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Episode 185: Resetting to Have the Consulting Business and Life You Truly Want—with Deb Zahn

Deborah Zahn: Welcome to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. On this podcast, I'm going to be talking about doing periodic or as-needed resets in your consulting business. So what I mean is making adjustments to what you're doing in your consulting business so that, ultimately, your business looks like what you want it to look like. But more importantly, your life looks like what you want it to look like.

And this is really personal to me, which is why I'm talking about this. In the 12 years that I've been consulting, of course, I'm still a practicing consultant, I've had to do this many times. So what I first did, and who I worked with, and what my business looked like, and what my life looked like at the beginning is different than what it is today. And it's changed many times. And in the best ways, it's changed when I've deliberately taken a look at it and said, "What do I want to change about it?"

It hasn't changed in good ways when I didn't do that deliberately and I just got swept away by things and then, oh, my goodness, look where I ended up.

So the reality is, is that a lot of times what caused me to pause and say I need a reset is, let's be honest, largely because of choices I've made. So, choices that for whatever reason didn't work out or I ended up in a place that I didn't want to be, or my life looked like what I didn't want it to look like. And a lot of times, it was caused by things I was doing. Not all the time. Sometimes it was external forces, sometimes it was some things out of my control. But a lot of it, if I'm really, really honest, was driven by either unhealthy or unhelpful tendencies that I have. So, my tendency to overwork, my tendency to say yes, my really bad judgment of how much time things take so that I'm actually spacing things out correctly and taking on the right amount of work.

And I know I have these tendencies. I know where they come from. I know what they tend to look like when they show up. And even though I can get really creative sometimes and make them look a little bit different, I know them when I see them. And so, a lot of times, that'll happen.

And then the results are typical and expected, which is I end up doing work that I don't really want to do or that I'm not well suited for. Now, I never do work that I can't get my clients the results. I never do that. But I might not be the best person to do it. I might not be well suited to do it. Or my life gets harder because, suddenly, I have less time because I'm just consumed with the work that I'm doing. Or the work that I'm doing is such that there's a half-life to it, like an emotional half-life that infects my daily life. And so, even though I'm not doing that work, I'm feeling the weight of that work and I'm feeling the emotionality that's associated with that work, and it's getting in the way of the rest of my life. So I'm spending time with family, but I'm not really spending time with family because I'm totally thinking about, “Oh, my gosh, I can't believe this happened” and “That's what I'm talking about,” and dot, dot, dot, which is not what I want to do.

So I'm right in this right now. And I'm right at the beginning of doing a pretty significant reset right now. And so I wanted to share what I'm going to be doing with you because it may be something that you want to consider as well. So in the past, every time I've come to this point, it's always looked a little bit different. There might have been different factors that were at play, but this one in particular has an urgency to it. And it has an urgency to it because 2022 didn't look or feel the way I wanted in a way that hasn't been true of other years. So you'd think, "Oh, but Deb, what about when the pandemic hit?" No, no, this actually felt worse than that.

The pandemic had an impact on me. Now, granted, it didn't have as full of impact on other people because I'm a huge introvert, so I was enjoying parts of it. It had a human impact because I knew people who were getting sick and losing loved ones and their businesses were taking a hit. And I certainly had work get delayed. So there were things happening that were really tough, but 2022 felt worse. And it could be in part because it's a culmination of all these things that are going on in the world and feeling the weight of that, which I certainly do. And I in no way try to divorce myself from that. But it was also based on choices that I was making and things that I was doing with my consulting business that I don't want to keep doing. Or I at least want to make choices about it, so whatever I choose to do, at least I experienced and gave myself the agency to make those choices.

I don't consult full-time because I also, obviously, have the Craft of Consulting business, which I love. And one thing that I loved about 2022 is I launched my membership. I've got fabulous people in it. That makes my heart sing. I love helping people. I love serving in that way. So that felt great. And of course, my podcast and the other things that I do, the coaching I do, all of that felt really good. But I also still consult, but I don't do it full time. So I'm typically pretty picky about what I seek and what I say yes to.

