Transcript

Episode 159: A Consulting Business Model with Sustainability and Social Impact—with Kindred Motes

Deb Zahn: Hi. I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting podcast. On this podcast, we are going to talk about how not only to have a profitable consulting business, but to have a sustainable one and one that has social impact and to have sustainability and social impact baked into your business model for your consulting business. And I brought on Kindred Motes, who's going to talk about exactly how he's doing that with his consulting business and it will inspire us all to think of ways that we can do the same. Let's get started.


Hi. Want to welcome to my show today, Kindred Motes. Kindred, welcome to the show.


Kindred Motes: Hi, Deb. Thanks so much for having me.


Deb Zahn: You bet. Let's start off. Tell my listeners what you do.


Kindred Motes: I am the founder and Managing Director of a boutique firm based in Washington, DC, called KM Strategies Group. We do a mixture of different consulting areas but primarily work on social impact communications, advocacy strategies, audience growth and taking strategies that organizations are trying to get to new audiences and reaching the audiences that they're trying to get involved with. I've been really, really fortunate to work with a number of amazing clients in my first year. And before that, I always describe myself as someone who is sort of recovering from the nonprofit sector but never really left it if I'm being honest because most of my work is still in that arena.


Deb Zahn: I hear you. Yeah, me too. I understand that. And today we're going to talk about some really forward-thinking things that you're doing around the people policies for your firm. And I think this is going to be helpful for whether someone's an individual consultant or they're starting their own firm or they're at a firm. The assumption that a lot of people have with consulting is that it's the grind. It's the constant, you have to be available all the time, you work all the time and that scares a lot of people away from consulting or they do it and then they don't have that freedom and flexibility. They're just working all the time. And you are really approaching this from a very different way. What is it that you do differently in your firm to that sort of old stereotype of killing yourself to make money?


Kindred Motes: Yeah, I think it's a very good question. And it's something that I will say in full transparency, I don't think came to me quite naturally. I've really tried to build in balance. As I've been looking back on the first year, I realized that I think I had a little bit of that feast or famine mentality that so many early consultants do where I thought things would either be very, very busy or they would dry up. And I was just to mix metaphors, I described it to a friend because I felt like I was a bit of a chipmunk or a squirrel kind of stuffing the acorns in furiously, just afraid that winter was coming and there wouldn't be anything else. And then I realized that over time, I sort of really had to just learn by doing it, but there were other clients who I had taken on, mentally slotting them to come after a client that I was working with, but one of the clients that I was working with would extend. It was something I hadn't even considered was a possibility.


And I think that's something that maybe a lot of people early on have had to deal with. And so then I was left in a situation where every week became a 70-hour week, an 80-hour week, a 90-hour week, just to get all of that work done because my natural impulse is to say yes. I get excited about the work. I care about the mission. I want them to have a positive impact. And so I had to really at the end of the year, look back and say, "Do I want every year to be this way?" And my answer to myself was I did not. And it didn't feel sustainable both for myself and also ultimately for the client because I think that if you reinforce that sort of relationship sometimes, there are ripple effects that affect the internal staff. And so I really wanted to step back and design something that felt more sustainable.


And the first step in that was in January, telling my clients that I was going to pilot a four-day work week. I'd been doing a lot of reading about particularly in Scandinavia, the sort of government-mandated trial runs there and Helen Peterson, and a number of other people who are in journalism have done some really, really great pieces on it. And I just thought that I wanted to give it a go. And that was my first foray, and I was very surprised that none of my clients balked, nobody thought that it was the end of the world. I had to do some additional planning ahead and some managing up or over-communicating sometimes but it was really, really positive.


And so that got me kind of going down this path of the things that I think we'll talk about a little bit on this podcast around, “Well, if I've stuck my toe in, let's actually sit down and think, what does it mean to be sustainable?” I think if we're working in a field, particularly in the nonprofit or nonprofit advocacy side of things or social impact side of things, where I felt I had a responsibility to have social impact show up not just in my work, but in my behaviors, in my practices, in my company. And I think it's always much easier to change the direction of a rowboat before it's a speedboat and a speedboat before it's a cruise ship. And I think that that's where a lot of companies run into these issues is they try to change it but it's sort of embedded in their DNA and who they are and how they operate. And so I wanted to, to the extent that I could, correct for that early on.


