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Episode 178: Helping Consulting Clients with Growth—with Heather Gould

​​Deb Zahn: Hi. I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. So in this podcast, we are going to talk about how to work with your consulting clients when what they care about is growth. And we're going to talk about growth across a few different dimensions. And we’re going to dive into how you actually work with them.

So from the moment they say that they care about growth, and you trying to help them figure out what that means all the way through helping them achieve their goals. And I brought on an absolute expert in this, Heather Gould.

This is what she works with companies to do, and she's going to really spill the beans about some of the things that she does to make sure that they're on the right track and, ultimately, they get what they want. So let's get started.

I want to welcome to the show today, Heather Gould. Heather, welcome to the show.

Heather Gould: Thanks so much, Deb. Great to be here.

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

Heather Gould: I'm a strategic growth consultant and I typically work with early stage or middle market companies to help them grow, and I'll say navigate obstacles to growth because I tend to see two different kinds of client. One is the company that has stalled outgrowth, and they're not entirely sure what to change, or maybe they think they have a lifestyle business and they kind of start floating along. And the other client I tend to see is a company that is involved in hyper-growth, and they tend to move really fast. This old saying of move fast and break things. They tend to be acquisition heavy. They tend to be growth heavy, and they don't necessarily pause to deal with some of the fractures that happen as it relates to growth.

Deb Zahn: That's great. And we are going to dig into those two in a little bit because goodness knows I've seen those. So we're actually going to, no surprise, talk about growth and also the managing the growth side. And I think this is critical for consultants because I've seen this over and over again with my clients and I work with nonprofit healthcare organizations, but there isn't an industry that I know that isn't having some type of conversations about growth within companies or organizations.

So I think this will be good to get someone who knows this really well to talk to us about how we should be looking about this or thinking about this. So let's start off. This is always something I've found when any of my clients start to talk about growth is I start to see that everybody is thinking about it in a different way and they're not on the same page with how they define it. So when you're working with companies, how do they define it so that you know what you should be doing with them?

Heather Gould: That's such a great question. It honestly varies, and that's something I have to dig into very early on. Sometimes it's operationally focused, meaning they've got great pipeline, their marketing funnel is fabulous, their sales team is clicking right along, but there may be process or operational issues that keep that growth from getting operationalized, I'll say.

In other cases, they may be really working to figure out how to go to market. With early-stage companies, a lot of times you're talking about go to market from the very earliest conversations. And so it's what does our pricing need to look like? What is that marketing funnel? How do we think about our customers? How do we think about our buyers?

So I have to be very thoughtful in terms of listening to where my clients are in their own growth cycle and their own life cycle of their business to understand what problem we really might be trying to solve. And in a lot of cases, they may present one issue as the problem they think they've got. And with a little bit of distillation and a little bit of digging, you discovered there's actually something totally else at work that needs much more attention more quickly.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, that's a perfect thing to say because I've seen folks say, "We want to serve more people." But what they really are having a problem with is they need revenue growth and they think that's the solution for it, as opposed to you're really talking about revenue growth and now you've opened up a whole bunch of different options that we could consider in terms of how you do that.

Heather Gould: Yes.

Deb Zahn: So that's good.

Heather Gould: And I'm a big believer that pipeline solves a lot of problems. Having a nice healthy pipeline not only illuminates where there might be some structural issues, but it also allows you to forgive some sins along the way. So if you've got a nice healthy revenue growth, it gives you some options.

But I've also seen customers who have terrific revenue growth, but they're headed straight for a plateau or straight for an inflection point and they don't know how to navigate that.

Deb Zahn: That's right. That's right. Or they haven't grown internally enough to be able to manage what they're doing.

Heather Gould: Yes.

Deb Zahn: So let's just say, for example, there were times of turmoil. Imagine what that looks like. How would you encourage clients that you're working with to think about growth maybe in a different way when there's more uncertainty about what the future holds?

Heather Gould: I think there are a couple of things. One is getting really clear on what kind of company you want to be. And I think during times of uncertainty, it can be tempting to try a lot of different things and to try to experiment and guess where the market's going. And I see a lot of companies do that where they'll say, "The macro environment has changed and now we need to make changes to our product." Or "Make changes to our service delivery." Or "Make changes to our growth strategy." And those things might be true, but what I see happen sometimes is companies lose perspective on who they are and what made them great in the first place.