But there was this unique thing that happened this year that I would say happened more than in other years if I had so many past clients pop back up and ask me to do work for them or referred new clients to me. And I mean, I had my first ever consulting client 12 years ago who popped up and said, "Hey, will you do something for me?" And I adore her. I adore my past clients who came back and wanted me to do more for them. And because I know them so well, I'm very well suited to help them. And it's work that typically I love.

The problem is it happened too much, so I said yes too much. I said yes as if each choice was a separate and distinct choice rather than what everything actually is, which is a relative choice, which is, if I say yes to this, what am I saying no to? And I'll get into what I was saying no to in a moment. So I took on too much until the point where I was so stressed out that I had to say no. And I have very clear tells which we laugh about that are my degrees of stress.

And the first usually is my eye will start twitching. And that usually is the first indicator that I've hit the bottom tier of having too much stress. The next thing I will do, which is a very strange thing, not as strange as the next one, but the next thing I will do is I will start to refer to myself in the third person, which if you listen to my podcast, you've heard me talk about or I will literally say things like, "Yeah, no, Deb can't have that conversation." Anybody who's worked with me a while is like, “Ruh ro!” That means that we are to back away slowly. Oddly, the next thing that I do when I'm at my peak of stress is I speak Spanish. I started speaking Spanish, which you have to understand, I don't know much Spanish. So it's really strange that I suddenly default to that. And anytime my husband hears it, who speaks no Spanish, but he can tell what it is, he's like, “Oh my goodness, we have to intervene. This is now getting bad. She's now trying to speak a language she doesn't know much of." So that's my three levels that go up. And that was happening a lot this year.

And so, I took on too much work that I wanted to do, but it was still too much. Didn't matter that I loved it. It didn't matter that I loved the clients. It was too much. And then, mixed into that is I also said yes to work that I ended up not liking. Now, some of it I could have anticipated, "I don't think I'm really going to like this." And some of it I didn't really know until I got into it. Now again, I did a good job for my client because I've never taken on things for anybody that I don't think I can do a good job. But in a few of the instances, I wasn't really the best person to do it in part because it was really emotionally difficult. So either it felt really emotionally heavy or it produced too much anxiety.

And by the way, I am not actively seeking out additional anxiety or emotional heaviness. I'm good. I have my fill. I don't need any more. And yet these gigs I was doing were actually creating more of that. And part of it is because just the reality of the world is that people are really struggling in companies and organizations for all kinds of reasons. People are having a really rough time. And I am who I am, so I feel compelled to do everything I can do to help them, but what happens is sometimes I get pulled in too much. And again, I'm the person that I am, and so, I could not and did not emotionally separate myself because it's really tough for me to see people suffering and not really care and not try and do my best to try and alleviate that suffering.

So I ended up doing work that came with really intense feelings of grief and sorrow. Again, because it's not like, I don't know that people are suffering. I know people in my own life that are suffering. I've certainly experienced that and experienced it in the last few years especially, but it was emotionally too much for me. And I'm not going to change who I fundamentally am as a person. I don't actually want to care less. That's not who I ever aspire to be. I don't want to shut down my emotions to be able to do my work.

But because I wasn't able to do that and because I'm also carrying my own stuff and my own things that provoke difficult emotions, then it felt like too much. And so, I'm all about improving myself. I'm all about trying to do things different and better, but it felt like way too much. And the reality is, there are so many ways that I can help people, I don't actually have to help people in every single way. So if that's too much for me, it is OK that that is too much for me. And I fully and completely give myself permission to make different choices so that I end up doing work that is still helping people, and organizations, and companies, and the planet, but that doesn't create, on the far side, emotional paralysis for me, but also just provokes too much anxiety and difficulty.