Deb Zahn: I love that. And I will tell you, so when I, previous to being independent, I worked at a consulting firm, and I did a four-day week. I was willing to sacrifice whatever I needed to sacrifice to make that happen, and it was life-changing. It changed everything. But one thing I noticed when I did it is it wasn't just communicating to my clients and then it was done, and I was going to behave as if I had a four-day week. I turned out to be a bigger problem than what I thought it was. What was your experience when you made that transition? And what did you have to correct for?


Kindred Motes: Yeah, I think it's so funny that you bring this up because I felt like I was secretly working still on Fridays for weeks. I tried to sort of recalibrating it in my mind to think about it initially as, I'm going to take this day as a sort of personal administrative day. I'm going to work on the invoices. I'm going to work on the accounting, I'm going to work on the website maintenance or all the other kind of technical components that consultants and especially individual consultants know all too well that your own HR team, legal team, tech team, and the accounting department. I tried that at first just to sort of wean myself off of the model. And over time, I've tried to think of it as a bit of a rest and recharge day and if it's not that, I think of it as a sort of creative endeavors day.


Deb Zahn: Oh, nice.


Kindred Motes: I think back to early to mid 2000s. I think, Google got a lot of positive press for having a sort of one for me, four for thee, kind of model where the Google staff could work on something creative on one day of the week and that's kind of where I ended up taking it for a while. And now I'm really just trying to think about it as I'm working on scaling up the team and adding in more capacity, not necessarily thinking about it as a four day work week, Monday to Thursday written in stone all the time, but to allow each person on the team, each contractor, each subcontractor, each strategic advisor to determine which days work best for them or which times work for them and really kind of have continual coverage across a number of things because that is important for clients.


But I think having that balance is so important for creatives too. And especially when I've been doing a lot of reading about consulting in the first year, and I operate on a sort of constant 20 to 30 Google Chrome tab life, where I'm opening new things to read and check out. And as I whittled my way down, I got to a piece that talked about how 58% of consultants said that they were constantly experiencing signs of burnout. And I think that ultimately, if you are in a creative industry, which I think most of us are or a management industry and your job is to either innovate, create or ideate, I think you really owe yourself but also the client, the ability to recharge because ultimately, we can't be innovative, creative if we're completely depleted. I think that that's how I started to rethink it and think of taking time off, not as being lazy or not operating at my full potential, but rather as giving myself time to reach my full potential by not constantly burning the candle at both ends.


Deb Zahn: I love it. And I love that part of this process was the reframing that you just talked about because I think the biggest piece for a lot of people is giving themselves permission to do it because whether they've got a certain version of a work ethic in their head or definitions of laziness or definitions of productivity and a lot of should-ing on ourselves that gets in our way of saying, know what actually allows me to be at peak performance when I need to be at peak performance.


Kindred Motes: Exactly.


Deb Zahn: I love it that you talk about that. Now your clients, when you told them accepted it, did you have to though figure out any strategies around managing it? Because again, I told my clients and then they're still like, "Well, can you meet this Friday?"


Kindred Motes: Yeah, I think that definitely did happen every now and again. And fortunately, I do, and I really do mean fortunately, I think my relationship within consulting and the type of clients I work with really helped here because they are human rights, civil rights, nonprofits, social justice organizations, philanthropies that are trying to invest in positive social change. I think it made it a little easier, but I think at the same time, maybe it didn't because the mentality in the nonprofit world, as you know, is often because you are committed, you will give that extra time or you'll show up when you're not technically working. What I tried to do initially was just send reminder emails on Wednesday or Thursday, kind of pinging folks saying, "If you need something sooner, please let me know because we're implementing the four day work week and building out a calendar where if there were things that were coming up, I could plan in advance to get something that would be happening on Friday to a client by Wednesday or by Tuesday to build in that iteration time for edits, revisions, discussions."


