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Episode 144: Getting and Leveraging a Dream Consulting Engagement—with Anna Michaels-Boffy and Abby Leeper Gibson

Deb Zahn: Hi, I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. So on this episode, I'm going to talk to two consultants, who are still relatively new in consulting, but they landed a dream contract. And by dream contract, I mean work that they got into consulting to do. And they're going to talk about how they got that business, how they delighted the client and how they're going to use this engagement to get other dream gigs. So Anna Michaels-Boffy and Abby Leeper Gibson are my guests, and they're going to break it all down for you. It's a great story. I can't wait to get started.

Hi, I want to welcome to my show today, Anna Michaels-Boffy and Abby Leeper Gibson. Welcome to the show. I’m so happy to have you on.

Anna Michaels-Boffy: Thank you for having us.

Abby Leeper Gibson: Thank you so much.

Deb Zahn: So I'm personally really excited because I am super invested in your success. So I'm delighted to have you on and talk about some client work that you did. But let's start off, tell my listeners what you do.

Anna Michaels-Boffy: Yeah, we are a strategic communications firm called All In Strategic Consulting, and we started earlier this year. We both took the leap to leave our nine-to-five jobs in February. Thanks a lot to Deb's podcast and courses that she helped us through. Actually, we're very monumental in our willingness and readiness to actually move on to doing this on our own. But yeah, we do all different kinds of strategic communication work. We do media relations and public relations. We help with content development and help with key messages for organizations. Primarily, our clients are nonprofits, government entities, and small businesses. Really just people who are looking to connect with the people that they serve.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. And we're going to talk today about a specific project that you did, which when I saw you did it, I got really excited because I love what it is. But we also thought it'd be helpful to walk through from how you heard about it all the way through doing the engagement itself and then what happens afterwards, step by step what that process was like. So we're going to talk about what work you did for the Colorado Independent Redistricting Commission. Yay! So what is it that the client actually wanted; what were they trying to accomplish?

Abby Leeper Gibson: Sure. We were brought on by the Colorado Independent Redistrict Commission and Legislative Staff. So this is a group of folks who work out of the state legislature as staff. They’re nonpartisan. And they were tasked with steering the ship regarding Colorado's first-ever independent commission that was going to determine redistricting and those maps that come along with that for the next 10 years. Where they were looking for support was with their strategic communication and community outreach.

So we, Anna and I got really excited when we learned about this opportunity and we have both worked in...I worked in state government. Anna has worked in the political field for some time. And so we really got word about this opportunity through our network and then thought, wow, we'd love strategic communication. We love the state of Colorado. And if we can help people understand this process and get involved in this process that's a win-win.

Deb Zahn: That's fantastic. And it sure highlights the importance of networks and being able to actually get business, so that's wonderful. What was the process of actually getting hired? I imagine because it's a state, it was a several-step process.

Abby Leeper Gibson: It was, yes. So we first came across a Request for Quotes, which was a little different than our request for proposal in that they already had the scope of work lined out for us. And we went in to describe why we thought we would be the best firm for this role and then gave them basically a budget for what we thought it would take to make it happen. After we submitted that, we were fortunate to receive a request for an interview that was via Zoom. So we, of course, put on our best top and fancy pants, and got in front of our cameras to talk to the legislative staff about why we thought we'd be able to add value to what they wanted to do.

Deb Zahn: Now, other than picking out just the right top and making sure that your pajama bottoms weren't visible, I know you prepped because I know you are fans of prepping in the same way that I am. So when you were approaching this process, obviously it's more than a quote. They’re not just going to pick it off of a number, they're going to consider the number, but they're not just going to pick it. How did you prepare?

Anna Michaels-Boffy: The way that we did it, I believe, is we took our hourly rate that we were aiming for and then we told them what our hourly rate was and then we said, “We'll give you a discount because we really care about this effort,” and they took it. So that was great. I think the other thing was they had a budget that they had to like stay in. And so they basically were like, "What can you do in this many hours and half of this much money?" And so we were like, "Yeah, we can do this." And then maybe about six weeks in, she was like, "Do you need more hours?" And we're like, "Sure."

Deb Zahn: Now that you're asking, yes.

Anna Michaels-Boffy: Yeah.