There are consultants, for some of the work that I was doing, that are way better suited for that work. And that work feeds them, so it doesn't deplete them in the way that it depletes me. It doesn't cause the emotional response in them that it causes in me. They love it. And they're all in and they're fabulous and that's the work that they want to be doing. So guess what? That's who should be doing that work. And I should be doing work that's feeding me and helping and doing the wonderful things that I want to do on the planet, but that's what I'm suited to do.

So that’s the background. That brings me to what I'm about to launch into, which is what I'm calling the Great Reset. And I'm giving it that big title because I want to feel the weight of it and I want to name it for what it actually is. I have no intention of playing around the edges. I think that's what I did in previous years. I'm like, "Oh, I'll just tweak a little here, and I'll tweak a little there, and I'll make improvements." Well, that wasn't enough. So now we're bringing out the big guns. And the big gun is I got to do a significant reset where I sit down and I take time and I really come up with a plan so that 2023 is different. And I've decided it's, I'm going to construct it as a better year for me. Now, I say that, and I deliberately say construct because I'm trying to point to my agency to change the things I can. I know that I don't have control over everything.

So, for example, there's a recession, which is still something that's very possible. Some might argue we're already in it, and I am going to have to reassess. I'll have to pay attention to what's going on. I'll have to reassess and I'm going to talk about the recession and things that you might have to do to adjust or that I'm going to do to adjust as I go along. But so much of what made 2022 difficult was in my control. So I firmly believe where you do have control and influence, use it. And so, that's what I'm going to do. Wherever I truly have control and the ability to change things, that's what I'm going to do.

But I need a systematic way of going through it and figuring it out because what I know doesn't work, it may work for some people. It sure as heck doesn't work for me. Is to say, "OK, here's generally what I want to do," and then come up with a few things that might help, and then hope it goes OK, and hope that I hold that and it carries me along. Yeah, that doesn't work. This is truly got to be a significant reset with a real plan that is actually written down and something that I'm going to refer to and pay attention to as I move along. Or guess what? It ain't going to happen. And I know that.

So I want to share with you how I'm going to do that because I've come up with a pretty deliberate strategy for what that's going to look like. So, first of all, I'm not doing it alone. I'm going to do it with Scott, my beloved husband, and I'm going to do it with my mom who just turned 82 this year. And if you've listened to my podcast, you know I talk about my mom all the time. Both of them are two of my big whys. This is why I do what I do, in part because of my love for them and my desire to spend really good quality time with them, which, by the way, I didn't do enough of in 2022. So that was one of the big problems, is the choices I was making, and I was making in isolation often, had huge impacts on them, and some of which weren't great. And so, they're going to be part of this.

So what we're actually going to do is we're going to spend some time defining together what we want our lives to be like, our mutual lives to be like, and wherever we have power to actually make those decisions. We know that some things because that's the world we're in right now, are going to be up in the air. So do we want to go back to beautiful Vieques in the winter? Yes, we absolutely want to. We don't know what's going to be going on with the pandemic. We don't know if we can, but we know that some things we can make decisions about right now or we can set aspirations to, and we're going to map those out. And that's going to be the starting point and the basis for the plan I'm going to do.

Now, note, I'm starting with my life and I'm starting with our lives. I am not starting with how much money I need and want to make. That's actually important and that is an important part of what this plan is going to be, but I don't put that first. Look, I make a great living. That's why I like to help other people so they can make a great living and support the lives they want, but I am perfectly happy to make less money if it serves our lives. And I have made choices quite often, even before I was a consultant of going down to 80% time and things like that, simply because I prioritized our lives. And then things slip and that goes off the rails, but I'm willing to make less. Now, that, by the way, doesn't mean I have to make less because I'm going to talk about that in a moment, but that's how I roll and that's important to me.

So what we're going to do is, my husband and my mom, we're going to sit down, we're going to paint a picture of what we want 2023 to look like. And then my job and through a process with them will be to map out what I think enables that picture to become a reality, and that becomes the plan.