But I do think that it certainly is challenging early on, just added a signature that included a link to a piece I wrote and put on my website, which I think I would encourage anyone to do because it's a chance to, if you pilot a similar sort of model, at the bottom, it says something like KM Strategies is observing a four day work week. To learn more about why, read this piece. And I link to all the research and the Atlantic articles and the New Yorker articles and all the things about people who are trying it. And I say in that piece, "I understand that my own individual decision, I'm under no delusions of grandeur." I was a solo operator and didn't think that I was going to shift the culture radically, but I did feel that if you are in a position, as a freelancer, as a small business owner, as a consultant, to make that change for you. You also kind of have an obligation to talk about it for the people who can't do that for themselves but would benefit greatly from that.


And so I felt societal change doesn't always happen in one great wave, but I think it can be a series of very small ripples. And so I wanted to try and enact that on my side. And I felt that with the clients I had, I was in a really well-positioned place to try and do that because I felt they would be receptive to the idea.


Deb Zahn: I love that. In my tagline, I give my pronouns, and then I have a little link that you can click on that says, "Why am I doing it?" And then you can go, and it explains it. Is it going to change the world? But no, I think every little piece moves us in the right direction.


That's wonderful. I love that you're thinking early on about not just a profitable consultancy but a sustainable one. What are the other things that you're doing that fit into that category of sustainability and social impact?


Kindred Motes: Something that I'm trying out as part of my growth period, I sort of realized that I could either scale down or scale up, but I couldn't continue as I was. And so I'm bringing on some new team members next month. By the time this is coming out, I think it will be hopefully something out in the world. And I'm trying to design a team from the beginning that sort of has sustainability and wellness built-in from before the team members even come on to the team and well after they leave. And so what that means is, I wanted to try a couple of different things. In addition to the four-day work week, we are implementing a four-week mandatory paid time off policy.


Deb Zahn: Yay.


Kindred Motes: Yeah. That's different from an unlimited paid time off policy in the sense that I'd done a lot of reading as well on unlimited paid time off policies and statistically, most of the time they result in fewer days taken, not more because there's this abstraction of how much is too much. And well, if I take seven days off and somebody else takes 15, then do I start thinking of them as taking too much time off and resenting them? Or if you're the person who takes 15, do you feel this pressure to take fewer because nobody else is taking that many? And so I didn't want that degree of ambiguity. I really wanted there to be, you're going to be required to take four weeks off, which for us is a four day work week is 16 days. And that's the mandatory minimum. It's not the minimum and the maximum, the floor and the ceiling but it is what we're requiring. And so that's one piece.


The other is that we are providing up to 12 weeks of paid family leave at 100% of pay using a kind of a combination model because there is no requirement right now in the United States and that is just absolutely a real shame to me and something I can never really get beyond, having lived in Europe. Those are two pieces.


The other is paid mental health days and health and wellness costs built into part-time staff and contractor rates. Because as I can attest, as many of your listeners can attest, freelancers don't get those sorts of benefits. And there are 59 million freelance workers in the United States right now and growing. The great resignation has meant that people are really striking out on their own and they don't have that safety net. And so I want to build those costs or things like the average solo entrepreneur, healthcare, health insurance rate into the rates that we're paying because we can't provide benefits to contractors or subcontractors but I want to make sure that they are covered if they're not a full-time employee because not everybody is going to get that because it just doesn't match the reality of our working experience and our work lives anymore. I want to make sure that's something that is being covered.


But when I mentioned the component of sort of before you start with us and after you leave, what that means is I also wanted to provide one week of paid leave built into your contract before you even start because so many people leave one job, they're absolutely exhausted. They've given it everything they have and then the next day they're starting a new thing and it just matched our ethos that if you're a creative, if you're meant to be coming in with innovation and a desire to really move the needle, I want you to come in recharged and excited. That's another piece.


And then when you leave, so many people don't trust their employers, they don't have a good experience and they have to go through the process of breaking open their Rolodex or opening LinkedIn and figuring out who can be a reference for me? And ultimately that hurts the employer and the employee because they don't have someone who can speak to the amazing work they're doing right now. It hurts the employer as well because when they leave, if they don't give any advanced notice and it is just a standard two weeks or even less, there's client work that I think really suffers as a result.


And so I wanted to make sure that part of our policies include when you decide that it's not the right thing for you anymore or you don't feel challenged maybe in the same way or you want another opportunity and you love the job but it's just something you've outgrown, I want to create an environment where we can talk about that and we work with you essentially as a client of ours. And we advise what does it look like to spiff up your CV or your resume? How do we help you as a reference? How do we get you where you want to go?


