top of page


Episode 2: Growing and Evolving Your Consulting Business—with Deb Cullerton

Deb Zahn: Welcome to episode two of the Craft of Consulting podcast. My guest today is Deb Cullerton. She is a managing partner of PMA Philadelphia which is a leading professional development firm. I've known Deb for many years, so I know she is one of the best and the most sought-after leadership coaches and trainers in the business. She's been doing this for over 20 years. She knows all the ins and outs of how to be an excellent consultant and keep getting business. On this episode, she gives us a whopping dose of insights about how to grow and evolve your business over time, particularly as markets change, ways to nurture your relationship with clients so they keep coming back for more and then also how to build a client base in a way that is more financial sound and so, so much more. I'm really excited for this episode. There's a lot of great information in there. So let's get started. 

OK. I want to welcome my guest, Deb Cullerton. Deb, why don't you introduce yourself and say a little bit about what type of consulting you do.

Deb Cullerton: Sure. First of all, thanks for having me. I have been a training and development consultant now for about 24 years where it's going on with primary specialties and leadership training and development as well as productivity development along the way. So that's my area of focus.

Deb Zahn: That's great. How did you become a consultant?

Deb Cullerton: Always the complicated questions right out of the gate right. I think I stumbled into it like most people do. One way or the other, I don't know that many people wake up and say I want to be a consultant when I grow up, but I did find myself with this area of interest to that I couldn't seem to find a full-time job in. That was really what I came down to is I think if I could have found someone who would have paid me to do what I do today, I probably would be doing that instead. But, because I couldn't and I was passionate about doing this work, it seemed like the only way to do that was to try to figure out how to pay myself. So that's really what got me going.

Deb Zahn: That's great. I know over your 20 plus years, you've built up an incredible practice. In fact, that's how we met. When I moved to New York from California, you were a consultant for the organization that I worked for and I was so impressed with what you did that when I went to my next job, I brought you with me.

Deb Cullerton: Yeah, you stumbled onto my marketing plan.

Deb Zahn: I did, I did. So tell me, how do you build up your practice? I imagine it happens like that, but what are some of the deliberate things you do to try and build up your practice?

Deb Cullerton: That's interesting, with 24 years in the game I think that's changed a lot. For many, many years I'm not kidding, referrals were truly the only marketing we did. It's still a big part. I run my little, they call it Deb's numbers game. I run my little numbers game in January of every year just to really understand where our business came from the prior year. 80 to 85% consistently every single year still comes from referral business. So that's still very much a part of our growth game is always building relationships and following people wherever they go and just always trying to stay top of mind as we all do and just be there when they're ready.

Now we added to that I think over the last five years, we've added components of some inbound marketing where we're putting more out there in the world, whether it's writing blogs or I'm working on a lot of videos right now that are meant to be helpful, so it's not just pure marketing. Always meant to be adding value, but because we're adding value, we're giving people things that are being shared with more than just our referrals, but now they're being shared a little bit more so we do get more business that way. That's maybe grown about 10% over the last couple of years.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. I think that the digital world that we're now in sort of demands that to an extent. But yeah, I was struck by your keep adding value and how important referrals are because I was just working with a group of consultants in an office helping them figure out the business development process and I said, "It doesn't end when you sign the contract. It ends when you add tremendous value and they keep bringing you back."

Deb Cullerton: That's it.

Deb Zahn: Because they want more and more of your help. That's the end of the business development process, which is why it's a circle not a line.

Deb Cullerton: So true. It really is. I think probably the thing that it took awhile for us to learn and make time for was, even when you've added tremendous value, you oftentimes have to go back and remind people of that value. By continuing to nurture and I think that's the piece that we work on today is, we know we do a great job when we're in front of people and people are happy. What we don't always know is five years later do they still remember what a great job we did for them? So by dribbling out these little pieces that are very focused, they stay in our lane. They're not too diverse there. We try to stay in our lane. I think we're trying to continually remind people, "Hey, we know what we're doing and should you have a need again or know someone who has a need again, just remember who knows what they're doing in this lane and come back to us." So the nurturing piece becomes more and more important.