And so getting back to that core focus of who we are? Why do we exist, what are we trying to get done, and is there still an audience that needs that? Then you can start looking at, OK, well what's happening to that audience right now? What's happening to buying behaviors? What's happening in the macroeconomic environment that may shift those? But you really have to know who you are first and foremost.

And times of turmoil are not a great time to try a scattershot approach to figuring things out.

Deb Zahn: Or do panic pivots. So when you're first meeting with a potential client and you're trying to figure out, or a client that you got, and you're trying to figure out how you can be most helpful to them, what are some of the things that you do to try and understand what's really going on that they could use your help with?

Heather Gould: I typically let them talk. So the first thing is I really feel strongly that I work with the CEO and the executive leadership team for a couple of reasons. One is my belief that growth can come from anywhere in the customer life cycle and anywhere in the organization. I think there are a lot of levers to growth. And typically, if you start to get into different departments or different functional roles, that department or functional role will be very focused on what they do. And so I like to work from a more systemic perspective.

So it's who in the organization has that broad view of meaningful change, or meaningful growth? And frankly, who has to take ownership of the outcome of that growth? That's always a big question for me is who ultimately has to own the results of this? So I will typically ask a few questions.

I'll ask broad questions about the business in general. I don't try to zero in too quickly on what they think their problem is. I'll ask for the history of the company, if I'm working with the CEO, how they came to be in that role. I'll ask about what they might think they see in their business.

So I tend to start very, very broad and they will almost always surface something for me that they'll say, "Where I really need your help is x." I had a company I was working with and they had just gotten an infusion of capital. And so they really believed that what they needed me to work on was structuring their organization so that they could effectively hire and scale to absorb this infusion of capital and grow accordingly.

What we discovered through the process was they had been an R&D company for about 10 years, and yes, they needed to hire, but they actually had to completely change the way they were thinking about their company because now they were commercializing a product and they've never had to think that way before. And so that shifted how we talked about people. It shifted how we thought about process. It changed the recruiting process. It changed the lens through which we evaluated the existing team.

And so those kinds of things, sometimes they happen in the early discovery meeting and sometimes those conversations happen mid-cycle where you say, "I think something has changed in the way we're looking at this and we might need to pivot."

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Oh, I love that. So when you're first talking to them also, what sort of red or yellow flags or anything that would give you pause that you're paying attention to, to tell you, not is this a good client or bad client. Still, more what am I really going to have to pay attention to that they might not know about as we first start talking?

Heather Gould: I tend to pay attention to the attitude and mindset of the people that I'm talking to. Do they have a growth mindset or are they the smartest person in the room? I tend to...

Deb Zahn: Is that in air quotes?

Heather Gould: Yeah. "Smartest person in the room."

Deb Zahn: I thought so.

Heather Gould: As a leader and as a former executive, I always tried to surround myself with people that were much smarter and much more accomplished than I was. And I'm always a little bit hesitant. I think there's an interesting blend that has to happen when you're in the CEO seat. You have to have confidence, you have to have that gravitas and that executive presence to give the team your leading confidence and your shareholders or your investors confidence that you know what you're doing.

But I'm also a big believer in growth mindset and curiosity and willingness to say, "Something's not right here, and I need to figure out how to understand what I don't know, and I need to be able to understand my own blind spots." And one of the things I see sometimes that's a red flag for me is if I'm getting into a discovery conversation and the executive with whom I'm speaking is focused on either, "Here's a problem I need you to solve," and it's very closed-ended. Or "Why are you the person that's the right person to solve my problem?"

And again, they tend to be very closed-ended questions. And what I've learned is that those conversations don't typically go very far. And in many cases what happens is the CEO will say, "Here's the problem I need you to solve, and I need you to go work with my COO to do it." Or, "I need you to go work with my head of people to do it."

And what happens immediately is that COO or the head of people will get very intimidated, and they'll say, "OK, my boss just put somebody in place to do this job and now I'm threatened." So those are things I pay a lot of attention to, is where I might be perceived as a potential solution to a different problem.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. I think I've been in those conversations before. So let's say those conversations go well enough, you start working together. How do you help them define their goals? Because I'll tell you, one of the common things I've seen is, particularly if I'm talking to the C-suite, which again is similar to you, that's who I work with, and they don't all agree. Or it might be stating it a little bit differently or it's just the CEO that's saying this and maybe everybody else is sort of piped down and it tells me that they might not know what their actual goal is. So how do you help them sort that out?