There are a whole series of questions that I'm going to have to answer. And the first question is, how much time off do I want to have? I usually do that last. And then, what ends up happening is if I do that last, that becomes the leftovers, and then I'm like, "Oh, well, it looks like I could maybe do this. I'm actually starting with this." So, again, if you've been a listener of my podcast, you know how important mom time is for me. So mom time is dedicated to three hours that my mom gets every single week that is solely for us to spend time together. And we might be off doing something fun. I might be fixing things around her house. We might be doing errands. It doesn't matter, that's our dedicated time to do what we please with that time. And that is so valuable. And we've been doing it for two years now. My mom loves it. It just makes her whole week so much better just knowing if something is a problem in our house, don't worry, on Wednesdays, Deb's going to come over and fix it. Or I know Deb is busy, but I don't have to worry about it because Wednesday, we can go spend time together. So I'm going to map out mom time. That gets carved out the top.

And then we're going to look at time off, vacations, or long weekends, or whatever, and we're going to carve those out first. And that's going to be time with my family, as well as restorative time for me, which I need in order to be a good consultant and do good work for my clients and not hate my life. And then, also fitting in and thinking about gardening, and exercise, and sleep, and cooking, the sleeping, a huge one, the baseline that keeps me... I was going to say that keeps Deb a good person. See, I was going to refer to myself in the third person. At least I didn't say it in Spanish. But it keeps me a good person so that, again, I've got the life I want, but I'm also able to serve my clients and do good things in the world much more easily.

So it starts with that. That's really the first part. And then the next question is, all right, how much should I be working? And this is where I have to think about because I have two businesses. I'm a practicing consultant, but I am also the Craft of Consulting, which is both businesses that I really love. So I need to think about both of them. And I think that was one of the problems with 2023, is I was almost treating them like different businesses, but almost as if they had the same time available to them, which they do not. So that didn't make any sense. So now I'm going to be much more deliberate about it. And I'm also going to think about how much I should be working based on what income do we need, what income do we want, savings for the future expenses, things like that, all that money stuff that does need to come into play because that's going to also support the life we want.

And then, I need to think through, OK, what then enables that? So that's where I need to think through, are there things that I need to do with things like my pricing model or my prices that are going to support that? Now, they still have to be a fit for my marketing niche. It can't just be some fantasy price or pricing model that I come up with. But there are things that I can make choices about in my business that make that easier and make that income more readily available to them. So thinking about my marketing, thinking about my outreach, things like that will support me working the right amount that I ultimately want to be working.

And then the next thing I'm going to get more specific about, who it is and what the work is. So, who am I going to work with? And notice that I'm stating it very affirmatively, intentionally. I'm not saying, who do I want to work with? I'm saying, who am I going to work with? Because I want it to be very deliberate. And I'll talk about in a moment how that comes in with implementation. So I'm also going to think about, who do I most want to work with? So I'm going to revisit my ideal client. And your ideal client is essentially a persona, a person, whether it's real or made up, that is your consulting soulmate, who you would most want to work with in the whole world. And it's important to do for business reasons because then you can figure out, OK, what do they care about that I can actually help with? But I want to also come at it from the perspective of, what would light me up if I worked with a person like this that had these pains and these things that they were trying to gain and they were this type of person? So I'm going to revisit that so I can really make a decision about who.

The next thing I'm going to do is think about the type of work that I want to do. And this is where I'm going to make decisions about what work I am actually going to do. And this is where I'm going to think about what really feeds me. It doesn't have to be easy. I'm not looking for lounge work. I mean, it's got to stimulate me. It's got to feel like I'm really gaining something from it. And it's got to feel like I'm doing what I am uniquely suited to do and what I'm on the planet to do. That's what I'm after and that's where I'm going to be able to give my clients the best. And so, I want to think about what is that work?