Deb Zahn: That's right, because perceived value is key and people get busy. They love what you did. Some other new problem shows up and they get busy and we were valuable to you and if we can be again, we will be. And if we can't, we're still thinking about you.

Deb Cullerton: That's right. I think what's also a learning curve around this is, to understand how people perceive you. Not even just general, but in a very specific way and aligned with what content. I found out the hard way that if you did a project with a client 20 years ago, they're going to remember you for this very specific niche thing that you might have done with them and not have a sense of the broader you. So I would, in fact, I would get emails from people. It's hilarious, right? You'd get emails from people that I said we work in time management predominantly, work load management, productivity, things like that. Then we work in this other area that's broader, that's more leadership competency. So if I was working with leadership competency as I did with you, you may have no idea that we have this whole area within productivity because as a consultant, you don't advertise. You don't have these things. So I would get an email from a really solid client, somebody that I thought really knew me well, who would say, "Can you recommend a time management consultant for me?" It blew my mind. I'd be like, "What? Like, what?" But that was a good awareness for us to understand that even when people love you, they love you for very, very specific things. So in your nurturing process, you have to keep on using it as an opportunity to educate your client base or in your past client base about what you're doing now, what projects are exciting to you and keep reinventing yourself in their brain so they can use you more again in the future.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, absolutely. I have gotten more than one call where a client who I had a great time with says, "Hey, do you know anybody that does strategic planning?" And I have the same response where I'm like, "Uh, that's kind of my thing. That thing I did for you was kind of a one-off."

Deb Cullerton: That's right.

Deb Zahn: It's always funny. Then they think, "Okay, well that makes sense because you're good at strategy and you're good at this and that and the other thing." But I never put the pieces together for them which is why I always tell consultants that I'm coaching, “Don't expect your client to make the mental leap. Your job is to do that for them because, otherwise, you're putting an undue burden on them to figure you out. That's not their job. Our job is to present ourselves.”

Deb Cullerton: That's right.

Deb Zahn: One thing you talked about is I know that you teach productivity. I was on the receiving end of that. And just so you know, there were things that sunk in quite deeply. And I also recently read a blog of yours where it was hilarious where you talked about when you don't practice what you teach, the rabbit hole you went down and you went down a rabbit hole I would have gone down, which is around neuroscience. Just hilarious. And I almost text you and said, "What's the name of the neuroscientist you mentioned in your blog?"

So you obviously teach it. You know it better than anybody I ever heard and it's so essential for consultants because time is money and you want to have the rest of your life. So how do you practice it as a consultant?

Deb Cullerton: As well as I possibly can. When we're talking about these kinds of things, this is always some combination of discipline and efficiency. What I tell people all the time is I'm efficient, but I'm not disciplined. So because I'm not disciplined, I know this is life long battle for me. I'm a people person. So as much as I love process, and I love systems, I am going to fall off of this on the daily. And having the set up, having the systems is what gets me back on. I won't always be there. I will absolutely go down the rabbit hole and I'll get on a conversation with a client that should have ended in an hour and it will go two hours because I like them and I want to talk to them.

Deb Cullerton: So I think this is very much about knowing yourself and knowing, if you are a super disciplined person, you may not need the depth of system and process. It may come more naturally. In fact, you may have to build process in to drive more flexibility and more spontaneity into your world. That's not me. I'm naturally drawn to those things. I have built tons of process and systems that just really help me. It's templated process. I have a 10-minute daily planning process that I go through. I triage my email as opposed to sitting in my email all day long. These are the things that I think, these systems, these tools. They have me get back on track in a hurry when I inevitably do get pulled off track because I will and I've stopped fighting that over the years.

I think some of my greatest moments come when I'm allowing myself those flexibilities and the spontaneity to just pick and do something because an opportunity arises. I don't want to kill that part of myself, but I do want to create a situation where it doesn't take me two weeks to get back on track once I've lost my focus.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, and it's easy when you're efficient. You kind of have an edge so you can get away with the lack of discipline a little bit easier. I have the same thing. What I've been doing is trying to get curious about what I do, but with humor. It's not in a judgmental way. I am amazed at my creativity when it comes to distracting myself. I'm so good. So I pay attention to what I call vampires and zombies. The vampires are the things that suck my time away, like social media. Then the zombies are the living, undead things that I keep doing over and over, like multi-tasking which doesn't work. The problem is I tell people that time comes from somewhere. It usually doesn't come from work. It usually comes from the rest of your life. So you're making a choice, even if you don't know you're making a choice.