Heather Gould: I tend to take a two to three-pronged approach to that. First, I listen for what's not being said, and I pay a lot of attention to body language and who are the outliers in the room. And so typically what I'll try to do is if I get the sense that there's a member of the C-suite who is noticeably quiet or noticeably vocal, I will often schedule a session with them offline just to really understand, "OK, it sounds like maybe you feel like you're not being heard. So what don't I understand about this?"

And in some cases when the CEO is sort of running ahead and their team is trying to figure out what comes next, which I've seen a few times, I work really hard to help the CEO focus on organizational alignment. And so it's goal definition, but it's also are you clear on the why? Are you clear on why you're acquiring this company? Are you clear on why you're pivoting? And those are tricky conversations to have.

Again, if the CEO has a growth mindset, they're typically rich conversations. And I've seen some CEOs have very reflective responses to that to say, "Gosh, you know what? I do need to take a breath and be able to articulate this better to my team."

In other cases, I've had CEOs go, "Because that's where we're going. Period. And they need to get in line." And so I find those to be the more challenging conversations because then the rest of the C-suite has a different decision to make about how they choose to cascade that direction down through the organization.

So really what I try to get to are what are the drivers in the business? What are the things from a financial perspective that you value? In the private equity space, revenue and EBITDA are your kings. So balancing those two are really important. But beyond those two drivers, what are the drivers in your business and how do you think about that? And in many cases, I have to actually, again, get the entire C-suite thinking systemically to say, "Is this a people issue? Is this a process and systems issue?"

Yes, your growth is limited, or yes, your EBITDA is not where it should be. Let's pull apart some pieces and take a walk around the building and figure out where our real levers are.

Deb Zahn: And well, that's where it gets into it's not just figuring out what you want growth to be and driving towards getting there, that it's really about how you manage and affect change.

Say a little bit more about how you get them because often that's not necessarily what they think they're buying. They think they're buying the goals of the strategy and the implementation plan or whatever it is. How do you help them understand that no, it could be a people problem, it could be a technology problem, it could be all of those, et cetera?

Heather Gould: Well, so one of the things that I've discovered as I've been working with different companies is how important change agility, and change leadership is. In some cases, the C-suite is clear on what they believe their goals and objectives need to be, and they will expect those to be cascaded down through the organization. And maybe it's a major process initiative. Maybe it's a systems implementation or digital transformation.

But what I think many leadership teams underestimate is the impact of change on the organization. And that can be a real obstacle to growth. Lack of change agility can be a massive, massive obstacle to growth. And I tend to have a very simple framework that I think about, which is when you're thinking about change, first of all, do you have cultural clarity? Who are we? What do we stand for? Why are we making this change? Why are we doing what we're doing? Are we walking away from something that no longer serves us? Are we walking towards something that will improve us?

Consistency of communication and messaging. I think it's tempting at the executive leadership level to feel like you have to say something different every day. And actually what you need to do is say the exact same thing to every audience every single day so that they know unequivocally where you stand and where you're going and why.

And then the third thing that I spend a lot of time thinking about is compassion. And that's related to change fatigue. It's related to your point about we've been in a tumultuous couple of years. There's economic uncertainty. The way people work is changing. And so having compassion, not only for where your teams are living, but also for the reality of what it means to change in an organization and what growth really means.

It's uncomfortable. It's messy. Processes sometimes don't keep up. People sometimes don't keep up. And so I tend to think through that framework of cultural clarity, consistency, and compassion as a good sort of mnemonic to say, "OK, when any executive team is thinking about growth, they also need to be thinking about these things." And so I would say I end up doing as much change leadership work as I do growth.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And I love that you have those two married because otherwise things can go terribly awry. So talk a little bit about how you help them get from knowing what their goals are, understanding that this involves a real change process to very specific strategies because that's another place where growth often falls apart, is getting from where they are today to the dream. So how do you help them figure out now how to get specific about what you do?

Heather Gould: I tend to be fairly traditional or academic in my thought related to strategies. So every objective has a series of strategies attached and a series of tactics to support that. And so that's kind of my easy, when all else fails, go back to basics. And sometimes I have to do that with companies, but more often than not, what I do is I start with those drivers. What are the drivers in the business? And then what are the things that if revenue growth is your number one priority, then what are the different ways we can look at revenue growth?