Abby Leeper Gibson: Yeah, exactly. And going back to, I think how we prepared as well, was one thing that Anna and I, a reason we wanted to get into this business was to help people communicate with their communities. And so we try to really position ourselves in the interview as, “We love that this is first of all a nonpartisan opportunity that is going to pick people from all sorts of walks of life and backgrounds, and hear what they have to say. And then also, tell them how redistricting can impact their life moving forward. If we can get those open lines of communication, that is exactly the type of work we want to be doing.” And so I do think that our passion around that resonated in the interview, and then subsequently we were offered the engagement within a few days, which is so exciting.

Deb Zahn: So let me ask another question related to that, so I think passion resonating, they have to see it and they have to see that it's real. But you said earlier about your backgrounds as both being with the state and then also doing facilitation, stakeholder engagement and things like that. Because if I'm working at a state because I work for states, but if I'm actually employed there, I want someone who gets me. And if I have this important work around a high-stakes project, I want someone who gets how to get out there and talk to a variety of different folks. So how did you talk about yourselves so that they understood, we've got all the bases covered?

Abby Leeper Gibson: I think we were really able to leverage my communications work with the state. I have worked with a division as a staff person in Colorado and worked with a variety of different industry partners as well as media partners. And then, as well as being a part of the bureaucratic organization. I know what hoops are there to jump through in certain circumstances. So we are able to communicate that we know how the state operates, were able to come in and just try to make your job easier. And that said, if there are certain things we need to work around for the sake of the work and transparency, let's make sure we know that up-front.

Anna Michaels-Boffy: Yeah. And I will also add that I think, while we have worked in politics in the past, we also have a lot more understanding of other types of communities that are all around the state. So we aren't just really siloed in like, “Oh, we need to bring in this politician or whatever.” We know a lot more about different industries and businesses that really are highlighted in certain parts of the state, so we had that knowledge to bring to the table as well.

And then I think another thing that they probably found good, which I think we were nervous about, was because we're a newer firm. We were worried that they would think we didn't have as much to bring. But I think the fact that we didn't have a whole list of political experience or candidates that we've backed, we really did help them walk the line of nonpartisan work. Because regardless of what our personal political affiliations are, we both really care about bringing all different perspectives to the table, so I think they knew that we would really prioritize that instead of just focusing on a certain type of voice that we are bringing.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. What I loved most about that is you took something that could have been perceived as a weakness, which is, “Hey, we're out of town or “No, we're not in Colorado,” and you flipped it around to be, “Hey, we're not showing up with baggage, with all the political baggage that folks who are within the state maybe, no fault of their own, but carrying it with them.” And that's some of the prep that I think is so important is to think, what could they ding us on, or what could be perceived as a weakness and is there a way legitimately it's a strength and then if that's true, how do we talk about it. So that's great, well done. That's like Jedi stuff. That's wonderful.

So when you got the gig, which was just fantastic, they obviously were impressed because then they said, do you want to do more. What happened during the engagement? What did you actually like about it once you were in the midst of it?

Anna Michaels-Boffy: I think for us, we really loved working with the commissioners. So there were 12 commissioners on each commission. There’s a congressional one and a legislative one. And they all came from really different backgrounds and parts of the state, and really had a genuine desire to make this process work. And they were really passionate and dedicated, so I think that was great. We were brought on also to help a lot with their messaging early on too, so they went around the state to put on public hearings to hear from residents. And we helped with the video that was presented at the beginning of the hearings, just to make sure that the constitution is written very legalese type of stuff, wording. And so we wanted to make sure that the public really understood what the process was and that it was very transparent. So that was really fun to just kick off and dive right into the process to help them kick off the public hearing road show that they were doing.

Deb Zahn: Fabulous.

Abby Leeper Gibson: I would also say another thing that we love about the process was the ability to work with media across Colorado and really leverage our relationships with them, and those that we were building to help tell the story of why redistricting is important and why people should care. And the media landscape in Colorado is fairly robust and reaches all four corners of states and from a statewide outlet to a community paper posting about the upcoming public hearings, we got to see all sorts of engagement from that end. And then you see people resharing articles on social media, people commenting like, oh, we need to get to this hearing next week, that's always really encouraging.

Deb Zahn: Wow. Especially for such a wonky topic.

Abby Leeper Gibson: Yeah.

Deb Zahn: That's really great. And how did you with your client define what success was and then be able to actually track it? Because that's one thing during the consulting engagement, we talked a little bit ahead of time. If the client and the consultant don't agree on what success looks like and how you're actually in the best possible way going to measure it, things can go terribly awry. So how did you folks do that?