Deb Cullerton: Yeah, yeah. You absolutely are. I think you're right about getting curious. I think sometimes as consultants, we're oftentimes the plumber with the leaky pipes. We run around trying to help everyone else get their act together and really the first things we're oftentimes doing are the needs assessment. Asking those big, open questions to really understand what's going on. Of course, we rarely ask those same questions of ourselves. I think that's part of it. That's half the battle of it is do you have time that you set aside to actually ask yourself some of those big questions like how did I spend my time yesterday? Really honestly how did I spend my time yesterday and to your point, where did that time, if I did go down a rabbit hole for an hour, what did I take away from when I did that?

If I took away from doing my taxes, well I'm probably okay with that. But if I was taking away from something that's a true investment in my business, and that's the thing that falls to the bottom of the pile. Well, that's going to undo me at some point in the game here.

Deb Zahn: That's right. Or take away from something else you enjoy doing in your life. As I love to say, every choice is a relative choice. Saying yes to something, you're saying no to something else whether you know you're doing it or not. You've obviously, again, been consulting for a while. I know you also work with other consultants and you probably can't stop yourself from coaching because you're like me.

Deb Cullerton: Yeah.

Deb Zahn: For new consultants who are in their first one or two years of being consultants, what do you see as the big challenges and what do you tell them in terms of how to tackle that?

Deb Cullerton: Oh, there's so many. I was thinking about this this morning, just thinking about this idea of how do you...I think many people go into consulting because they want a certain lifestyle. They want a certain flexibility that goes with consulting as well as having a passion for a particular area or an expertise. I think the challenge is how do you then build that out over the course of your first couple of years from a consultancy standpoint? It's easy to find yourself chasing business and taking on projects for the sake of paying the bills, as you do in those first few years in particular that are not good for you. And they're not good for you in a variety of ways. So I would say doing everything you can do to go get more clients as opposed to take every project that a client gives you. That was a thing that I had to undo after I did it badly for the first five years. I took every project. It was so much easier to just say yes to my first four clients as opposed to going and finding number five. That created a pattern in my business that took me a long time to undo, which was this constant trying to solve every problem that a client had instead of only the problems that I was really good at solving.

So setting boundaries on client projects and then using that time to continue to invest in more client, more clients, more clients. If there is one…if I had to narrow that down, I'd say carve out a percentage of your time for sales and marketing and never let it go. So it doesn't matter. Say no to a project if you have to, but make sure that you're still spending 20 to 30% of your time on sales and marketing or else you will back yourself into a corner of doing the work that you're not the best at, and, therefore, not the most efficient at. And that's where you end up spending way too much time because you're constantly having to run out and learn something that you didn't really know as well as you should have to do a project.

Deb Zahn: That's right. You also then open yourself up to risk of having such a small client base that if the leader of that organization or company goes away or there's a change in leadership in any way, which happens quite a bit, then suddenly you went from four clients and maybe you're down to two now. And now you're scrambling. And it's easier to replicate that mistake where you're like, "I'm just going to say yes to anything because all I'm playing is the short game."

Deb Cullerton: Absolutely. Oh, amen. We've all been there so many times over right? Where, even if you've been a consultant for, when you start to move into that kind of five to 10-year range, I think the danger…you still run into the same danger. It's just at a different scale. You've really, at a certain point, you get comfortable and so it also applies to kind of the cross industry and cross geography and finding ways to build as much diversity into your client base as you can without losing your economy of scale for exactly the same reason. For us, we've chosen cross industry because any one... We were around in 2008 and financial services was our biggest client base. Yeah. Literally 15%. With one phone call I think we lost 50% of our training gigs for a year because everybody in the industry just froze and shut everything ancillary down. Learning and development was the first to go I think. 