Because ultimately, I think that so many people in this sector maybe think of it, not because they want to, but because I think it's sort of imposed upon us as a mindset of scarcity, not of abundance. And I really wanted to actively fight that and make sure that people are getting what they need. And ultimately, I feel like we will be better served by that as a company and as individuals who care about each other, taking care of whoever is leaving because at some point, somewhere down the line, they're going to be in a decision-making capacity about who to work with. If their new team needs some support, needs some capacity and I want that to be us because I want it to be a good relationship and I want it to be something that they're proud of. I've always thought of it that way of trying to create a model where we could almost honor the alumna of the team.


Deb Zahn: I love that. Let ask, so this is all music to my ears, and I love how specific the details are, so it's not just, we hope to help people but it's very specific things that you're doing that are actually structured to achieve the actual outcome you want, which I think is wonderful. Where does this come from in your life, that here a year into your consultancy, you want to flip things in this really wonderful direction? Where does that come from?


Kindred Motes: I think a lot of it for me is really just being rooted in the nonprofit model. I think maybe sometimes to my detriment, I am operating a for-profit business like a nonprofit organization. I will say I've been very, very fortunate and I always tell people that I think there's a zero-sum thinking that to do good and to pay forward social impact and to really be focused on impact, you have to forego profit. I don't think that's true. I think that you can certainly make a good living and I feel really fortunate to have been able to in the first year. But I think so much of it for me comes from that mentality that we are stewards of things and we have to take care of them and we have to be transparent and we have to be accountable.


And it's something that my mother and my father and my grandparents were all small business owners, were involved in small businesses. And I think I'm trying to operate my consultancy as a true sort of Main Street small business and think about how do we pay forward what we've been fortunate to get to do, to experience, to people who can't maybe have a consultant or can't afford additional support. So to that end, something that I'm really excited about is we are announcing that we are committing ourselves to a minimum of 10% of our annual revenue before expenses every year as a social impact award, which would be a grant to a nonprofit organization. And in the first year, anyway, we're doing it in the Deep South in Appalachia because that's where I'm from. I grew up in Northern Alabama and when you look at philanthropic dollars and where money is coming in from corporations from philanthropy, it is by far the most under-invested region.


And I wanted to really think about, what does it mean to pay it forward to the communities that make you who you are? What does is like to operate as a small town USA Main Street business, even if you're on K Street in Washington? What is it like to not only leave a place but also kind of come back and be involved in it? And so that's what we're going to do. We're announcing in the first year, it's a $30,000 general operating grant with no restrictions, to an organization in the Deep South or Appalachia. And then we're going to provide an additional $15,000 in pro bono consulting because we realize that sometimes that's just as valuable if not more so. Just having additional support and staff that can help you think about your social media strategy, your philanthropic donor strategy, your thought leadership, even just writing an op-ed, getting your news or voice into the public space.


I think that experience, coming from the nonprofit world and having worked in philanthropy, I really wanted to be more transparent and more accountable. And I felt that for example, with the 10%, philanthropies are required by law to give out 5% of their operating endowments revenue every year. And I wanted to say, "Well, what if the for-profit community was held to a higher standard than philanthropy, not a lower standard because they're making more money? What if we flip the script and the model was actually that those who are making money, not just charged with giving it away were actually giving a higher percentage?"


And so that's what I'm trying to do. And I think it takes a little bit of a leap of faith when you look at what is on your balance sheets compared to other but I'm really excited to see how that goes. And I ultimately believe that we work with a lot of foundations and philanthropies, high net worth individuals, in advising how to give money away. And ultimately it feels like this is the best way to advise, by actually doing it ourselves, seeing how it goes, being a little bold and risky and reporting back.


Deb Zahn: Yeah. And again, the details I'm impressed with. Having worked in the philanthropic sector and worked for them many, many times, that you're giving general operating support is fabulous because what often happens is dollars go out, as you will know well, and then there's control associated with that as opposed to democratizing giving so that the folks who need it and are in the best position to say what the best use of it is or who is actually making that decision. I got to applaud that because part of what I do is try and talk foundations into doing that because having been at a foundation, thinking we know best if that was going to work, it would've worked is how I would say it.