And typically, that's something where I will involve the entire leadership team to say, "OK, how do you think about growth from your perspective?" And again, I absolutely believe that growth comes from anywhere in the client life cycle and anywhere in the organization. And I am a huge believer in involving the whole leadership team in that conversation to say, "Where are the areas, where are the levers, that you're responsible for that we can start looking at for growth?"

And so that tends to open up conversations. And then from there, it's, "OK, now, in the next year, what are the very actionable things that you're going to get done that move that lever?" Is it you're going to, from a marketing perspective, are you going to change your digital demand generation strategy? Or are you going to open up a new channel of distribution? Are you going...Getting really specific and actionable with people to say, "Within the next year, what are you going to hold yourself accountable to?"

And those are fun conversations because it sounds great to do stuff. Nobody ever wants to deal with the airy-fairy strategy world. So conceptually, especially when you've got good operators, they're like, "Great, we're going to get our hands dirty." But when you put a time stamp on it and you put very specific outcomes attached to it, then things get a little bit scary. And so for leadership, developing a culture of accountability and a culture of ownership at every level, is part and parcel to achieving those outcomes.

Deb Zahn: That's right. In some cases, I've seen where organizations haven't really fully had that to start with, but you can actually use this change process as a carrier to get them used to accountability. But it's big and bad and scary for a lot of folks.

Heather Gould: It's very, very difficult for most people. And I think most people, most employees, believe that they are accountable. They get their jobs done, they show up every day, and having situations where they're expected to achieve very specific outcomes and feeling the consequences of they've achieved it or they haven't that's, especially in big organizations, that's not necessarily always the case.

In huge, huge global enterprise you can find yourself where there might be goals that are stated, but you may not actually be held accountable to them. Whereas I think it's much harder to hide in middle market and early stage where everyone knows what the goals are, and everyone knows what's on the line as it relates to growth and evolution.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And if you're in the office, they can see you. So that's a different thing. So let's actually because you've mentioned at the beginning sort of two versions that fall along the continuum, and so what I term the growth addicted clients who either love growth for the sake of growth or they like new shiny things, but follow through isn't always part of that package. And then there's the growth adverse or they don't want to change, they don't want to grow, even if it's causing them pain. Or the pain has to be so great that they can be begrudgingly brought along.

And again, those are sort of extremes on the continuum, but starting with the clients that, and I think I made up a phrase, over love growth, I don't know if that's a real word, but they just love it a little too much. So that sometimes it's not really strategic. How do you work with them to find the sweet spot between growth, growth, growth and growth for the purpose of what you're trying to achieve in the organization and getting that done?

Heather Gould: I have learned to take the approach where I'm never going to change the CEO who loves growth. I'm never going to change that mentality. I'm never going to slow that process down. And so the way I think about it is, "OK, you go, you're a specific breed of CEO, you go and keep that machine running." And the question becomes, "Is that a good effective machine and do you have a clear strategy for what you're doing?"

Especially as it relates to M&A growth. Do you have a clear M&A strategy? Are you culturally attuned to the impact this will have on your organization? But for that kind of CEO, just go, keep building, keep building. What I think is easy to overlook though is the organizational impact of that kind of growth and where those companies actually need to become expert at change and integration.

Because what I see a lot of times is their organic growth is maybe not as solid as it would be in a company that's not M&A focused. So what those organizations need to be great at is they need to be highly processed driven, they need to be incredibly disciplined about how they integrate a new company. They need to be attuned to the realities of their culture. I won't even say that they need to integrate the acquired company into their culture. They need to be attuned into the reality of, "We're an M&A company and that means certain things to our culture."

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Heather Gould: And it almost by default means that we won't be this harmonious, joyful, well-aligned organization. It means that there will always be tension there because there will always be new folks joining the fold at a rapid pace.

Deb Zahn: That's right. Someone at the reunion you don't know is always going to be there.

Heather Gould: And so recognizing that in those organizations you have the CEO and probably a small team that's front running M&A and then you have the operations team that's actually running the day to day business.

And there might still be folks who are responsible for organic growth and customer success and retention, but they, simply because of the nature of the leadership, they will not necessarily get the level of emphasis or attention or energy that those organizations would get in a company that's heavily driven by organic growth.

