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Episode 100: Lessons on Successful Consulting Now and Into the Future—with Deb Cullerton

Deb Zahn: Hi. I want to welcome you to my 100th episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. You can tell I am super excited about that. I'm going to talk about, in a moment, some giveaways that you might be able to get your hands on in celebration of this monumental event. But first, let me tell you about this podcast.

I brought back on Deb Cullerton, who was the first guest I ever had way, way, way back when I launched my podcast. (Episode 2) She's a good friend. She's an amazing consultant. We're going to take a look back over the next year and grab some absolutely essential lessons for having a fulfilling and profitable consulting business. We're then going to look forward and say, "All right, that's great. We made it through. We're still consulting. We're doing great. What is it going to take to be able to exceed and grow even more in the future?" So that's what we're going to do on this podcast. It's fantastic.

Now, talk about giveaways. Let me just say really quickly, I've got three buckets of giveaways that you can get if you are on my email list, so definitely sign up. It's not just about getting the freebies. I also make sure weekly, you get some great content in your email and you also get some exclusive offers that no one else gets. But, you could win three of my favorite books that will help you build your consulting business. And if you look in my show notes, I say what those are. You could also be one of the five folks that's going to get access to my online course, Getting More Consulting Business Faster. It takes you step by step through how to actually get clients. And then it gives you all the tools to make it easier to do that.

I want that to be you so definitely sign up to my email list so that you can be in that drawing, but let's get started with this fabulous episode. I want to welcome my guest today, Deb Cullerton. Deb, welcome to the show.

Deb Cullerton: Thanks so much. Good to be here.

Deb Zahn: Now I'm a little overexcited, as you can tell my introduction. One because you're on the show. You were my very first guest, and here we are my 100th episode which I can't even...

Deb Cullerton: That's crazy on so many levels, Deb. First of all, it's crazy that you've done 100. That's amazing. Congratulations. It's crazy what's been going on in the background while you've been doing your 100 shows.

Deb Zahn: Good time to talk about consulting I suppose. Plus, I just love having you on because I love talking to you and you and I go way, way back. You used to have the distinct privilege and challenge of coaching me, you poor woman.

Deb Cullerton: No.

Deb Zahn: But I met you at my first job I ever had when I moved from California to New York City. You were helping an organization become bigger, better, more. That's when I met you, and then basically I just brought you with me everywhere I went

Deb Cullerton: Thank you very much.

Deb Zahn: Which made me look good so I was happy to do it. So today, we thought it would be a good idea for us to have a chat about looking back because it's OK to look back and think about what lessons we would pull out of what's been going on, particularly about the last year. And then, end by looking forward and asking, “Where is success going to be showing up and how are we actually going to do it?” Does that sound good?

Deb Cullerton: Absolutely. It sounds great.

Deb Zahn: So let's start off. Tell my listeners what you do.

Deb Cullerton: So we're a training and development consultancy, and we do predominantly productivity training and leadership training. But, like many consulting organizations, we sell solutions, not training as we like to say. So we focus specifically on custom rollouts in many cases, we do some public open enrollment workshops, but usually as a follow-up to initiatives that we've both built and then rolled out within organizations. So that's the bulk of how we spend our time. I do add some executive coaching into the mix probably about 20% of my time is spent in coaching and the other 80% in running this consultancy.

Deb Zahn: That's great. And say the name because you got to do a plug.

Deb Cullerton: Sorry about it. Priority Management Associates.

Deb Zahn: There you go. There you go. Before we get into what we're going to talk about, you also have the distinction of having been, as I like to say chosen this year, and you now have a CCO. Say a little bit about that.

Deb Cullerton: The CCO, is that what we're calling it now?

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Deb Cullerton: I'm a survivor as they say, and a long hauler all at the same time. I made it successfully throughout the year last year in 2020 all to find myself coming down with COVID in January and then spreading it nicely through my family as any good person would. So I'm on the backside of that and still really experiencing a lot of the fatigue symptoms that people talk about. So that's been a fun part of the continuum here is keep the business going while you deal with sickness yourself and in your family as well.

Deb Zahn: Absolutely. Now, just to prove that I'm a bad person, I meant the kitten not COVID, and I should have led with COVID.

Deb Cullerton: Oh, when you said CCO, I was like, “that's what she's talking about."

Deb Zahn: No, it's your Chief Cuteness Officer.

Deb Cullerton: Oh, my Chief Cuteness Officer. Yes. Actually she has been the bright light. If that was the darkness of my year, she's absolutely been the bright light. We're huge animal people just across the board and like many families, we decided that it would be an OK time to add to the mix. So when she showed up on the back step, I called my resident expert in all things found cats: you!

Deb Zahn: That's all right.