Now, I can't just come up with that because, again, you can't do this all based on fantasy. So I also have to look at the demand in my market. So those have to be in balance because I'm not an island. I work within the healthcare market in the US. I have a few niches within that that I tend to work with. So I have to consider, well, what are those clients, those clients I most want to work with? What are they going to have a demand for that matches what I just mapped out that I want to be doing? And that's going to be an iterative process. So it's not just like boom and then boom, I have the answer. This is where I'm going to go out and I'm going to have some conversations with people and refresh my understanding of what matters to them, what are the things that are worrying them, what do they need to prepare for, what do they need to do so that I've got a really good sense of what that demand is looking like and what it will likely look like in 2023, including if there's going to be a recession or if we're in one, if it's going to look worse, and if there's any big shifts in the markets that are going to impact the niches that I'm in.

I was talking with this fabulous consultant last night and we talked about a storm that's likely going to be hitting my primary niche, and even beyond the recession. So it's not even a recession. The recession's going to make it worse. It's going to be one of the factors, but there's going to be multiple factors that are converging to create significant difficulties, and, in particular, significant financial difficulties.

So one of the things that I'm going to be asking myself is, what work should I be doing and with whom that is going to help them given that that is going to be their reality? So what can I help them do to prevent or mitigate the impact of that storm on the people that I most want to work with? And then match that with the work that most feeds me. So it's both what they're going to have a demand for. And a demand's different than a need. A demand is basically a need that they're willing to pay money to, get help to solve or to achieve. And then I mix that with, what work do I really want to be doing? What feeds me? What lights me up? And the combination of the two of those are going to be my sweet spot and that's going to be the balance between building the consulting life of my dreams, but making sure that it's based in reality. And you have to have both of those to be able to do that. So I'm going to be looking at both of those.

So once I know that, that's where I want to land and what I want things to look like, then I have to think about, all right, how am I going to actually implement this plan? So I'm going to have to do something differently than I really have to do. I plan on more proactively seeking out work and not just see what comes.

Look, I'm at a stage of my business because I've been doing this work a long time where I get a ton of repeat and referred business. And if I wanted to, I could easily be passive and I could just see what shows up. Now, the recession might suggest that that's an unwise choice, but I've weathered some other recessions and economic downturns. And for the most part, I was able to just coast off of work that I was getting from folks that I knew. But the problem with that is that diminishes my choices because then I'm not choosing. Well, I'm choosing, but I'm seeing what shows up. And then I'd say, "Oh, maybe this but not that." But I don't really want to be that passive because if I'm passive, then I'm putting my money on that 2023 won't look like what I want it to look like. So I intend to be much more proactive and I need to figure out how I'm going to do that.

For example, I already know I have certain folks that refer to me a lot. And I need to tell them what my plan is. And so, they start to adjust who they are actually referring to me. I don't want them to just send everybody to me. I want them to send people who are going to be a fit for what is in my plan. So I know that's one thing I'll have to do, and I'll come up with other strategies that if I implement those, then 2023 is going to look more like what I want it to look like.

I also have to think it through, I know I'm going to be dishing out more nos in 2023 than I did in 2022, likely. So if it even looks a little bit like it did this year, I'm going to have to say no to some folks. And so, I want to think through that. How am I going to do that so that I don't wait until it happens and then hope no one emerges from my mouth? Now, I'm pretty good at saying no, but it's harder when it's clients I really adore. And so, I need to think through how I'm going to do that or even be more proactive and let people know ahead of time, this is the work that I'm looking to do in 2023. And then they know. Now, it doesn't mean they won't come to me, but let them know ahead of time. So, again, proactive, proactive, proactive.

Now, I also know that everything doesn't go according to plan. So I also need to answer questions about how I'm going to keep everything on track because stuff happens. And let's be honest, it happened. I have many ways that I can derail things and it doesn't even make me break a sweat. I've got some classics that I go back to, but I'm also really creative and can come up with new ways to derail things. And I know that about myself. So I also need to answer how and when I am going to track what's going on, and see if it's according to plan, and then make refinements if I need to make refinements. And if I start to relapse, what I'm going to do about that?