Anna Michaels-Boffy: So a couple of the staffers had done redistricting the last time, so 10 years ago, and they had told us what they found successful and that they wish were different this coming time. And so it was nice to have that perspective of, this worked and this didn't work. And I think initially, a lot of their desire was to make sure that the public hearings were well attended. They would say, there were some hearings and only two people came. And so I think that's something that we really put as a top priority, is to make sure that they were well attended. And I would say, most of them really were very well attended and so that was a good guidepost that we could try to achieve for them. I guess, for success, they really wanted to hand off all that media inquiry and prep to somebody else. And so I think success to them was that they would have to be mostly hands off on that.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, yeah. And they wouldn't have to, if it went awry, if things went south, they'd suddenly have to jump back in, so that's great. And yours was a little bit easier because if you're looking at engagement, you can actually count heads, you can count how many people actually did things. Was that something that you were working with a client on tracking and you communicating back to them? So throughout the process, they were able to say, hey, what? Check it out, this thing is working.

Abby Leeper Gibson: Yeah, absolutely. So we established weekly status meetings and basically from day one, we kept a tracker that kept track of all of the media coverage that we were getting and that was seen from across the state, including national coverage that came through. So we could all just monitor that and keep a pulse of what was going on. If we saw something hit on social media that needed to be amplified, we communicate that. I think having those regular check-ins was really valuable because it allowed us to make sure we're on the same page, as well as support where the client needed support. Even if that shifted a little bit throughout the course of the engagement, which was about six months and often done.

Deb Zahn: What were some of those shifts and how'd you handle them? Because that's typical in engagements, even if there's an RFP or RFQ that outlines everything at the beginning, they're still often shift. So how did you manage those?

Abby Leeper Gibson: I think one way that we managed that was just consistent communication. So we were hired by the legislative staff, but then we're also supporting 24 commissioners. So as Anna said, 12 on the legislative side, 12 on the congressional side and with a variety of political backgrounds and leanings. And occasionally, we were asked to do things by the commissioners who hadn't necessarily been communicating with staff about one thing or another. They throw something at us and we're like, “OK, well, we have a budget; we have our hours. We need to make sure that this is a priority for everybody”. So let's make sure that we're all in communication about what's going on. So we would just flag that and for the client, and make sure that it was something that they agreed with, that needed to be done. And more often than not it was fine, it just needed to be communicated.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. I love how casually you said it. And yet, which is great, but this is the stumbling block that so many consultants and I, by the way, consultants who've been doing this a long time, which is, once scope creep happens and it always happens. And yours was right for it because essentially, you had various bosses in various places who didn't know all the details. A lot of places would've just done it and if it was out of scope or out of budget, they wouldn't have charged for it. Or they would've just flat out said, no, we can't do that, that's not in the scope and now they're pissing people off. So I want to point out that as casually as you said that, it's a big deal. Because I know consultants who've been doing this 10, 15 years who would just suck it up and lose the money. So well played, I like that.

Abby Leeper Gibson: Thank you.

Anna Michaels-Boffy: There were even a couple times that there were things that they asked us to do that, yeah, weren't in our original scope. We weren't even sure if we knew how to do it. So an example would be me making a video recording on PowerPoint. I’ve never done that and putting voice-over to it and everything. And they're just like, "Can you do this?" And we're like, "Well, we'll figure it out." And then we did. And that was nice because I think a lot of times when you see scope of work, when you're sending in a proposal and you see things that you don't really know how to do and then you get nervous.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Anna Michaels-Boffy: Well, maybe I'm not qualified for this because I don't know how to make a PowerPoint video and then maybe you wouldn't apply for it. This was a nice kind of just like, well, I guess we'll figure it out and then it worked out, which is nice because we didn't have to necessarily commit to knowing how to do that ahead of time.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And now you know how to do it, so now you can put on your website that, that's available.

Abby Leeper Gibson: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: And I'll start with you Abby. What do you feel like you got out of this engagement? Other than you earned some revenue, what did you get out of it?

Abby Leeper Gibson: Yeah, I think as someone who had worked for the state of Colorado before, I felt like I had a fairly decent understanding of how the different communities across the state operate. But what I loved about this opportunity was that, it took us in such a deep dive in some of these places and got to hear from so many interesting people. And I got to learn a lot more of the nuance around different communities across the state and I really enjoyed that. I would say I also really loved the relationship building that came along with the opportunity. I said earlier, we worked with a lot of media partners. I mean, as a public relations professional, those relationships they're so critical and being able to meet such smart, talented people in the media landscape in Colorado is really great.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And now you have those relationships, which is beautiful. Anna, what about you?