Deb Cullerton: And just figured out exactly how to...Well, I believe we thought it was an Oliver for a while, and then we fixed her and decided it was an Olive. She's been the thing that puts a smile on my face every day for sure.

Deb Zahn: I'm so glad about that. And with COVID and you're also in Texas, so that came with its own challenges I'd say.

Deb Cullerton: Yeah. Weather, etc. Weather, power, internet. None of the things that you need to run a consulting business.

Deb Zahn: Exactly. You couldn’t just bypass all of those things and run smoothly.

Deb Cullerton: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: In all of that, you needed a kitten because...

Deb Cullerton: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: That's just a lot for one person to handle.

Deb Cullerton: Well perspective, right? Because right about the time you think everything is crumbling around you, she pounces out of somewhere onto your head and gives you perspective on all of it.

Deb Zahn: I love it. It's like a Zen master hitting you with a stick.

Deb Cullerton: That's right.

Deb Zahn: I think of what that is.

Deb Cullerton: She's amazing.

Deb Zahn: My goodness. Let's take a look back. If we look at sort of the last year and uncertainty is the word for what's been going on. That's an obvious one, but what were some of the big-ticket lessons that you grabbed as you were trying to figure out how to make things work over the last year?

Deb Cullerton: I think the first one, the big cosmic lesson was you don't know as much as you think you do.

Deb Zahn: Oh, that.

Deb Cullerton: I learn that one every six months these days, but this might've been the biggest one where I thought I...we teach strategic planning, and we spend a lot of time helping organizations figure this piece out. So to understand just how malleable my strategic plans were going to have to be for this was probably the biggest. But, the other side of that was also really the lesson of picking a direction and going forward confidently. I think, honestly, if I had to look back at the thing that I felt the best about or that I continue to feel the best about, it was the speed with which we pivoted. I certainly talked to colleagues, I talked to folks that I've partnered with over the years that were three, four, five months down the line and still trying to figure out exactly how they were going to pivot. I did get a very strong sense of the urgency of that. And kind of forced my organization into pivoting within a week. We started to make significant changes in how we were doing business.

That would probably be the...I've got lots of things that I'm not as with that we did, but I think we did that as well as we could. And I think there were just a number of opportunities that presented themselves because at least we could say we were ready. Looking back, I don't know if we were ready, but we certainly were there and willing and honest about where we were in the process and people were willing to grab on to anybody who seemed confident, I think. So that would be it, I would say.

Deb Zahn: Because I know a bit about your pivots, you pivot smartly. So there were lots of folks that did a panic pivot and just sort of swung too far in some other direction that was based on legitimate concern about, "Oh my gosh, what's happening and how am I getting income in," but to be able in a week to smartly pivot, that's pretty darn impressive.

Deb Cullerton: I mean, listen. It was panic as much as it was impressive, but I tend to be a person who panics forward.

Deb Zahn: That's the new phrase.

Deb Cullerton: If you're going to panic, panic forward as opposed to getting stuck or frozen or any of those things. I think there was something to be said, I guess when you talk about smart pivot. I think there were a couple of characteristics to the pivot that made it helpful. One characteristic is, we pretty much stayed in our own lane. So we stayed in that place of let's really come back and only think about what we can really add to the situation. What can we do to really help our clients? We weren't even thinking at that point about prospective clients. We were just thinking, “How do we help our clients? How do we make sure that what we do can be positioned in a way that really helps people center focus, figure out how to move forward?”

It was definitely not a time, I don't think, certainly in the early days it was not a time to be thinking about growing. It was really a time to just be thinking about being helpful and being of service and that kind of stuff. So I think that was the key characteristic of the pivot was really staying in our lane, thinking about who we were to our clients, really trying to stay in the mindset of service and the rest, and I guess hoping that the rest would work itself out and quite frankly it did. So that seemed to work out well.

Deb Zahn: I had the same experience sort of right when everything started to kick in and I didn't lose work, but I had massive delays in some of the work I was doing simply because being a healthcare consultant, healthcare was kind of paying attention to other things besides what we do. But we had planned on doing and had spent so long figuring out. And so how I did my pivot is I had to step back and say, "I don't sell, for example, facilitation." Just like you say, you sell solutions, and you don't sell training. What I sell is I sell outcomes and right now people need help with different types of outcomes than what we were talking about two weeks ago, a month ago. What is it that I have and I'm able to do whether it's skills or knowledge that I particularly have or connections I have with other people that could help them figure out how to do things that they were just aching to figure out how to do. Take a step back and say, how do I contribute to an outcome that matters to them in this circumstance and in this particular way?