Kindred Motes: Yeah. I think that's so true. And I think maybe part of that is me being on the receiving side of grants as well, as well as the granting side. Realizing that if you really aren't giving general operating, sometimes you're creating more of a burden than you're alleviating. You can be creating an entire program or program staff that is a line item in an organization's budget that they didn't budget for and didn't necessarily think they needed but they now feel like they have to spend just because that's the only way they can get your money. And we really didn't want to do that. And just to that point, I'll say something I'm really excited about is coming from that philanthropic lens, I really didn't want it to be all about the organization. And I didn't want the decision-making power to only lie with us.


I'm really, really excited to say that we've got a really great diverse team of people with a bunch of different sectors and lived experiences and roles, who are serving as the advisory committee for that award. They are actually the ones who are going to be working with our team to make that ultimate decision. And they reflect advocacy organizations, policy organizations, philanthropic organizations but they're not part of our in-house staff because I ultimately believe that when I was in the nonprofit world, I worked in criminal justice reform in particular most recently. And there was a saying that was coined in that movement, that those who are most proximate to the problem are the ones who should be informing the solution. And I really think that that is something that I would love to see more businesses and more corporate social responsibility teams building into their strategy.


How do we bring people from the lived experience and from the communities and the localities and the places that we're trying to invest in and the issues that we're trying to mitigate or support? What if they were the ones who were actually deciding what it was used for? And so I really wanted to try and build that into our approach as well.


Deb Zahn: Oh man. I got to tell you how much I love that. I would say that that is generally too because again, I do work related to health equity and other things. The old approaches of top-down. We're going to tell you what to do and tell you how to spend these dollars and how you should formulate solutions, if that was going to work, it would've and it didn't. And if we didn't know that, COVID showed us it didn't. I applaud that you're taking this approach. If folks want to not just find out about you but also witness this beautiful path that you're going down and see how it goes for you, so hopefully they get inspired to do it themselves, where can they find you?


Kindred Motes: Our website is kmstrategiesgroup.com and I'm also on Twitter @kindredmotes, like kind and red together and Motes like notes but with an M. I've gotten really good at that from years at Starbucks. We are excited to have people follow along. If you are an organization that is a nonprofit organization and you fit the folks that we're trying to get in front of with this award, I would also encourage you to visit and please apply. We've kept the application intentionally very short because we want it to be equitable and accessible. Again, that's kmstrategiesgroup.com.


Deb Zahn: Wonderful. And we will have links to all of that in the show notes. Let me ask you this last question because we've talked about it a bit with the four-day week but how do you personally, as you're building this beautiful thing and in the way that you're talking about it, how do you bring balance to your own life, however, it is you define that?


Kindred Motes: This is going to sound like I'm playing to a hometown crowd, but I really love listening to podcasts. I really, really do. I go on very, very long walks. When I was doing AmeriCorps in my early twenties, I started walking just to be outside of the house because I was living with seven other people, and it really stuck. I love, love going on long walks. It's where I process my day. It's where I think about any issues I'm having. But listening to podcasts, going on long walks, cooking, I think because I work in a space that is not so tactical, in the quite literal sense, tactile, I like to do something with my hands at the end of the day and make a meal. My fiancé, who is a surgeon is the exact opposite. It's a relationship that works quite literally.


We try and build things like that into our lives because it is so hectic. And the last thing I'll say is I tried in, so I started in 2020, trying to read a book every month. And now my new caveat is I want to read a book every month but none of them can be remotely classified as productivity. They can't be related to consulting. They can't be related to how to optimize something in my life. I still read those, but it has to be truly for pleasure. Lots of novels, which makes my English undergraduate heart really, really happy.


Deb Zahn: Oh, that's wonderful. Oh, I love those answers. Well Kindred, thank you so much for joining me today. My hope is that other folks feel as inspired as I do. And I am certainly going to pause and reflect on my businesses and think about if social impact were near and dear to me as it is, what would that look like in my business? I appreciate that you've offered so many clarifying details about what that could look like.


Kindred Motes: Thank you so much, Deb. I really appreciate the chance to talk with you.


Deb Zahn: 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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So as always, you can go and get more wonderful information and tools at craftofconsulting.com. Thanks so much. I will talk to you on the next episode. Bye-bye.