. A lot of people really close to us died. Two years solid of constantly dealing with the grief of that, the anticipation of that, and all of the things that come with having loved ones die. It was actually so bad…I may have said this in another podcast…that I saw a client of mine who I hadn't seen in a while. And he's a sweet guy. And he said, “Deb, how you doing? How's your mom doing?” I had to stop and think, “Who is he talking about?” And I had to ask him, “Who was the last person you heard that died?” And he told me who and I said, “Oh, and I think it was like two or three people ago.” And I realized I need to make some decisions in my life because this is a different stage of life.
And my mom who we moved here to be close to us…she's right up the road from us…was now a widow because her husband was one of the first people that passed away. I had to ask myself, “What do I want our lives to be like” because now I had a bigger reason for having more freedom and flexibility. That reason is I wanted to be able to spend time with her while she was healthy. My mom is really healthy. I mean, this woman's amazing. She's turning 80 in a couple months, and she bikes, she kayaks, and she routinely gets like 14,000 to 15,000 steps a day. She's probably in better shape than I am, which is pretty amazing. Now, because she lives close to us she eats tons of vegetables, much healthier than she ever used to be.
That's when I want to spend time with her. I don't want to wait to spend time with her when everything is doctor's appointments and logistics, which is often what happens when you enter into a certain stage of life. So I knew that that why it was absolutely essential to me to spend more time and have the flexibility to spend more time with her. And I knew that I wanted to also spend more time with my husband and doing other things that were meaningful in my life. Even though this firm was the best possible version of any firm that I could work at, I still had to not just sort of let things carry me away. I had to make a decision and have my own agency to choose what I wanted to do.
And people asked me, which was a reasonable question, “Aren't you afraid of going independent?” And the answer was, “Yeah, I'm really afraid.” I recognize, and I didn't fully even recognize that I had this infrastructure behind me, that this was going to be scary to essentially take that leap on my own. I'm the primary breadwinner in my family. So there's all of the questions about mortgage and bills. All of that came up. Now, I was fortunate in that I already had a bunch of clients. I had already built up a client base. I got a lot of repeat business, a lot of referred business. Most of the projects I worked on, I was the lead so they were my clients. So that was extraordinarily helpful and was going to make it easy for me. But I was still afraid.
I knew that I had to bring in money. I had to support our lives. We intentionally don't have an extravagant life because that's not what we're interested in. We like the simple things in life, but I still felt enormous pressure. Again, mortgage and bills, all of that coming to mind. But I had bigger reasons than myself for wanting to do this. So I knew that it was right and that, ultimately, I wanted a life where I was answering to myself, to my family, and to my clients.
So I did it. Again, wonderful firm so we still have a great relationship that makes life easier for me. But I had taken so many things for granted, the systems that they had behind me, all of the legal stuff I had to do, set up a legal entity, figure out contracts. I had to suddenly do my own marketing and communications, which I had done before, but I knew that I now needed to do much more of that.
I again had to backtrack and take some of the steps that new consultants would have to take because, now as independent, it was a really different way of operating as a consultant and the business side of being a consultant. I had to make sure that I had all of those things in place and that I was able to do that. I had also learned a lot in nine years. So there were also things that I wanted to do in the market, or I wanted to focus on in the market that were going to support my lifestyle. So less traveling, things like that. I now had to talk about myself in some different ways, and I had to figure that all out.
But I will tell you, I am so glad and I am so grateful that I asked myself the question. I didn't just get sort of carried away into the everyday habit of what I was doing. I asked myself the question, “What do you most want in your work life and for your livelihood?” And when I answered that question, looking at the totality of my life, and I answered that question, I took it to heart and I said, “All right, let's do this. Let's make it happen.” Because that's the thing and this is what I learned: making the decision is actually the hardest part. Everything that comes after that, it's not like it's an easy summer breeze, but everything else is actually much easier.
The most difficult thing is asking yourself the question, answering it, and then making the choice. That's truly the hardest part. The stuff that comes after that is, yes, you absolutely have to learn new things particularly about the business side of consulting as I said. You’ve got to have a good strategy, make good choices, and problem solve if things don't work out. You’ve got to get yourself set up well. You’ve got to get the logistics right. But that's all doable. All of that, the things you need to learn can be learned. The things you need to set up can be set up. It's really giving yourself permission to ask the question, answer it, and then do what you need to do.