And once I did that, it seemed to sort of loosen up any of the stuck places that I had in my mind. And I could a little more freely look at ways that I could actually contribute and be able to change and flex and the way that I ultimately needed to. But at the beginning, it was, “I do this. How do I keep income coming in for this?” And if you get stuck there, you get locked into my...One of my husband's favorite phrases is, I can't remember where he got it from, someone said it ages ago, which is “a picture held me captive.” And the notion of that phrase, and we use it quite a bit, is if you get a picture in your mind and you can't move off of it, it will hold you trapped within the narrow confines that it allows. As opposed to, if you step back and broaden your vision, you think about it from a completely different perspective, which is being of service and being the most helpful you can be in this circumstance .It loosens everything up and now you can think more creatively.

Deb Cullerton: Absolutely true. I couldn't have said that better myself. That's beautiful. I didn't think about it that way certainly at the time because you're just more eloquent than I am. But, I think I really just thought...I'm just going to be honest. I thought, “How do I get money back in the door?” I lost everything. We watched all but one gig go. We did have a few gigs that were just pushing, pushing, pushing, let's see in the fall, let's see in the spring, let's see in the...But for the most part, people just anticipated losing buckets of money so they just let them go.

So I think from my perspective, it really was just figuring out how are we going to survive and what little core group of things can we keep doing to kind of keep their survival alive.

Deb Zahn: Not that mindset stuff came up for you at all. I don't want to put that suggestion out there. I'm going to say it came up for me a bit, but how did you handle sort of whatever mindset stuff was bubbling up?

Deb Cullerton: I don't think my mindset stuff revolved too heavily...Let me say this, it didn't bubble up too much in the beginning because I was just throwing myself into my own reliever, which is work. I think I fell backwards in many ways. I fell backwards into things in a couple of different ways. I certainly fell back into being a workaholic. I had worked really hard to come out of that. And I think because I was so stressed, I said, “Well, you know what? This is a good time for me to be a workaholic. It's going to work out just fine for me if I do it. So I definitely fell back into that just work a 100 hours a week and see if I can make it.

Deb Zahn: That little mind monster was like, “Aha, I have a chance to get back in!”

Deb Cullerton: “This is my moment!” Now we all know there's so much other stresses going on besides the business stress that that was unsustainable. I think I made it through the summer before I realized I was on a collision course with where the breakdown, if I kept going at that rate. I think I did eventually kind of pull myself out of that.

The other mindset stuff that I had to grapple with was never about the outcome that I was trying to achieve for the client, but it was about how we were going to get there. Because suddenly my own skills and things I had been relying on for years, like standing in front of a group of people or being onsite with a client and working with them onsite, all of that was gone like everyone else. I really had to grapple with, “Am I good enough without that?” I think a little imposter syndrome might've snuck in to play and said, you're not a virtual trainer, you're not a virtual speaker, you know what I mean? If anything, I've been railing against those things for years saying, “You still can't replace the person who stands right in front of you and talks to you.”

Boy, was that a kind of a slap in the head, a cosmic slap in the head that I had to suddenly say, "Did I say that? No, that's not really what I meant. What I meant was…this is going to be great and you're going to love it and it's going to be just as good. I promise." So I had to get through that. I'm not that girl. I'm not virtual. I'm not the techie. I had to keep fighting those things and just dive in because there was just no other option.

Deb Zahn: I think imposter syndrome was like most people I talk to. Because it was basically like a stress test for who you are and your value. And I think it was freaking a lot of people out, and goodness knows I had it. My big one, my go-to mindset block was perceived scarcity. Now what's interesting about perceived scarcity is there was actual scarcity going on, which my mind apparently didn't think was enough. So I decided to pile on to what was actually true with made up stuff.

Deb Cullerton: Nice.

Deb Zahn: It's part of my creativity. So I started to do the pile on, which is not helpful because then it becomes too overwhelming and you can't make decisions. And so I had to retreat back to, “Who am I and what do I value?”

For example, there were some engagements that I could have taken that I had really good reasons for saying no to, but because perceived scarcity was the little devil on my shoulder saying “Not enough!” I felt compelled like I have to say yes to these. Now I actually pulled back and said, no, no, no. If you do that, here's the consequences of making those choices. You're not going to be able to deliver excellence. You're not going to be able to have saved shelf space for the work that you actually can be most helpful doing. So I didn't fall into the trap but, man, I was fighting that constantly of not enough, not enough, not enough and well beyond what was actually true.

Deb Cullerton: It's so interesting. And you know, we've been in this business now for 25 years. In fact, this was supposed to be our big, exciting 25th anniversary, which you know would have been just a blowout party is what it would have been. So we're holding that. It's going to be an amazing 26 is what it's going to be.

Deb Zahn: I'll be there.

Deb Cullerton: But, I think because I've been in this business as long as I have, I'm a little bit less bothered by the scarcity. I think there's always a piece of me that feels like, “OK, if all else fails, you could wash cars.” There's always things you can do and so you're going to be fine.