It reset us. It said I know you think you've been doing this for a while, but time to reset and really think about making sure that you're across industries so that when one industry...we've got a huge government client over the last two years, who shall go unnamed, but has three letters in it. I'm sure there are lots of consultants this month are dealing with that and the fact that we were coming into this year with approximately 20 dates on the calendar that were for this big government client and of course, all of that went away. Well honestly, that would have been a really big deal for us at some point in our career because they would have been the one of four. Now, they're only 10% of our business and so it's a hit, but it's not a debilitating hit. Really, really important point.

I just want to expand on one thing, which is I think and this is a little bit deeper. It's not maybe quite as tips and tricks when you talk about those first few years of the consultancy. I think the other thing that gets in our way is a little bit deeper work, which is the work of really understanding where our self-esteem comes from. I say that just because I think I have, over the years, I think I worked really hard to live my values. One of my values is to have a big work ethic. I grew up in a very blue collar, hard working, and it was, honestly, it was just drilled into me from the time I was really young that to have a work ethic was the most important thing you could have. You didn't have to be the smartest, but you had to be the hardest working.

That was almost fine when I was out in the corporate world because there were natural boundaries and limitations that were put on that. When I brought that into my own business, that created, and continues to create, I have to battle. I fight. That has created probably more challenges than any practical challenge for me. So getting to the end of a day and saying it's okay for me to stop when my value system is saying no, no, no, no. You must work hard because that's who you are. I think those are the bigger challenges that we fight. And I think they become more magnified as a consultant, especially if you are a consultant in a small business where you don't have a ton of interaction with others.

Your brain becomes your biggest enemy in many cases. You have to...I think taking the time, especially early in your career. Taking the time to really understand yourself from a self-esteem and a values standpoint can be another important exercise in understanding who you're fighting when you're fighting you to get up from the desk and go do other things.

Deb Zahn: That's right, because what you have always done is what you will do, but you're right. When you're a consultant, some of those, once amplified, are now a bigger issue than they would have been when you were in a company and OK, well, maybe that's fine, but then maybe you still took these weekends off. But once you're in a consultancy where you don't necessarily work regular hours, unless you deliberately make a choice to, everything gets amplified.

Deb Cullerton: Yeah. Well, and you’re under stress too. There's no amplifier like stress, in the beginning especially. Although it never ends. You're always fighting some battle and distress in and of itself will drive you back to your corner. It will always drive you back to what you do best. So if you believe, if you have this unfounded or otherwise belief that your value comes from your hard work, or your value comes from your perfections, or your value comes from your intellectualism, whatever it is. Wherever you believe your value comes from, that's where you drive back to when you're under stress and that's dangerous.

Deb Zahn: That's right, and that's different than reflecting on all of that and then making deliberate choices and trying to develop the right habits, is you go back to default and default setting is generally not good.

Deb Cullerton: Exactly yeah. No, exactly right.

Deb Zahn: So let me ask you one other thing, because the thing that I see that a lot of consultants, including in their first several years, struggle with is they came from companies where they were successful. They knew what they did. Their job description was generally all they had to say and people would get it. Oh, OK, yeah. You're a CFO, you do this. You're a CEO, you do this. Now they're a consultant. And I struggle with this at the beginning, which is how do I describe what I do? And for me, it was a particular challenge because I'm a generalist. But saying to people, "Well, I make things happen." Not as strong a marketing line as you would possibly want. I see a lot of folks struggle with how do I describe what I do in a way that is clearly valuable to a potential client and compelling such that it's going to open a door to potentially getting some of those gigs that I most want. What advice would you give to sort of newbies who are dealing with that?