That's what, if you haven't taken the leap yet, I'm encouraging you to ask yourself. What do you want? What do you want in your work life and in your livelihood and in your life?
And then when you answer that, because there's no risk in you asking yourself that question, but when you answer it, listen to yourself. If the answer is that you ultimately want to be a consultant, then take the right steps to make it happen.
I know that that can be really frightening. It was frightening for me. It was frightening both times when I joined the firm and when I went independent. It was frightening both times, but there are things that you can do to make it easier for yourself. And I actually want to make it easier for you.
I'm going to be doing a free training. The free training is How to Become a Consultant and the eight most important steps that you need to be able to master to become a successful consultant.
These are the things that I wish that somebody had told me. I wish someone had actually sat me down and said, “all right, here's how you got to do it.” It would have been so much easier. But what I want to do is, if you're still dreaming of being a consultant, I want to help you figure out if you can do it because now you know what the steps are. I truly think as long as you have something that is marketable, some way that you can help clients and there's somebody out there to pay for it…I wouldn't actually, if your immediate answer is, “Oh, I don't think anybody would,” don't get stuck there. I'm going to tell you how to get past that in a moment, but you can be a consultant. I want to help show you what the steps are.
So essentially what I'm going to do. It's a 90-minute training. It's free. It's going to be July 22nd. It's at 11:00 AM Pacific time. That's 2:00 PM Eastern time. If you're in the UK, at 7:00 PM.
I'm going to go through the best way to get started as a consultant, and some of the things that you can do to get past whatever's holding you back. I'm going to talk about the things that are absolutely critical. I mean, these are the must-haves if you're going to succeed at consulting. And try and help you avoid some of the mistakes I made and some of the things that consultants, new consultants in particular, do that cause them to flounder or fail. We're going to try and get you past that.
I'm going to talk a little bit more about some of the specific things that I did to build this consulting business that I now have that is successful and truly, really fulfilling to me. And then I'm going to go through eight steps. So these are the eight steps that are absolutely essential. They're going to help you get past whatever is stopping you. They're going to help you be able to define and position your particular value in a particular market. I'm going to talk about how to price your services right, and how to avoid some of the really common pricing traps that often happen.
We're going to talk about how to build that rock-solid foundation. You know that thing that I took for granted. I'm going to talk to you about what the basic things are you need to have in place. And then talk about creating a plan that ultimately helps you reduce any risks that you have associated with taking the leap and lays out what a plan of success is going to be for you. So again, it's free.
If you sign up, you are also going to get a goodie from me, because I know…and hopefully you caught this when I was talking about my story…but I know one of the things that holds people back more than anything else is mindset. So these are the habits of thinking the things that we believe are true and that may not be true. So mindset can be one of the biggest blocks that folks have.
I have a free 10-page interactive guide that's going to help you get past two of the most common mindset blocks that often hold people back from becoming a consultant. Or, if you already are a consultant, holds you back from doing the things you need to do to be able to get clients. So you'll get that for free just for signing up for the webinar. And then during the webinar is when I'll be doing the training that will walk through all of this, and by the time you're off of it, you're going to know so much more about how to do it and how to do it well. And hopefully you're going to feel more confident that you can be a consultant and you can take the leap.
Now, if you're already a consultant, but what you're really saying is, “Hey, Deb, what I really need help with is to get more clients” don't worry I have not forgotten about you. On July 29th, there will be another training. This will be a paid training that's not going to cost very much. There, I'm going to focus specifically on some of the things that you need to do to get clients in the door.
I'm putting these resources out to help folks take advantage of them. You can look in the show notes and on my website, and there'll be a lot of information about how you can sign up and get your seat at the training. And hopefully that helps folks live your dream.
So thanks so much for joining me on this episode. I will be back again next week with a wonderful guest where we're also going to talk a little bit about this topic. Thanks so much. Bye-bye.
Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoy this episode or you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content, I don't want you to miss anything. But the other two things that I'm going to ask you to do is one is, if you have any comments, so if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those.
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