I do think there's a balance though. That idea of pivoting, it was important and it was important for us to step out of, in some cases to step out of what we'd always done and be willing to incorporate it. I'm just thinking about, there were definitely some requests from clients that maybe a year ago I would have said no to, but they felt opportunistic. It felt like there were some opportunities that felt like the smart thing to do.

So simple example. One of the pivot conversations was about making sure that we really emphasized working with the clients that we knew financially would be OK. As much as I wanted to support everyone, we have pharmaceutical clients, we have financial service clients, these are services that were not necessarily affected negatively and, in some cases, really were affected positively. So part of the pivot was kind of isolating the list of clients and figuring out really who was going to have money in a year and making sure that we set ourselves up to be really right at the ready, so to speak.

So because of that, when they asked for something that was a little bit out of the ordinary or a little bit out of the zone, I think that we gave those special consideration because we felt like, it's just smart to be there for everything right now. And we won't last forever, but if they want us to wash their cars, we'll wash their cars.

Deb Zahn: That's right. If they want us to go to the prom, we're going to the prom.

Deb Cullerton: That's right.

Deb Zahn: But that's what you can do if you don't pile on, and you can have clear enough vision to say, "Actual scarcity is a real thing right now. So what decisions are we going to make relative to that as opposed to what I was off in the corner doing?” Thank goodness I'm a prepper, and I have all this food downstairs, which I do.

Deb Cullerton: Proud. She's so proud.

Deb Zahn: So proud. No, the moment my mom said to me, "Is this what you meant by a zombie apocalypse?" I said, "Yes. I didn't know it was this, but yes.” And she's like, "Thank God you know how to grow food," and then starts telling me what I should grow, knowing nothing about gardening, but that's all right.

Deb Cullerton: Hilarious.

Deb Zahn: So, what were things that if you could go back in time and say, “I wish I had switched this up, what would those be?”

Deb Cullerton: Gosh, so many things. The one thing I would say is, recognizing very quickly what some of the leverage points were going to be around technology and just caving into it. I know you know this story, but I will share that. In the beginning, just even not having significant broadband at my house was a huge thing. And I was faking it until I made it. I was trying to do everything with my little service, that was terrible, with all the uploads and downloads speeds...

Deb Zahn: With your two cans and a string

Deb Cullerton: Exactly. Upload and download speeds of one and two. I think if I could have just recognized just how debilitating and how stressful that was. That in and of itself, not feeling like I had the technology setups, not feeling like I had the bandwidth. We got there, but I was working out of my RV at my sister's house for months because I felt like it was…right? Exactly why? Because I threw a six cable out the window, and she plugged it into her modem. And I taught classes like that for three months.

Deb Zahn: Wow.

Deb Cullerton: It got to about 97, 98 degrees outside, which means it was about 127 degrees inside the camper. And that was when I thought maybe I should go ahead and get an office.

Deb Zahn: So that's like Bikram consulting.

Deb Cullerton: Nice. I wish I'd thought of that at the time. So I think I dragged my feet a little. I think I was still living in the land of this is going to be over, it's going to get better and I didn't make the adjustments and even make the purchases. The second monitor, the second webcam, the backup headset, all of the things that if I could go back now, I would've made one fast holistic expense purchase on Amazon and just myself up to be able to kind of calm down about everything else.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And just smooth out the process a little bit so you can actually focus on the delivery and not the things which support the delivery.

Deb Cullerton: The dumb stuff let's face it. Not having to worry about the dumb stuff and the stuff that just in the grand scheme of things just isn't that much. I had a big gig for a large, large hospital in Tennessee that takes care of kids who shall go unmentioned. And, a thousand people on this speaking engagement and my webcam went out after the first 10 minutes of that session.

Deb Zahn: Ouch.

Deb Cullerton: Now listen, by some miracle, the gods were with me and I leaned over, I did what every good techie does, unplug it and plug it back in and it came back on and we were able to do the rest of the session. But in that minute, I was, what are you thinking about not having backups to all your technology because this is just not the day and age when you can do that. You have to rely on these things.

Deb Zahn: And especially when everybody's so stressed out on the other side. I don't know about you, but it took forever...I'm still having Zoom meetings where people act like they've never been on Zoom before ever.

Deb Cullerton: Every day.

Deb Zahn: Every single day. As a consultant, my thing with other consultants is, you should be facilitating the best experience possible so they may be leaning into the screen going, is this on, but you should not be.

Deb Cullerton: That's right. Absolutely right.

Deb Zahn: My big thing, and it's funny because early on, I immediately went to, “How am I financially?” And I did what any big kid with big pants does is I did the math. And once I did the math, I'm like, I don't know how long this thing is going to last. “It could last a few months,” I said.

