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Episode 19: How to Effectively Engage Stakeholders for Your Clients—with Mary Jo Condon

Deb Zahn: Hi, I want to welcome you to Episode 19 of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. My guest today is absolutely wonderful: Mary Jo Condon. She is a senior consultant at Freedman HealthCare, and they're a national healthcare consulting firm. Today, she and I are going to talk about how to successfully do multi-stakeholder engagement. Essentially what that means is when you bring a whole bunch of folks together, they could be from different sectors, different perspectives, points of views, companies, organizations, you name it, and you're going to bring them together to try and get them to work towards a common purpose. She is an expert at doing this. She has worked across the country with numerous coalitions, collaboratives, other groups of folks, and has been able to lead a process that gets them moving towards common goals.

She's just wonderful to share all of that wisdom with us. She's going to talk about how to approach it, how to do it well, and then what some of the common mistakes are that you need to avoid. So wealth of information on this one. Let's get started.

I want to welcome my guest, Mary Jo Condon, to the show. Thank you so much for being on.

Mary Jo Condon: Thanks for having me.

Deb Zahn: Oh, good. Well, let's start by you telling my listeners what type of consulting you do.

Mary Jo Condon: Sure. I work in health policy consulting, and support states and nonprofits, typically in bringing diverse stakeholders together to achieve the triple aim.

Deb Zahn: That's great, and for those that aren't in the healthcare world, do you want to say what the triple aim is?

Mary Jo Condon: Yes. It's better health, better patient experience, and lower cost.

Deb Zahn: That's great. The things we all want so desperately in healthcare. How did you become a consultant?

Mary Jo Condon: Well, I actually started out as a healthcare journalist. I spent about 8 years covering healthcare. I had a wonderful mentor who at the time was, and still is, leading a purchaser coalition, say to me, "Don't you want to actually drive the change?" I said, "Oh, yeah, that might be fun." Joined her in building a multi-stakeholder collaborative and multi-payer data asset, which brings together healthcare claims data, like the data that's generated when you pay all your expensive medical bills. After doing that for almost a decade, really wanted to work nationally and see how other folks were doing it and learn from them, and also hopefully share with them a little bit about what I had learned along the way.

Deb Zahn: That's great. We did say, and I love this topic because you know I do it as well, we said we wanted to talk about the magic of doing multi-stakeholder engagement. So many consultants have to do it at some point of time, or be involved in it in some way, so I think it's such a rich topic. Let's start off and define what that is. How would you define multi-stakeholder engagement and what its purpose is?

Mary Jo Condon: Yeah. I think it could apply to any industry, right? For example, my husband's in supply chain, and so for him multi-stakeholder is the salespeople, the operations team, the finance team, and bringing them all together to think about how do they achieve a common goal. In healthcare, I think of it as the people who provide healthcare, pay for healthcare, and receive healthcare. So that's typically patients, hopefully, having them at the table. People recognize the importance of that.

But it's also employers and health plans, and then of course physicians and other members of the care team, and hospitals and health systems, and these days, accountable care organizations, which in some ways are their own multi-stakeholder organization.

Deb Zahn: That's right, because that's groups that have already come together through some engagement process and decided to do something together clinically or financially together.

Mary Jo Condon: That's right.

Deb Zahn: That's great, and I know that you do a lot of this. I also do a lot of this, and generally it's different folks from different perspectives, often different sectors within a same or across multiple industries. They have to come together, and they have to get to some type of agreement about things. That can look a lot of different ways, and we'll get into sort of what that means. Now, I want to start with, before we get sort of into the nitty-gritty of how you do it and how you do it well, I always find that starting with the mindset of how you approach something is often critical. Because that can be the difference between doing it really well and doing it so-so, and then doing a horrible job. So what type of mindset do you think is appropriate when folks are thinking about engaging folks who aren't on the same page or from different sectors or whoever it is. If you're the one who's helping facilitate that, how do you need to set your mind to be able to do it well?