Deb Cullerton: Honestly, the first thing is just to recognize that your description of what you do does not limit what you do. I think this is important because I hear people do this really well and then back track. So they'll do it and then they go, "But we do this. But we do that. But I do this. But I do that." Because they're so afraid that by not hitting the right button, that they're going to somehow limit themselves to the projects they can take on. I don't know about you, but I know most consultants I know, we have this systemic thing inside of us that is “bright shiny light” syndrome. Where every new shiny light looks like a great thing that we should be involved in, so that adds to it. So I would say the first thing is understand that your prospective clients, they really can't hold all of that in their head. And they're not going to hold you to it anyway. But you need to give them something they can latch onto. For me, that was, "Say what you do, but then give them a concrete example." So that way the concrete example is the thing that they'll remember. I'd say, "We're productivity consultants and we save people on average an hour a day." Of course, if what you say you do provokes someone to say, "And how do you do that?" you're probably onto something. Because it means they've got it wrapped in their head reasonably well and you've gone result as opposed to what. And the result will always drive them backwards to a how do you do that? Then you can get into some of the ways. But I really do believe you have to have that hook. It's by no means the only thing we do, but we call it...for us, we call it the tip of the spear. It is most of the time how we enter into organizations. Therefore, if that's true and that's been successful for us, there's really no reason for me to regale you with all the other leadership things that we enter into.

As long as I have a tip of the spear type of area within my business that most of the time will get us in and then cause the client to want to know more about what we can do. Once they have you, they don't want to let you go either. If you're in there doing good work, the hard job will not be to expose them to what else you do. The hard job will be to put boundaries on them so that you're not emptying garbage cans in the bathroom. That's the harder job with clients.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, because they're smart to do that because they recognize all of their lost time and energy if they have to start fresh with someone over and over again and acclimate them to who they are and how they work. I love your tip of the spear idea. One of the things I've also seen as new consultants come in is, they can nail down the what, but then the client asked the how question and they're not prepared in a clear, succinct way to say “Here's how I do it.” What I tell people is: be prepared. Figure out, here's what you do. Here's what we found that it achieves and then here's how I do it in a way that is compelling and they could get a mental picture of OK, yeah, yeah, yeah. I could see what you would do with us. But that is also soothing because they feel like, OK, they can actually solve this problem for me.

Deb Cullerton: That's right.

Deb Zahn: Because most decisions are made because of emotions. They need the logic to know that you can take them on a journey that's fruitful but mainly they just want to know [that you will] come in and solve my problem and fine if you say what, but if you give me a how that makes sense to me. Now I can sleep at night.

Deb Cullerton: You're absolutely right. This is what we call the first page of the proposal. If you don't have the first page of your proposal memorized so that you can say, "We have a five-step process." "We do this with a four-step process. "We do this with a five-step process." But you're right, that's insurance for your prospective client to know that you probably do know what you're talking about. There's a lot of people that try to present themselves as consultants that have zero experience. And you don't have to have a ton, but I think you do have to...once you have that first or second client, you now have a process. You can sit back and say, "There were two or three things that made that process successful."

That's my process. It doesn't need to be big and complex, but it does need to be those handful of bullet points that you could put on the first page of a proposal that indicate a structure because I think you're right. For every person that will respond to their emotional need, there's another 50% out there, there's another group out there that will only respond when there's a logical, reasonable story around it. It really gives them both.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. I also try and sneak in there a little bit about what the experience will be like working with me or working with my team. One of the things I do when we do strategic planning is we have a tool kit. It's got a bunch of things in it. We pull out what we need, depending on the circumstance. Generally, I'll give them an example where we started to do something and then it became clear that X and Y were true, so we switched up. When we switched up, here's what we got out of it because what I've found that folks also like is the clear process, but knowing that it's not cookie cutter and that ultimately the goal is to solve your problem.

Deb Cullerton: Yeah. It's a good one. I think even when you're talking process, showing them that you're flexible is still, there's a balance there that you're trying to run right. We have a process, but we're flexible. You know, that so much comes back to...let me back up and say this. I think our number one characteristic or trait that has made us reasonably successful in this space has been our ability to listen. And it's what our clients say. We send people back in every once in a while to say, "We're collecting marketing data. Why do you continue to do business with PMA?" They say, "Because they listen." I think first of all you have to do that. You actually have to listen, but you also have to show them you're listening.

Although it's easy to say, and I think it's important to say, you have to know what you bring to the table. You have to know what your how is so that you can layer structure. I think there's a way of doing that, and I think that's what you're indicating right? Is, the way you do that is you pay really close attention to the response of the client. You let them into that. So when we say we like to start with a needs assessment and we stop. We ask a question. We say, "Have you done needs assessments so far? What have you found? Have you not done these assessments? What's been the barrier to doing that?" So even as you're going through the process, you're layering in all those questions that say, "I'm not so fixated on my process that I'm not still paying attention." Because as we know. Every client is unique and they believe they are so much more unique than they actually are, but that's okay. They get to do that. And that's our time to figure out just how unique they are and show them that we're really paying attention to that. It's that fine balance of show them you know what you're doing, but also be willing to listen to them and build those components in as you go.