Deb Cullerton: Didn't we all?

Deb Zahn: No one pays me for my predictions with pandemics, which is good. But I looked at the math and I said, “You know what? I'm going to be fine. Even if X, Y, and Z occurs, I'm still going to be fine.” That should have allowed me to enjoy some of the extra downtime that I had. So I knew that I had projects that were still going to get cooking. I knew I had to do some pivots within them. I still had work that was still continuing on so I didn't go from a hundred to zero. But I did have more downtime, and I wish I had just allowed myself to enjoy it because I'm a type A, you're a type A. We don't have downtime a lot unless we schedule it, which I do. BI wish I had just said, You know what? You don't actually have that much cooking today and that's OK because you know it's OK. So why not just go hang out with mom? Why not just do some little nothing at home that you've been wanting to do? Why not just read a book for pleasure?”

Being at home for me was really easy, and it still is because I'm an introvert. And to me, it's a dream come true, and I'm sorry other people had to experience anything related to my dream come true. But I like being at home and I'm OK having remote interactions. But I wish I had just enjoyed all the time because I used to drive everywhere. So I would be in the car four hours a day, plus going to the places where I was going to go do my consulting. All of that time was now my time, and I wish I had let myself enjoy it.

Deb Cullerton: In my next life I'll be that evolved. Right now looking back on it, I can't even imagine calming myself down that far to get there. I'll tell you what I did do. I did use a lot of it for my own development. Now that was as close as I could get to calming down is, what can I learn about right now that I've been wanting to, I've been waiting to, or I just need to, to be better at what I do? But to sit on the couch and read a book, man, that's my next life. I'll be that evolved in my next life. I just didn't…

Deb Zahn: I got no picture of that when you said.

Deb Cullerton: That's because I can't visualize it so neither can you.

Deb Zahn: Let's talk about going forward because obviously I was incorrect. It lasted much longer than I expected. And obviously there's a lot more things going on right now. So we still have uncertainty, but we still have to build our businesses, we have to stay profitable, we have to have income coming in, and we have to continue to serve. So when you look forward, what is it that you're doing to set yourself up for success?

Deb Cullerton: Just leveraging the opportunities. Honestly, the future is bright in so many arenas right now. It really is. I think it really is always looking for the moving ball here. It's just finding where it is. Because at any time something is challenging, there's always some kind of positive on our side. The most obvious for us is the fact that, we've got a lot of organizations that were doing things in house that just won't right now because they're not going to bring on more staff right now at a time when they're still feeling insecure about what's going to happen. So I'm hearing organizations that have had the best year they've ever had, are still playing it very tight budget-wise next year because they're just not...I just had this conversation with a leading HR coordinator this morning. She said the same thing. She said, "I know people aren't going to understand this because we just had a great year. However, no one expects that to actually continue through the end of this year. And so we really are going to play it kind of tight."

Now that could be hard for budgets, but it can also be great if you happen to offer services that would be on that borderline between in-house out-house. So, I kind of really liked that opportunity because in many ways it points me to a particular size of organization who is going to probably pull back and use consultants or that at a time when they might've just tried to do it themselves in the past. That to me is one of the bigger opportunities.

The other big opportunity Deb is just to relook at the process and the framework. Last year was about getting by, it was about figuring it out. This year is about process improvement, this year is about doing it efficiently and effectively. It's quality. It's all the things that consultants bring to the table that people are now starting to settle into and saying, “OK, now I need help because no one's going to let me limp along for another year if this is going to continue. So how do I do this better than I'm doing?” I feel like we're getting more inbound calls right now for those kinds of, "Help us look at our process. Help us take this apart. Help us figure out how to support our senior leaders. Help us, help us, help us." I just think the opportunities are really bright right now. If you're paying attention and looking for them, they're there.

Deb Zahn: I would agree. I had that experience when...and this isn't marketing and I don't encourage this to be how people market, but I said out loud, "I should get at least one other consulting gig." And then within a day I got three emails from past clients who are saying, “Hey, I need some help.” What's interesting that they're focused on is strategic planning because, I think they want certainty out of having an experience with so much uncertainty. So I think it's as much a true business strategy desire as it is an emotional desire, and I totally get it. I think it's wise, except in the same way that other places are starting to think of process improvement, doing things differently. I'm blowing up how I do strategic planning.

I'm just blowing it up because my feeling is, if your strategic plan didn't serve you during this gigantic stress test that we've been in, then you gotta switch up. There may be nothing as big as this coming, hopefully, but that was the big stress test. And so, if you abandoned your strategic plan or stopped just dead in its tracks implementing anything, or you're like, hey, where did someone put that? I think that's in the back closet, that's not to serve you. People actually do need clear goals and strategies to make good decisions about what they're going to do going forward. But I've really been digging into the research around what works and what doesn't with strategic planning because the reality is... I was looking at some of the latest evidence and it's about 50/50 now—it used to be worse—which ones actually never got implemented. It used to be much worse. 50/50 a coin toss is horrible. Just because it's less horrible, it's not acceptable to me.