Mary Jo Condon: Yeah. I've always come to the world with the perspective that smart folks with good information and good intentions will come to the same good place. That's actually why I got into journalism originally, is I felt like if we give people good information, they will apply it. This is really just kind of taking that a step farther and kind of helping them think through it and helping them think through really what is the long-term mutually beneficial goal.

I used to have someone say to me, "If we all leave happy or we all leave angry, then we probably didn't get very far." I think that's really true, and so you kind of have to be comfortable with it being uncomfortable for a while and just kind of let the process play out and ride the wave. I really do think that the right people around a table will come to the good decision. But you'll notice I keep saying the right people, and I really think that's important. A client of ours told me yesterday, "There are too few days left in my life to spend them with people who don't want to do something meaningful."

Deb Zahn: Aw, I like that.

Mary Jo Condon: I think that looking for people within the organizations that you need to partner with that both have the respect of their colleagues to be able to drive change within their own organizations, but also just kind of a mindset that they want to drive change? Critically important.

Deb Zahn: That's right. That's right. Actually, I think I said this in another podcast, I had a doctor that I was working with once who was talking about consensus as part of a multi-stakeholder arrangement, and he said, "Consensus is essentially making sure that everybody's just a little unhappy."

Mary Jo Condon: That's right.

Deb Zahn: It was actually the day before my wedding, and he wanted me to put that into my marriage vows. Which I found a little less romantic than he did, so I skipped it.

Mary Jo Condon: You know what, though? There is actually something that I think is really true about marriage and also really true about multi-stakeholder engagement, and that is a need to always assume the best.

Deb Zahn: Yes.

Mary Jo Condon: Right? So it's like I'm going to assume the best intention of everyone around this table. I'm going to assume the best intention of my spouse. You know? I'm going to let that be my frame, and I'm going to come to this process assuming that they're here for the right reason and they want to achieve something great. I think, honestly, that intention goes a long way.

Deb Zahn: That's right. Well, and I know that there's lots of folks who have been involved in multi-stakeholder engagements that have been frustrating, or painful, or didn't go well, or weren't facilitated appropriately. So my mindset is also that part of my job is to give them a good experience of what this can be like, so that if they've shoved down the feelings of goodwill and wanting to do something because of poor experiences in the past, I want that to emerge again because now you're going to have an experience of what it's supposed to be like.

Mary Jo Condon: Yeah, and make it fun, right?

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Yeah.

Mary Jo Condon: Nobody wants to drive across town or spend dinner with somebody that is not their friend or family to be bored or to not feel like it's engaging. I really think that making meetings fun and light whenever possible is really important.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, I would agree. You got to get people laughing, engaged with each other. You should hear them more than they hear you because they have the great thoughts that you actually need to get on the table to actually do something. So let me ask you this. If there's a consultant out there, a new consultant who's thinking, "Wow, that sounds fun. I would love to be part of that," what type of knowledge and skills do you think they should be bringing to the table? So if they don't have it today, go get it, and then do this.

Mary Jo Condon: Yeah. I have found using force or bribery is frowned upon, so you can't do that, right? So a lot of it is listening. A lot of it is developing relationships, and a lot of it is really doing your homework on whatever topic you're facilitating, right? Because everybody in the room, typically this is their life. This is their expertise. This is their world. You may be doing consulting or facilitation on a topic that you know, like it's not totally foreign to you, but it’s not your life. You're doing consulting and facilitation on a lot of different topics. So, I think, one, coming to it with the best knowledge base that you can develop, and then coupling that with a lot of humility about how this is not your life and this is their life and you really are here to listen to them and learn from them, I think, is really important.