Deb Zahn: Right. And listening has practical implications, but it also sends a signal, which is “we care.” We care about what's going on with you so much that we're going to stay curious about it so we can design the best solution. Because the feedback that we've gotten from clients, and I've gotten from clients, is we often come in after they've experienced other consultants and they are delighted because they're like, "This is how I wanted it," where someone's actually listening to me. Responding to our specific problems and not just trying to sell this X thing off the shelf or that Y thing off the shelf.

Deb Cullerton: Absolutely, especially in a B2B world. I know when we talk about consultants, there's this natural split between B2C and B2B. So I think when you're selling directly, your services directly, whether it's coaching or consulting directly to a consumer, I think they can get to be motivated by the reward much faster than a B2B. They can see where they want to go and they get a feel for what you're bringing to the table and they see the matchup. 

I know I've always had coaches. I've always had consultants in my own life. It's a much more intuitive decision-making process. But when you're in a B2B climate, I think it's much more fear based. Everyone gets kind of sent off to find a consultant in a specific area, really comes with a lot of fear that they're going to make a bad decision or make themselves look, that there's more to lose almost in this decision than there is to be gained. It's not driven by the reward or the result, it is driven in many ways by a fear of risk. So anything you can do to minimize the risk and that's all of those comfort points because the person that's sitting in front of you, people buy by committee in this day and age. And even if you don't get to see the whole committee, you have to know that that's who sent standing on their shoulder when they're making those decisions. So they're not thinking necessarily about their own needs. They're thinking about what's their VP of HR going to think about this person that they're going to expose to their organization.

Deb Zahn: Since I do a lot of strategic planning and most businesses or companies or organizations I work with have been through it. And it's mainly a torturous process. People hate it. The person that's responsible for finding somebody knows that they could be labeled as the source of our torment. You're making us do this. And my job is to turn them into the hero. And that's how I think about we're going to make this a process that works for you so well that that's part of how people remember you. That's now going to be part of your brand.

Deb Cullerton: It's so funny. I had to erase it from my white board because I would be doing video calls and realize that people could see it so I had to get it off the board. On our white board, we have our external mission and we have our internal mission. Our internal mission is make our sponsors look like geniuses. It's a nice easy shorthand, but it puts the importance on the sponsor because it is a big deal to sponsor a consultant into your organization. You're taking a huge risk. You have more to lose than you have to gain most of the time. 

When our sponsors take that risk on us. We want to reward them heavily, right? We keep it in the forefront of our mind. We never lose sight of who sponsored us into an organization. I think for exactly that reason that because they're taking that risk on you, you have to make them look like the hero. And if you want a reason why people will come back to you, that'll do it every time. You said it from the beginning. When your sponsor goes off to another organization, who truly are they going to call? Now, and even more so because their reputation is nebulous. They haven't quite established it yet and now they're bringing someone into the organization, making sure they bring someone in who's going to make them look good within their own organization is critical.

Deb Zahn: Absolutely. The last question I want to ask you. I know that apart from your work life you have a life, because I see it on Facebook.

Deb Cullerton: I do.

Deb Zahn: That's one other thing is when you become a consultant, and particularly when you start to establish yourself with the client base that you build up and you become popular, again a default setting often is for potentially type A personalities like us, is to let it take over all aspects of your life without deliberately making choices about what you want to do. I know this is something that you work on. How do you try and keep that balance in your life and make choices so that you can enjoy multiple aspects of the fullness of your life?