And, even within that, that's to implement something, but a majority won't even implement two thirds of what they did. So I've been looking at the research and other thinkers and people who do this type of work and stealing and borrowing from other things where I'm like, well, that's also a change thing. How does that actually work? And I've gotten really re-energized around strategic planning and strategic implementation. And I now won't do the first without attention to the second because implementation is where it fails more often than not.

And the past clients I've been talking to about it are digging it. They're actually interested in it. For example, I thought, well, when you do emergency preparedness, one of the things that you do is you do these tabletop exercises where you basically run through an emergency scenario and say, “OK, this happens and then this happens, this person does this, this happens and it triggers this.” And you basically are looking for what won't work, what will fall on its face, etc. And so I've been talking with folks about, you should do the same thing to your strategic plan is take it through. Take one of your objectives, your financial goal, whatever it is that is going to be mission critical and absolutely critical to your sustainability and let's throw rocks at it. Let's see where are you going to get resistance? Where is it not aligned with what your culture is? Where is it that you have not been able to implement before and let's dig into why that is.

But to really get down to the nitty gritty of how you truly bring these to life so you have reasonable confidence, one, that you're going to still survive this existentialist crisis that you may be in, but also, for the organizations I work with that serve people who really need it, that you're going to be able to do that to the best of your ability. It's that serious now. It was always serious, but the heat got turned up and we need to respond to it as such.

I've just blown it up and been more intellectually engaged in thinking about how to do it in a way that's more effective than I have been in years.

Deb Cullerton: Well, there must be something here. Because I've never felt us crossing over each other as much as I do right now because…

Deb Zahn: The Debs are back.

Deb Cullerton: The execution was always...For years we had a program called Strategy-to-Execution, but what that meant for most people was strategic planning. Well, that's not what it means anymore. Right now it's really all about the execution. Let me throw two other things that I thought of when you were saying it. Number one, I think you're absolutely right. This is the time to back up and blow up your own systems.

Two reasons. One, people are just in the place where they can hear the difference now. All the change resistors of two years ago that didn't want to hear anything different even if you had the most amazing idea, they were fending it off like Wonder Woman on a regular basis are suddenly hands down, palms up going, "OK, what do you got?" So that's one reason. Blow it up because you can because people can actually hear about changes right now in a way that they probably couldn't be before. But two, this is what aligns you with clients, the ability to empathize. The ability to be able to say, "You know what? We blew up our system. You shouldn't throw rocks at your system. We threw rocks at our system earlier last month, and this is what came out of it." So the ability to tell a good and true story about how you're challenging your processes and your strategies and you're really looking at this differently, I think aligns you much more so with other clients.

Simple example of that in our business. I think that was about looking at our pricing structures. I've never had a conversation with a consultant yet that they didn't want to talk about pricing models so I know this is an important area. But I think this was the first time in years because so many of our preexisting clients that we've worked with for so long, they know what our prices are, they've very settled in. It was really hard to make moves and pricing over the years. This changed everything because our delivery modalities were so different that we could basically throw the pricing model out the window and really start from scratch with something that made more sense. Many times we said, "Geez, I wish we would kind of price things this way. Or I wish we looked at it this way with clients, but we're kind of stuck with what we have." That went out. No longer am I flying in and spending three days onsite and so therefore we could kind of throw that whole day rate out the window and really start over again.

So it was, I just think a nice example of where we could live that experience too. Where we could get some of the benefit of throwing the old stuff out and really starting with some new stuff and getting, as you said, really excited about some of the new stuff we're doing right now so it's been fun.

Deb Zahn: Take advantage of the disruption while it's here.

Deb Cullerton: Especially if you've been in consulting for a while, right. I know we certainly have a fair share of newbies that are probably always excited about what they're doing because it is still reasonably new. But if you've been doing this for a little while, I think kind of refining your passion and getting stimulated around new areas and not having to say the same thing another 60,000 times, that in and of itself is exciting. I have a hard time believing some of the success we're seeing right now, you included isn't coming from that. More times than not people are buying the passion. They're not really buying the solution.

Deb Zahn: That's right. They have to believe that you can get them to a solution, but they also want the experience of being with someone who's excited about what they're doing.

I actually text a friend of mine who's a consultant and he and I have done strategic planning before. I texted him probably at some ridiculous hour, during dinner and I said, "I'm blowing up how I do strategic planning." And that's all I said. And he responded, "Thank God because if I have to do another SWOT, I'm going to jump off something."