Anna Michaels-Boffy: I think for me, the thing I was most surprised about this experience was how much people really did participate in the process. And I realized that, if you build it, they will come type of thing. But if you create an opportunity for people to have their voice heard and speak about their communities, and their businesses, and their livelihoods, they will come. And I think just, what I learned the most is that if you create more of those opportunities, we can learn so much more from people and create better communities and understanding across all different perspectives.

Deb Zahn: Love it. Now, you've done this, you obviously, got out of it, what you talked about and I'm sure more. How do you plan on leveraging this work? So it's done, it's got a bow wrapped up, good things happen. How are you going to leverage this to be able to get to do more good things in the world?

Anna Michaels-Boffy: What was really awesome about this opportunity is when we got together to start this firm, our mission was to bring voices together for a greater impact. And I don't even really know if we knew exactly what type of project that would entail to have that opportunity, and this really was that. We brought all different voices together. So I think now that we have that experience, hearing from all these people around the state and working with all different political affiliations, I think this can really help us niche ourselves into being more of a nonpartisan, bipartisan inclusive firm that really seeks to understand and help make a difference. And so I think we can leverage this opportunity that we took the last whatever, six or seven months, listening to people and diving really deep, and we can use that for other projects people might be working on.

Deb Zahn: That's great. What do you think, Abby? How would you try and leverage this?

Abby Leeper Gibson: Yeah, I completely agree. I think, so often, especially these days with how politicized things are, people forget that we're all humans, right. And we all have things in common and then we have things that we disagree on. But if we sit across the table and can discuss it in a civil way, I mean, that really helps. That makes a world of difference. So I think taking this experience in that we were able to bring and the support bringing a lot of people together that didn't always be eye to eye, but we're all able to move forward from it. I think that's absolutely an experience we can grow from and leverage in the future.

Deb Zahn: Yeah because it's rare. So often, and you know this, when you bring together folks from different perspectives, it's a fight, it doesn't always end well and bringing that many commissioners together...I've been in rooms with three commissioners and things got dicey. And to be able to bring that many folks together and to have them walk out having had a good experience and feeling good about what's actually happening, to be able to brag about that and I know you two are not braggers, I will brag about it for you, is monumental because not everyone can do that. And so the unique ability to make something like that happen is rare and certainly worth leveraging. Because if you can take some of that goodness, other places you can make a lot of other good things happen. Beautiful, that's wonderful.

Well, I have been really excited to hear about this because again, I saw it on social media, and I'm a big fan of nonpartisan redistricting so much, so I'd love to see you do this in every single state. But also because it's an opportunity to think through like, “Well, how do you get engagements like this? And then what do you do in engagements like this?” So I think that's really valuable.

Let me ask you this. So you know what my last question is and you're ready for it. Which is, you're doing all this good stuff in the world, how is it that you bring balance to your life? However, it is that looks for you or you think about that right now.

Anna Michaels-Boffy: I think honestly, just even going off on our own to have our own business has created balance that we didn't have before. I'm a new mom. I have a one-year-old. And being able to take him to swim lessons in the middle of the day is a nice balance to just take your mind off of other things going on. But I also really love that I have an outlet to be creative and strategic in my work life. And so I think the balance is being able to live life with your family, travel, but then also do good work in the community.

Deb Zahn: Beautiful. All right Abby, what about you?

Abby Leeper Gibson: Yeah, I mean, I second everything Anna just said. I think balance for me, first of all, as you know, I'm an expecting mother.

Deb Zahn: Yay!

Abby Leeper Gibson: Yay. I'm expecting my first child in May, and so doing a lot of thought around how I can be the best mom when the time comes. And that means carving out time for myself, for my family and in addition to work, right. And I think like Anna said, having the opportunity to work for ourselves and be able to take time when we need to, to go walk the dog or go run errands. I'm just feeling really tired today, I'm going to sign off a little early and we're communicating our needs, I think that's been really critical for me. And a real opportunity that, like Anna said, you were a real inspiration to us to get to this point. So thank you so much, keep doing the great work that you're doing and we will just keep fangirling over you every chance we get.

Deb Zahn: And I will be watching the development in your business and in your lives. And love that you share both of those things because that's the whole point to this and I love that you're actually able to live that dream. So thank you so much for joining me today.

Anna Michaels-Boffy: Thank you Deb, this was awesome. It was such a whirlwind to have listened to you, your podcast a year ago, and we're binging all your episodes and now we're on it. So that's completed.

Deb Zahn: That how it happens in life. If you're doing the right stuff, that's how it happens.

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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