Having meeting structures and materials that make good use of people's time, and then also, for better or worse, kind of known for pre-meeting calls and post-meeting calls. And I either try to prep folks for meetings when I feel like maybe their expertise is not as much in line with the topic, and so it would be helpful for them to kind of get a little bit more context or background on the material before coming into a group where everybody else kind of knows it. But also, following up with folks who either expressed, verbally, discomfort or concern, or support, or I could tell by reading them, their body language, their lack of conversation, that they have concerns. Because at the end of the day, to make this work successful, you don't just need people to attend meetings. You need people to be willing to lend their political capital to advance your project or initiative or goals within their organization and ideally even external to their organization. You kind of have to develop ambassadors for your work, and so just head nodding and attendance is not really success.

Deb Zahn: That's right, and I often find, too, that more than even getting to know the topic, you want to know that topic in that specific context, which is what I think you're getting at. Which is there's stuff that has happened before you showed up on the scene, like before I show up on the scene. That's real and it's meaningful and it's going to play out in the process, and I don't want to be surprised by it when it whack-a-mole pops its head up. And it's everywhere. It's any time you have groups of people together who are trying to do things. Stuff happens, and I want to know enough about that stuff so that it can be appropriately acknowledged, managed, whatever it is, to be able to move forward together.

That was actually one of the questions I had, is I know a lot of stakeholder engagement happens outside of a meeting, before, afterwards. So there's a lot that happens before...Let's say you're going to have a meeting, and it's going to bring a bunch of stakeholders together. There's a lot that has to happen before that. What are some of the things that you do with a client to prepare for something like that?

Mary Jo Condon: Yeah. I think the first thing is really understanding, in explicit detail, the client's goals. So do you expect from this meeting that we're going to achieve consensus, achieve a process to get to consensus? Where do you want this to go? Then help them set sometimes more reasonable expectations about what can actually happen during a 2-hour conversation. Oftentimes, the meeting is really a setup, a progress check in, a presenting of kind of where things are going. As you mentioned before, a lot of the hard work about getting people to agree to that happens outside the meeting. So helping clients understand, which many of them do, but some of them are kind of new to this, that you can't just do the meeting, that there's a lot of iterative work that happens between meetings.

The second piece, particularly if I'm new to the group, is help me understand the personalities and the landmines. Some folks are chattier than others, and that's just kind of their way. Some folks aren't. Some folks are curmudgeons. Some folks are really positive. Help me know who's coming to the table and how they're likely to interact with me and with each other.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Mary Jo Condon: Because, as you said, the last thing you want is for someone to say, "Well, 10 years ago, you did that, and...I won't work with you on this." By the way, that has happened to me.

Deb Zahn: Of course.

Mary Jo Condon: It's like, OK, well, if I know that in advance, you can frame things, obviously not by bringing up what happened 10 years ago, but you can frame things in a way that attempts to shut that down.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Mary Jo Condon: And that can be really helpful.

Deb Zahn: Right.

Mary Jo Condon: The other thing I really like to know is what is the client's appetite for interactivity. Some clients really like to have a more static agenda. They kind of like to go through a deck and everyone works off a deck and they present material. I have other clients that are very comfortable with me throwing Monopoly money around and having people put it up on boards and really kind of get everybody moving and talking in different ways. I can work in either environment, and I think it also depends, obviously, on the goals of the meeting and the project, and the personalities. But wherever possible, I think it's really helpful to get people engaged in new ways and to have meetings have sections of activities and time that allow different types of contributors an opportunity to share.

Deb Zahn: That's right, including those that their version of contributing is not standing up and saying something, but they might be willing to write something down on a sticky board and put it up.

Mary Jo Condon: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. I like that because, again, I often think with clients, and this is a question I always ask clients is, is your intent really, and the only type of engagement I like to do, to really get the insights, information, advice, whatever it is that you need from the smart people that you're bringing in the room? If it is, you want to structure it such that you're going to be able to do that and get as much of it as possible.

Mary Jo Condon: Absolutely.