Deb Cullerton: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: So I do think that there's a hunger for it and I think there's more of a hunger and acceptance for it on both sides so why not experiment, look at what the latest and best research is. and reinvigorate what you're doing.

The other thing I'm doing is I'm going to level up my skills. I'm a good facilitator. You're right. The virtual world hasn't gone away. I don't think it's actually going to go away anytime soon. And, it doesn't have to because we now know that things can be done virtually so it can be a tool in our toolbox that we may apply in ways that we hadn't previously. I'm actually with a colleague of mine, as part of an engagement we're doing. I'm going to say her name because she's fabulous, Leanne Hughes, who's out of Australia. She has the podcast First-Time Facilitator. I'm paying her as part of the gig to essentially look at what we're talking about during the strategic planning exercise and help us level up. How we can do it virtually? Because she is up on all the latest and greatest fancy pants ways to do it that aren't fancy for the sake of it, but they're fancy for the purpose of actually getting the outcome you want.

And so, I am more than happy to take money out of my pocket to serve my clients better and to level it up. Not by taking a class, although I think taking classes is a great thing to do, but applying it to a real world situation and bringing another expert in and saying to them, "Throw rocks at what we were going to do and replace it with something that's actually going to serve the client better."

Deb Cullerton: Absolutely. Hey, can I say something else about money since we're talking about money, taking money out of your pocket?

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Deb Cullerton: Man, if people have not taken advantage of, if they didn't the last time, and they're thinking about kind of just walking past this Payment Protection Program (PPP) or other funding that becomes available, can I just say, there were years where I would have just ignored these kinds of things because I would have thought that's not for me. I don't have the time to even apply for those kinds of things because we're a small shop. Maybe for the first time ever, we just didn't do that. We said, "You know what? Here we have time to do. We do have some time and here's what we're going to use that time for it. We're going to apply for PPP and we're going to look for grants and we're going to look for any kind of opportunity that is being afforded to really help folks like us during this time and not let that go by."

That was a game changer for us over the summer. We had three months of our payroll covered with our trainers and coaches, and that gave us the wherewithal, not only to keep going because of course it was meant to incent you to not let go of anybody and kind of keep everybody going. That was where I think we started really looking for some of those level up projects that we could do where, if we didn't have somebody busy actually working because maybe we didn't have a gig on a particular day. Instead, we did have them engaged in process improvement, taking classes, doing that kind of stuff. And we felt very justified because we actually did have PPP at that point to be able to subsidize people's payrolls.

Deb Zahn: Absolutely. There is no shame in doing it because the eligibility criteria was not set by you. It was set by someone else. So if they deemed you worthy of being eligible for it, by all means, take advantage of it because those are dollars whether you're a sole proprietor or you have other people who are depending on you for their income. It lets you help and support the economy that you're a part of, but it also does let you level up in a way that you're going to end up being able to serve people better.

I'm so happy you said that because I knew people were like...It triggered imposter syndrome where it made them feel like a failure. And my point was not in the least you are eligible for it. If you are eligible for it, why not do it?

Deb Cullerton: Exactly right. Honestly, I think it worked exactly the way it was supposed to, which is it was supposed to keep us moving forward, keep us paying people instead of trying to withdraw or pull back in, and, it gave us the flexibility to be able to do some things that we just couldn't have done any other way. That worked out really well and it's worked out again. We've been approved again in 2021 and, we're going to keep on doing that.

I learned in my own very serious personal lesson about not letting those moments go by.

Deb Zahn: That's great. I'm so happy to hear that. I'm glad you guys took advantage of that. So let me ask you my big last question because there's so much rich stuff in here that folks can take and run with, but obviously, so, you had COVID you lived through the various crises in Texas, dealing with the stuff around the pandemic. Asking a question about balance is difficult, but I actually think it's even more important now because you have to be in a good space to be able to continue to serve your business and your clients. So what are you doing for balance these days?

Deb Cullerton: Sleeping.

Deb Zahn: I'm glad to hear that.

Deb Cullerton: You know what's interesting? You and I, we've joked and laughed and seriously talked over the years about how the universe will force you into things even when you're not good at it. You know this is not my strongest area, I certainly have my hobbies, I love my hobbies. I've had more COVID hobbies than the average person. I kind of float through them faster than the average person so I've had lots of them.

Deb Zahn: Once you master them, yes.

Deb Cullerton: I don't know about that, but I definitely have gone through the painting and the woodworking and the making bread and you know what I mean? I've done them all.  So I have that, but I would also say, having COVID and I don't wish it on anyone, but it really has changed my perspective on things because the fatigue is real. If anyone in your life has had it and they tell you that even months after they've had it, that they're still experiencing wild fatigue, they're not lying. I'm absolutely here to tell you. And I'm the Energizer Bunny, right? So people look at me and they go, "She goes, goes, goes, she's never tired." I am exhausted all the time now.