So ask myself things like, how do I think things could go off the rails? All of it's not a mystery. I can look in the larger market and my niches, and I can make some predictions. I can look within myself and make some predictions. And then I want to think about, ahead of time, how am I going to prevent that? How am I going to intervene early if I do it anyway? When can Scott and my mom call it out and throw a flag on the field and say, "Hey, we have a problem." Again, because they're going to be involved in this process from beginning to end. And then, how do I make more decisions with them? And that's been particularly helpful, and I've done this with other resets, where I talk with them before I say yes to something.

And I remember this one time in particular, this was many years ago, but it was definitely when I was in the midst of some reset because I had taken on too much work. And someone who I really thought was fabulous, and I'd worked with before showed up and said, "Oh, we have this project. You're immediately who we thought of." So already I was like, "Oh, my god, I'm so complimented." And it was work that was perfect for me and I knew I could just rock it. And my husband stopped me, and he was like, "So, this place is five hours away. There's no easy way to get there. You're already taken on..." And we just talked through the reality of what our day-to-day lives would be like if I said yes to this, and if I said yes to this relative to the things I've already said yes to. And it caused me to say no, which was so hard because I had to say no to someone I liked and I had to say no to work that I wanted to do, but it was the only way our lives were going to get back on track. So that's the type of things that I want to talk through with them ahead of time and say, "OK, how do we take that and either prevent the need for that to happen or use that as a tool, again, to keep things on track?"

And then, of course, I got to pay attention. Things are going to happen that, either I can't anticipate now, or I can anticipate, but I don't know exactly what they might look like. And that's going to cause me to take a look and it might trigger me to switch things up and refine my plan. So, for example, if the demand in my market and my niche has change, I'm going to have to respond to that, which means I got to pay attention, which means I should be having ongoing conversations with people in my field, not just to sell business, but to keep tabs on what's happening so that I can get ahead of it and I can stay in the proactive realm rather than the reactive realm, which is key to this plan actually working. And I'm working on my plan now. So that's essentially what I'm going to do. I'm working on it now because I need to start to implement it before the end of the year.

So, often, what I do because I often do a podcast about this, is I wait until the holidays at the end of the year, and that's when I make a bunch of decisions. But when I start the new year, nothing's in place. I haven't done anything to set anything up for what I just said mattered to me, and then I just get swept away. And so, it takes a while to write myself or it takes a while to actually implement the steps and for that to bear fruit. So that's why I'm actually starting it early this year. And if I don't do that, I'm going to start off 2023 and I'm going to have fewer choices and I'm going to have to be more reactive, which, again, that's the zone I want to stay out of.

So that's my great reset. And what I would say to you is that if you need one too, so for whatever reason, if you're looking at your pipeline and you're not getting enough business, or like me, you're not getting the business that you truly want or you want to have a different experience with your business and your life, I truly encourage you to take the time, carve the time out to ask yourself what you want 2023 to look like and what you need to do to make that a reality within whatever bounds you have control of.

And that is a typical part of the business of consulting. That's where, if you've heard, and you've certainly heard me say, you need to work on your business, not just in your business. And this is a perfect example of that. And I would say the same thing about your life. You want to work on your life and not just be in your life. So that way, you don't end up being swept away by whatever happens.

And what's beautiful about that, what I'm trying to give myself the gift of is you get to be in charge of what you can be in charge of. And if you're like me, that's one of the reasons that you got into consulting in the first place so that you could be the boss of your business and your life and you could do it on your terms. And it's not going to be perfect or exactly like you envision it, but it can be darn close, and it can be darn close if you make good choices when you can make good choices. So darn it, that's what I'm going to do.

And I will come back as the great reset starts to get implemented, and I will tell you how it's going, but I'm very excited about it. I desperately need it. I'm so emotionally attached to doing this because, yeah, I can't do a repeat of 2022. I just can't do it. So I'm really looking forward to doing this. And I appreciate you taking the time to hear about what this is going to look like. And hopefully, it has inspired you as well.

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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