Deb Zahn: That's great. If there's sort of a good process, if you think of sort of an ideal, and it's never ideal because stuff always comes up, but a multi-stakeholder engagement process that ends well and sort of has the right components to it. So there's those things that happen outside of the room. There's the things that you do with the client. What else happens that tends to yield success?

Mary Jo Condon: Yeah. I think something else that is really important is articulating early on what I think of as kind of an enterprise reason for collaboration and an intrinsic reason for collaboration, right? Essentially, I need to figure out a way to get everyone in the room to see the potential benefit to their organization, right? At the end of the day, they're going to need to communicate that up and in and down and all over the place to be able to move the organization forward. But to get them to keep coming back to the meetings and staying engaged and really feel bought into the endeavor, they have to have an intrinsic reason. They have to feel like they're really making something better.

Deb Zahn: Right.

Mary Jo Condon: In my experience, if they don't feel that intrinsic reason, their level of commitment to sharing the enterprise reason is far less. So I really feel like having both of those motivations clearly articulated throughout the process is really important.

Deb Zahn: That's right, and to also make sure that the client, I think, understands that, as well.

Mary Jo Condon: Yeah.

Deb Zahn: Because often they just think, "Well, what we have to share or talk about is so fantastically wonderful people are naturally going to be drawn to it," and that does happen sometimes. But everybody's different, so you're going to have still a bunch of folks who they think something else is fantastically wonderful, or they don't think anything is. Whatever it is, you got to do things to spur it, and what are some of the things that you do to sort of try and generate that intrinsic desire to be part of a process?

Mary Jo Condon: My nature is casual and direct. To be honest with you, this is a place where it was actually easier when I was the client, when I used to be the client, particularly because I worked kind of in an environment where I had a lot of essentially say, "This is the right thing to do. You need to do it."

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Mary Jo Condon: I remember one time working on a project where we were doing a multi-stakeholder collaboration to reduce potentially avoidable emergency department use, OK? A good friend of mine is in the room, and at the time he was the vice president of medical affairs for a hospital system. He said to me, "Mary Jo, wait a second. You know I work for a hospital system, and you're having me come to a meeting where I'm going to try to get commercially insured people out of my ER?" I said, "That's what you're coming to." And he said, "But wait, the people with the insurance?" I said, "Yep, those are the people." And he said, "And I'm going to try to get less of their business?" "Yep, that's the idea." And I said, "And by the way, particularly for the things that are really easy to treat that you have a high profit margin on, just so you know. Just so we're on the same page."

Deb Zahn: You were picking his pocket but being honest about it.

Mary Jo Condon: Totally, and he's like, "... All right, I'll come to like one meeting because you asked." I'm trying specifically to not say his name because we're here, but I said, "Hey, you know as well as I do, you did not get into medicine ..." He's a physician by training. I said, "You know as well as I do, you did not get into medicine to do strep swabs in the ER." And he's like, "Yeah, you're right." And I said, "And by the way, you also know that your system is best positioned to take advantage of efficiencies like this." "Yeah, you're right about that. All right, fine, I'll do it." Sometimes it's all about because, "And I'll get your favorite bagel." You know what I mean? It's the little things, too, right? When you're a consultant, you have a little bit less ability to be that direct.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Mary Jo Condon: Because you don't have the long-term relationships with people in a community that you do when you're the client, and so you have to kind of do 2 things, in my experience. One is develop relationships as quickly as you can. So try to really get to know the people around the table and what makes them tick, and which ones are more open to having a more casual relationship and which ones kind of want to keep it professional.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Mary Jo Condon: Then also, encourage your client to not be afraid to kind of push back a little bit when needed. But even when it's less casual than my conversation with my friend, I do think it always comes back to appealing to that intrinsic reason for them wanting to come and the enterprise reason, and both of those kind of in your pocket, to get people there.

Deb Zahn: And if you don't know, sometimes we can ask them.