So what it means is, balance has been thrust upon me. I have no choice now. And now I understand and I've also been graced with an empathy for others that I never had. If I'm totally honest and vulnerable here, I will tell you, I talk a good game when I say, "I know how you feel. I didn't. I just always have energy. I always have a lot of passion for what I do, and I love to do it. But I really do get it now when people say, "I'm exhausted. I need to pull out. I need to regain my energy and my balance." I now understand. The only difference for me is that I physically don't feel like I can do anymore. And so it's stopping me. It's stopping me. It's making me a little bit more choosey about what really are the priorities and what really are not the priorities. What's nice to have and we have to walk our talk and live our game a little bit more.

Deb Zahn: And I hope that lifts, but the habits stay, if I can give you any wish. So I'm going to give mine and you actually know about this because I've been documenting it on social media. I have implemented Mom Time. So Mom Time is at least three hours, once a week. So it's typically Wednesday mornings, we can change it if we want to go on a hike when it's a little bit warmer, that is dedicated time for my mom. Because what wasn't working is... And I see her every day so it's not like she's home and then once a week I go up and see how she's doing. But she wasn't really getting that dedicated time where we could just relax and enjoy. And I wasn't on the clock and I wasn't looking and be like, "My gosh, I got to head back because I got to do X, Y, and Z."

What I did was unusual for me, because usually I like solving puzzles before I do anything, I just said, "You know what? I'm not going to figure how it's going to work ahead of time. I'm just going to implement it. I'm going to hold it sacred. And then if I need to problem solve around it in order to make it more functional, I will." Because my big why in my life is my Mom Time with my mom. She turned 80 this year. She's the Energizer Bunny as well, and I need to keep up with her. But I didn't say, “No, I got to figure out how I'm going to schedule this and arrange this” and all of the machinations that I would typically go through before I implemented it. I just said, "Gorget it. I'm just going to do it because it's the right thing to do. It's why I've made the choices I make in my life, and I will figure out how to make it work." And I figured out how to make it work. It's actually not that hard.

Deb Cullerton: Amazing, right, once you actually dive in and do it?

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And if folks want to follow that, it's on Instagram @momtimeadventures where I basically am posting a little video. Mom doesn't listen to my podcast so I can tell you what I'm going to do. At the end of the year, there'll be 52 videos and I'm going to put it together in a documentary for her.

Deb Cullerton: That's amazing. What a great idea. You're so amazing.

Deb Zahn: It means the world to her. And it's changed her day-to-day life because she's not constantly...and she's a worrier…but she's not constantly adding on to, "My gosh. I'm going to be too much of a burden if I ask for this and ask for this." So Mom Time is if we need to call our insurance company yet again because they can't figure out her prescription drug coverage, we do that. If we want to go on a hike, we do that. Unrestricted time. We can do what we want.

Deb Cullerton: That's fantastic. My mom is also not allowed to listen to your podcasts now. Because you clearly are the better Deb daughter.

Deb Zahn: Exactly. She'll be like, where's my Mom Time?

Deb Cullerton: I want my Mom Time and I want it now.

Deb Zahn: Mom time is just a fun thing.

Deb Cullerton: That's awesome.

Deb Zahn: That was probably one of the best things that I've done for balance recently.

Deb Cullerton: That's fantastic. It really is. That's really cool. I'll be honest. One of the things I did too, was as much as it hurt my pocket, I did go out and find a nice safe alone kind of space as an office and got my office out of the house. Because as much as I'm comfy working there, it's just a little too easy. And I've actually, Deb, gotten to a place where I don't take my computer home.

Deb Zahn: Wow.

Deb Cullerton: There are weekends where I leave the laptop actually here. And so I'm running with just a phone at the house.

Deb Zahn: What did you do with my friend? That's fantastic.

Deb Cullerton: I'm a little proud of that.

Deb Zahn: You should be proud.

Deb Cullerton: I'm a little proud. I'm not going to lie.

Deb Zahn: Well, Deb, thank you so much. I can't even tell you. I knew you were without water and electricity and all that stuff and still dealing with the aftermath of COVID and that you were so generous and willing to do this 100th episode with me. And there wasn't anybody else I wanted to do besides you, but I was willing to let that go. But you were so generous to do this. I can't thank you enough.

Deb Cullerton: It's such a blast, such a blast. I am always energized when I listen to you, when I talk to you, Deb. I wouldn't think of any better way to spend my Monday afternoon here.

Deb Zahn: Thank you.

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 enjoyed this episode or if 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 and 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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