Deb Cullerton: Always it comes back to know yourself. So know those places, those things that you do more naturally. There are folks that may do the balance thing just a little bit more naturally than I do. I've already admitted my natural tendency towards workaholism, so I have to fight that on the regular. I think there's a couple of things. For me, especially in the early days, I didn't feel like I needed a lot of work-life balance. And quite frankly, I didn't. What I needed was work-life satisfaction. I felt like because I absolutely love what I do and I continue to love what I do that, and I think other consultants feel this way, that we enjoy what we do so much that I don't have quite the same need to get away from my job. And I'm putting that in air quotes even though you can't see it because I really love what I do. That said, there is definitely value that I can get from some of those balance activities that...and if I can see it as something that will value my execution of my job, we'll put it that way, then that's another way that I get myself to do these things. For example, in the early years, I really felt...I'm a big believer in lateral thinking. I really felt like if I was doing things that allowed me just complete diversion from the consulting work that it would make me a better consultant. 

I love the arts, so I would go off to a play or show or the museum. I would have a pad in the car and I would always...and the reality is, I'd go through the museum and it would just provoke so much new thought that I would come back and then put my focus back on something that was going in for a client and suddenly see some really creative solutions that I just couldn't see as I was sitting staring at the problem directly. So this idea of indirect solution or indirect creativity came about because I was willing to engage in other things, get out in the woods and take a walk, go to the museum and look around and just really engulf myself in it. 

Now all of that said, I think you also have to know where you are in your life. I'm at a different phase in my life now. I'm getting a little bit older and now some of those balance activities really do feed completely individual needs that I can't necessarily get from my business. Hobbies and creativity, I love woodworking. I've always lusted after a workshop. My whole life, I've wanted to have a space big enough to have a workshop and I'm finally in a place where I can do that. I do find that getting out and working with my hands, doing things where I'm working with my hands, allows for that recharge of my brain. I don't think everybody has to do that. For me, I have to feel like it all feeds a need and it's not just diversion, it's not just a waste of time. It's not just distraction, but that it is actually feeding a need that gives me a higher level of work-life satisfaction.

Deb Zahn: So you and I often have parallel things going on in our lives, so I also finally have a workshop. I built a work bench about the same time you did. Yours is so much better. I just want to say that. It's OK. Like I've told you before, what I like in precision I make up for in tenacity. But I love your idea of lateral thinking because I found the same thing. My favorite example, as you know, I'm a big gardener. It's a mini farm, let's just be honest and call it what it is.

Deb Cullerton: I bow to that, I really do. I love that.

Deb Zahn: It's huge. I was reading an article about crop rotation. I was reading a book and it was fantastic and something just jumped out where it said, "Here are the five most important things to do. Here are the five things to do first." I took that and we ended up putting that into a tool that we used in consulting as an assessment tool that that's part of how we organize the outcome, which is based on your assessment, here's the five things to do first and here's the five most important things to do. Had I not had other interests in my life, we would have created something that was good, but it wouldn't have had that flavor that I picked up from somewhere else.

Deb Cullerton: Absolutely. Again, as a consultant, some of the hardest things you do is make yourself unique from another consultant. Everybody's got ... and the internet, and the internet. So everything has been rehashed and redone so many times that really finding your sparks of creativity and new, is just I think absolutely invaluable. It's invaluable. There's no other way. I think when someone says to you, "No one has taken that approach with us. No one has brought that to the table. That was really interesting." Or even if you're in a competitive situation where you're making presentations for a job and you have three other consultants coming in. There's a likelihood that they're going to pitch the same process. So finding that really creative angle that often times comes from those balanced activities, I think it pays you back in more ways than just peace of mind. We'll put it that way.

Deb Zahn: Absolutely. Then you also get to go do other things in your life too, which is fabulous.

Deb Cullerton: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

Deb Zahn: Well, wonderful. Deb, I have to thank you so much. This has been an absolutely wonderful interview. There are so many gems in here that I wish that I had heard when I first started being a consultant. It would have made life a lot more easier. Thank you very much for your time.

Deb Cullerton: My pleasure.

Deb Zahn: I want to thank you for listening to episode two of the craft of consulting podcast. I hope you got as much out of that as I did. I'm going to have a whole lot of other fantastic guests that are going to be joining me on the podcast, so please click subscribe. Then if you want any more helpful content, there's a whole slew of it on So thanks again for listening. Looking forward to being with you again on the next podcast. Bye bye.

bottom of page