Mary Jo Condon: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: So we can say, "What would make this worthwhile to you? If X or Y was on the table, is that enough for you to think, 'OK, yeah, I could get something out of this. It's meaningful to me or to my organization such that I'll come.'" I also do occasionally bribe people with...I tell them I'm going to bring farm fresh eggs from my chickens. Then I tell them the chickens' names, and then they feel obligated, I think more to the chickens than to me.

Mary Jo Condon: Absolutely. I love that.

Deb Zahn: Because now they're on a first name basis.

Mary Jo Condon: I absolutely love that. So Fairytale Brownies, for any consultant that is not, by the way, working with a state client, because there're some different legalities around this. But if you're not working with a state client and you need a virtual shipment of thank you, Fairytale Brownies is online. I will give them a nod because they have come to my rescue many times.

Deb Zahn: That's fabulous.

Mary Jo Condon: It's all those things, you know? We had a stakeholder participant, during one of my projects, whose child was in the hospital, and we wanted to do something nice for him and family.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Mary Jo Condon: I said, "Well, you know, he and his wife like to go to that taco place, and she really likes the street corn. We should get them some tacos and send it to the hospital and get extra street corn." Someone says to me, "Well, how would you know that about them?" I said, "That's my job." That's part of my job, is to know folks well enough that we've really, whenever possible, developed a real relationship.

Deb Zahn: That's right, and that's the empathy, which is considered a soft skill. I just think of it as being a good human being, but the empathy to listen and care about...They're going through a rough time. What could brighten their day? It's not inauthentic.

Mary Jo Condon: No.

Deb Zahn: It's completely authentic, and folks can tell the difference. So that's what starts to forge those real relationships with folks. I love that. So sometimes, just occasionally, a little sarcasm, people get in the room, or they're part of a stakeholder engagement process, and there are sort of tricky things that always come up. So folks who aren't familiar with each other, have no idea what each organization or company does. They have really different stakes in what the outcomes might be, and they aren't necessarily aligned. I think your example of, "You want to draw profit out of my ER? What? What?" Or they have a history where things haven't gone well, or they just don't trust each other. They fundamentally disagree. Whatever it is, how do you manage towards a good conclusion when all of those dynamics, and usually not just one of them, is alive within a stakeholder engagement process?

Mary Jo Condon: Yes. All those dynamics are typically, if not almost always, alive. I think that there's a few things that you can do. One is I think you need to recognize, at the beginning of the process, that you cannot eliminate those factors. You may have a tough contracting person from a hospital sitting across from the tough contracting person from the payer. You may have folks who used to work together and no longer do. You may have folks that have absolutely opposed viewpoints on what is the right outcome.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Mary Jo Condon: You're not going to solve that, those issues, during the time...You're not likely going to solve those issues during the time that you have folks together, and I think it can be distracting to try, right?

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Mary Jo Condon: That's not really the purpose of your time together, and so I think one of the things that helps me is to keep coming back to why we're all in the room, right? Typically, actually starting meetings with a slide or a schematic or some sort of visual that tries to capture what the goal is and what we're trying to do together, and also create, I think often through your facilitation techniques, and we can talk about that in a minute, create a dynamic that doesn't allow for negativity.

Deb Zahn: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mary Jo Condon: That can be really difficult because some people do not come to the table without some feelings of ill will from the past or something.

Deb Zahn: Sure.

Mary Jo Condon: But I think if you really do appeal to people's sense of good and good sportsmanship, you kind of get it. It's kind of like with kids, you know? If you set the expectation with your children or with your friends' children or whoever that this is kind of how it's going to be today, like we're all going to work together, we're all going to do this. Being intentional in articulating that can go a long way.

Deb Zahn: That's right, and I think also bringing it, and think this is exactly what you're saying, bringing it back to the purpose.

Mary Jo Condon: Yeah.