On the other end of the spectrum are the lifestyle businesses. And I say that because you bump into a lot of companies that the owner, and in this case, I will say it's an owner. The owner is making more money than they ever thought possible as an individual. They have probably hired at least one family member and one close friend. They are probably between 25 and 50 employees, and they own a job.

And the complexity that comes with scale, the hard decisions that come with firing the sister-in-law or the best friend or the cousin, those are folks that it's tougher to work with because they are bumping along and they're typically running perfectly good companies and they're saying, "Look, I don't want to grow to 150 people. I don't want to manage that. I never wanted to manage people in the first place. I never wanted to deal with people. I'm really good at building houses." Or, "I'm really good at running this little software company. I don't necessarily want to get to uber growth."

And so with those folks it's more, I tend to take an approach of, "OK, then what's your end game? Are you just going to close the shutters and say you're done at a certain age and then you have no more income? Or can we look at this and say, let's at least build this organizational structure in a way that it runs without you and that it continues to grow so that you don't have to become extremely large, but at least give yourself the gift of, if you've been running this business and building this business for 25, 30 years, or even 10 or 15, don't just own a job, build it so that it's worth something. Build it so that all of the blood and sweat equity that you put into it gives you something back at the end."

And I think that that's not a natural thought process for a lot of, I would say for early-stage companies, it's absolutely the thought process. It's how do I build and scale so that I can get my next round so that I can keep growing? But for the, I'll call it, entrepreneur who has just been running a great mom and pop business for several years, they aren't thinking about an exit strategy, they're not thinking about seed funding, they're not thinking about infusions of capital, they're just thinking about, "How do I run the business every day?" And so getting them to think about how do you at least grow enough so that it's sustaining and how do you look your organization so that this carries on beyond you and pays you back over time?

Deb Zahn: Yeah, I love that. I also think of organizations like that because I've worked with some who don't have that bigger ambition, which again is fine. And in the same way, you're not going to change the CEO whose growth, growth, growth, you're not necessarily going to change them, but they're leaders and staff are in pain because organic growth is still happening, but they're not keeping pace with it on an operational side or on the people side or on the culture side. And so the pain keeps growing until it can't be swept under the rug anymore.

Heather Gould: Well, and that's a really important point and I think, my observation is that a lot of leadership teams at that level don't understand their own impact on culture. And culture happens, whenever you have more than two people sitting around you, culture happens. But I sometimes think that the tone that is set by leadership is not necessarily understood by leadership.

I sometimes think that there's an expectation of everybody shows up and they work hard. And that's particularly more important in today's labor environment where we're in an extreme labor shortage, especially in certain categories in certain industries. And so understanding why people come to work, understanding how they feel valued, understanding the importance of clarity of expectations, those are all areas where I'll hear the leaders of smaller companies, say 50 employees or so say, "Oh, well nobody wants to work anymore."

Well, who are you? Would you work for you? And sometimes you have to have those conversations too. It's what kind of environment are you operating and is that an environment where people want to spend their time? And I think those are fair questions to ask and ask them in a delicate way, but I think they're fair questions to ask.

Deb Zahn: And then they would lead to solutions that have to happen if they're willing. So this is fast, we could talk about growth endlessly. But let me ask you this, where can folks find you?

Heather Gould: So the easiest way to find me is my website, which is And obviously I'm on LinkedIn as well. And I'm Heather E. Gould.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. Well, let me ask you this last question is, so you're your own business owner, how do you bring balance to your life? However you define that?

Heather Gould: There are a couple things I do. I'm a voracious reader, so getting out of my own head and into the heads of other people and time in nature. I love to be outdoors. I live in the Pacific Northwest, so I hike a ton. I try to spend time in nature every single day and I do my best thinking on my afternoon walks. So that's where my best business building and best relaxation comes in at the same time.

Deb Zahn: Oh, I love that. And of course, you just pointed out one of the benefits of being a consultant is afternoon walks.

Heather Gould: Yes.

Deb Zahn: Because you're the boss. That's wonderful. Well, Heather, thank you so much for coming on the show today and talking about this. I think it's helpful for whether it's a company, a nonprofit, small business, whatever it is, I think it's helpful for everybody because these things are true for most consultants I know. So thank you so much.

Heather Gould: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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 you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up in a lot of other great content and I don't want you to miss anything.

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