Deb Zahn: In healthcare it's a little bit easier because we could give patient examples that'll pull at your heartstrings, because they should. So if you have a heart, those strings attached to it will, obviously I'm not a doctor, will be pulled, and we can bring it back. But you can do that in a lot of sectors, essentially say, "Who are we doing this for?" Then if things start to take a negative turn, you can bring it back to, is this helping who we say we're trying to help?

Mary Jo Condon: Exactly. It might be patients. It might be the employees. It might be the customer.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Mary Jo Condon: But there is kind of always...I'll give you my honest opinion of house rules. I don't love them.

Deb Zahn: I don't either. Right there with you.

Mary Jo Condon: I don't love saying to people, "You have to raise your hand for 3-and-a-half seconds," and like...You know what I mean?

Deb Zahn: Yeah, like kindergarten? Like they're in kindergarten?

Mary Jo Condon: Yes.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Mary Jo Condon: What I do love is starting a process by saying, "Thank you all so much for your commitment to making X, Y, Z better. You bring tremendous knowledge and experience to this, and it's your professional knowledge and experience." In healthcare we often also add, "It's your personal," because we all have personal knowledge and experience of healthcare, I think.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Mary Jo Condon: “We just really need you all to work together and assume the best of each other and think about how we can collaboratively advance this goal, because we all have a role to play in creating the problem and we all have a role to play in solving it.”

Deb Zahn: That's great.

Mary Jo Condon: So that's my preferred strategy for that, but sometimes clients really want things more specific. Part of, I think, being an effective consultant is presenting a viewpoint to a client, and then, if they really don't agree, they may have really good reason. They know that audience.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Mary Jo Condon: So also being able to say, "OK, let's approach it this way."

Deb Zahn: That's right. Yeah, and I've switched it up where I've done things like, because I don't like ground rules either because I feel like we're treating folks like kids, is to instead of saying, "Here's the ground rules," I will say, "So here's what I'm going to do. If we start to go down a dirt road, I'm going to put us back on the paved road, and if I see this happening, here's how I'm going to handle it." It tends to relieve any anxiety that folks have in the room because I'm being really up front with what I'm going to do. I'm sort of saying there's ground rules without saying there's ground rules, and if they're worried that somebody's going to dominate because they always dominate or whatever the dynamics are in the room, I'm telling them up front, "It's my job to manage those so you don't have to. You can just sit there, be smart, and say smart things."

Mary Jo Condon: That's right.

Deb Zahn: It's great. So what are a couple of your other go-to techniques, particularly when you're facilitating in a room with a bunch of people?

Mary Jo Condon: Yeah. I really like to get people up and moving, and I like to give people ways to express ideas, particularly early on in projects, that are not tied to their name or their organization. You can do that through sticky dots. You can do that through Monopoly money. My Monopoly money actually has sticky dots on the back so I know which-

Deb Zahn: Nice. OK, I'm totally stealing that from you. That's great.

Mary Jo Condon: Although it makes it really hard for my kids to play Monopoly because they're like, "Why are all these sticky dots on it?"

Deb Zahn: Don't make me facilitate you.

Mary Jo Condon: Exactly. So I like to get people up and moving. This is something I recently learned, and I think it's invaluable. I'm going to give credit where credit is due. Bruce Bagley is a physician, semi-retired physician, who does excellent facilitation. I get to partner with him on a great project, and he used to be with the American Academy of Family Physicians.

He says to me, he says, "You know, people never read the stuff we give them ahead of time. They never have in my whole life."

Deb Zahn: Right.

Mary Jo Condon: "So I stopped pretending like they did, and I started just giving them time to read." Giving people 5 minutes to just kind of get comfortable with some content before or instead of, preferably instead of, me walking through it, I have found to be incredibly helpful. That's one of my new tricks.

Deb Zahn: I love it.

Mary Jo Condon: Probably something most people already knew.

Deb Zahn: No, that's a good one. I also like it because it just sort of puts a calm in the room, too, so it starts off with a nice calm vibe. So what are some of the common mistakes that you see other consultants, of course, make when they're doing multi-stakeholder engagement?

Mary Jo Condon: Feeling like if they don't complete an agenda, they've failed.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Mary Jo Condon: You haven't. Agendas are really nice to give people a sense of where we're going to go and just even for internal purposes to kind of plot out where you'd like to go. But sometimes really important, valuable, critical conversations take place, and they delay our agenda progress. And that's OK. So I think knowing that that's going to happen, and honestly anticipating it and planning for it, is really important.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Mary Jo Condon: The flip side of that, though, is letting circuitous conversations continue without good time management, right? There's also a time where we have to say, "This is a really valuable conversation, and I so appreciate you sharing this with the group because it's something that we definitely needed to know. But I do want to make sure that we accomplish what we need to today, and so I'm going to ask us to set that conversation aside for a bit and turn back to this." I think that being able to get a sense of when to step in is really important, and I think that that takes some time. I also think it takes carefully reading the client. The client kind of has a sense, too, right? You can kind of get a sense from them, and carefully reading the room. If it feels like everybody is really into it and this is really consuming all of their thoughts, that's one thing. If it's a couple of folks who like to chat, then that's a little different story.

Deb Zahn: That's right. That's right. Because you don't want to be the buzzkill in the first instant, because that actually knocks some of the trust out of the room, like now you're just going to control us. But you also want to establish trust with everybody else in the room that you're going to do those sort of management things that you said you were going to do in the room.

Mary Jo Condon: That's right.

Deb Zahn: That's great. So I want to ask...I have one last question. I feel like we could do about 5 or 6 podcasts just talking about facilitation, so I might try and get you back on. Because I am a nerd when it comes to facilitation, and I love talking about it.

Mary Jo Condon: And you're one of the best, so I'm-

Deb Zahn: Oh, that's very, very, very kind. So let me ask you this. I suspect that you have a life outside of doing the thing you love, which is consulting, and it can be really tough when you're a consultant to have balance in your life. So what are some of the things that you do to make sure you have balance?

Mary Jo Condon: Yeah, I do. I do have a life outside. I have 2 young children. I have a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old, and I got into consulting when my youngest was an infant. I got into it for my children. I had a great role, loved my role, but the commuting and the getting ready and the all of that was really like-

Deb Zahn: You mean showering every day?

Mary Jo Condon: Right? It's time. My older son was going to be starting school, and I hit the great fortune to have...My mom was a teacher, and so she was home with us in the afternoons when we got home from school because she was done working. I'd always thought, "Gosh, that would be so cool to be able to be home when my kids get home from school," and I couldn't figure out exactly how to do that. Then I met John Freedman, who's the founder of our company, and realized that I could work with the smartest people ever, I just love them, and people who really were aligned with my values, and I could do it from home.

Deb Zahn: Wow.

Mary Jo Condon: And I travel, by the way, interest of full disclosure. I travel, I work a ton of hours, but I'm able to...Tremendous partner in my husband. My career has never been any less important. My parenting has never been any more important. We need both, somebody who agrees with both of those things, to make it really work, for me at least. My husband and I actually both work from home, and that's a whole other podcast. But we set what I think of as fluid boundaries. I live in St. Louis, so 4:00 Central is 5:00 Eastern. Our firm is based in Boston, and most people will find that they do not hear from me between 5:00 Eastern and 9:00 Eastern. That's my time with my family. That's when my kids are home and awake. They also tend to not hear from me as much in the morning unless it's really early before kids get up. I work around those times. I have just started turning off email notifications on weekends. I highly advise it.

Deb Zahn: I have mine off all the time.

Mary Jo Condon: Stop it. That's bull.

Deb Zahn: I do. I'm telling you. I turned them off a while ago. I don't have them on my texts and I don't have them on my email, ever. It can be done.

Mary Jo Condon: That's both inspiring and terrifying to me to get there. But I've turned them off on the weekends. I have the great fortune that John, who's the founder of our company, and Linda, who's the vice president, really feel like our families are the most important things in our lives, and that consulting is wonderful. Our tagline, one of them, is we want to delight our clients, and we certainly try to. But they really respect and encourage and require us to lead full lives inside and outside of work.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful, and fortunate to be in a place that actually holds true to those values and doesn't just have a pamphlet on work-life balance that you read on your off time.

Mary Jo Condon: No, and the other thing I'll mention, and they really model this, is to take vacation.

Deb Zahn: Ah, nice.

Mary Jo Condon: I just got off of being off for 2 weeks, and I'll be taking another week off later on this summer. I take most of my time off when my kids are off, when there's not school, so around the holidays and then in the summer. In terms of the fluid boundaries, I'll say with complete honesty, one of the weeks I was off, I intentionally set aside time while my son was at camp and my other son was at preschool to get work done. So yes, I took 2 weeks off, but I also worked for a couple hours a day between those weeks so that I could feel really comfortable taking off 3 weeks this summer.

Deb Zahn: That's great. But it sounds like a deliberate choice, which is something I want to punctuate for the listeners, is it's not, oh, and you suddenly found yourself working. It's you chose to do it, which is a whole different thing.

Mary Jo Condon: Yeah. My son really wanted to do this soccer camp that's like a half hour away from our house, and you can't really drive a half hour and then get any work done and then drive a half hour and pick up. So I was like, "I've got the time off. I'm going to take the time off. I'm going to spend the afternoons together." But I said, "Hey, John, it kind of makes sense for me during those 2 hours to get some work done. Does that work for you?" And, "Yeah, sure, that sounds great." So really fortunate to have a partner and an organization that is so supportive.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, that's a big deal. Well, and recognition that that's what you want to do in your life, and you have strategies for doing it.

Mary Jo Condon: Yes, and I want to be completely real, too, because I think that this is so important. I'm exhausted. I don't have hobbies. There's a lot of dog hair on my floor. I have the same 24 hours in the day as everyone else. I've never really had hobbies. I just said on a call, actually, that if agriculture required my participation, we'd still be hunters and gatherers. I'm not a gardener. I don't have any...That's never been my interest. My interest has always been, since I was 22 years old and heard Uwe Reinhardt speak, that I wanted to make healthcare better, so that's how I've centered my life. I do, obviously, have great friends and love my kids and stuff, but this kind of is both my hobby and my work.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. That's great. That's wonderful. I am a gardener, by the way, so if you're in town next time ...

Mary Jo Condon: Please help me.

Deb Zahn: But you're right. It requires planning. I have a software program. I plan in February. I buy my seeds. I monitor. It takes quite a bit. Sometimes a crop dies because I'm busy, and I'll go buy soybeans because I didn't have time to take care of them.

Mary Jo Condon: I speak of this as a season of my life where my kids need my husband and I in a more intense way than they will in 5 or 6 years, and I'll catch up on TV and books then. I'm also relatively new to consulting, just a couple of years in, and so I'm also building into a new career. So that takes more time, so I definitely see it as a season. I always want folks to know it's not all wine and roses, you know?

Deb Zahn: That's right. That's right. It's definitely not, but you can also have wine and roses.

Mary Jo Condon: Yes.

Deb Zahn: Yes, if you choose to and you make good choices when you can. That's great. Mary Jo, thank you so much for being on the podcast. As I said, I think we could go on and on and on for hours about the ins and outs of how to do some of this, but thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with folks.

Mary Jo Condon: Oh, thanks so much for having me. I'd love to come back sometime.

Deb Zahn: Please do. Thank you.

I want to thank you for listening to Episode 19 of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I'm going to have a lot of other great guests that are coming up. I don't want you to miss anything, so definitely hit subscribe. And as always, check out I'm always putting up new information that is going to help you be a successful consultant and be able to do it faster. Thanks so much for listening. I'll talk with you next time. Bye bye.

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