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Episode 20: Consulting to Achieve Your Life's Work—with Laura Porter

Deb Zahn: Hi, I want to welcome you to Episode 20 of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. My guest today is Laura Porter, and she's going to bring a very unique perspective and different way of doing consulting, which I think is going to be very helpful. So she used to work in state government in the state of Washington before she was a consultant, and she led this statewide, very complex initiative that was focused on reducing the rates of really significant social problems related to child well-being. They had tremendous success! So she left state government, switched to become a consultant specifically for the reason of wanting to take that good work, wanting to take the expertise she gained in doing that work, and being able to spread it throughout the country and in fact, now internationally.

That's a different way that someone can be a consultant. Not all consultants have to have their area of expertise and show up and do whatever it is that the client wants you to do. You can have a focus. You can be very specific and mission-driven. She's going to talk about how she's been able to do that and build up a very successful consulting business where she is in extremely high demand. So she's going to talk about how she did that, and also talk about some of the ways that she's been able to take a framework for how this can work in different places and then adapt it to particular local circumstances. So in a particular local community, what are some of the things that you need to do in order to get the change that ultimately the community's trying to achieve? So she goes into a lot of great detail about that, great information. Let's get started.

All right, I want to welcome my guest Laura Porter to the show. Laura, you want to tell my listeners what type of consulting you do?

Laura Porter: I help communities and state leaders to implement trauma-informed practices and build self-healing communities.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. And, how did you become a consultant?

Laura Porter: Actually, I worked in state service for many, many years, and then just started getting so many requests to help across the country, that I left state service and became a consultant.

Deb Zahn: So you were a consultant by demand it sounds like?

Laura Porter: Yes.

Deb Zahn: That's great. Now you're unique among consultants, because a lot of consultants just they have the cluster of things that they do, and then they do whatever the client wants. But my understanding is you're unique in that you've done some really amazing things, and the goal is just to spread that in a very specific way across the country, in a very mission-driven type of way. How did you decide that consulting was a good path for doing that? Because I imagine others would think, "Oh, I should be at a foundation or a think tank or something like that." How did you pick consulting?

Laura Porter: What I find is that each place has unique needs, and when you want to tailor to a place, then having sort of a cookie-cutter approach that is the same for everywhere doesn't work as well. So even though I have a standard framework that I use and that I teach others to use, I also tailor my help to each customer group, and because of that, consulting makes a lot of sense.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. What are some examples of that? I'm familiar with what you do. I know my listeners aren't. Can you describe a little bit of what you do and how that might change depending on the client?

Laura Porter: Sure. So I teach how to teach about adverse childhood experiences and their effects, and I also teach how to use that information for promoting community change and healing. So when we work with a community, a community's a living system, and it's always changing. And so you come alongside the community and interact with it in order to encourage change in the community. So that's why you have to tailor the work because we're coming alongside a community in its own journey, and we can't force that community to be on our journey. So we can't force it to be at Step A if it's actually at Step Z. And so getting to know the community through the client is a really vital part of how we do business.

In some cases, I might get to know the community through key informant interviews, and other cases the person who hires me has already done a lot of community work to identify the stage of the community and the interest and the readiness of the community for various next steps, and so I don't need to do as much information gathering in that case.

Deb Zahn: What types of clients do you get? So who do you find that's coming to you?

Laura Porter: Usually it's a collaborative group that includes different sectors. Government, non-profit, private, faith, health, and that collaborative group has decided that they've sort of hit a wall in their amazing work, and they want some help to get to the next level of effectiveness or impact. So they'll bring me in.

Deb Zahn: Have you found any challenges in actually not just finding the clients or them finding you, but actually securing contracts?

Laura Porter: We are so blessed. We don't have a big challenge with that. Right now across the country, there's so much interest in the question of how do we help our communities be in a healing mode? How do we help that healing process to occur?

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. Where do folks get the funds in order to bring you in? Where does that usually come from?

Laura Porter: The funding comes from a variety of sources. Most commonly, it's either a health system that's looking to reduce their costs or a community betterment system like United Way or another kind of community system. Sometimes funding comes from the courts because judicial officers are seeing these family patterns. There's recurrence of challenges. And other times, funding comes from a private foundation. The foundation wants to have a larger impact and asks the collaborative to bring in someone that knows more about how to produce impact from the work.

Deb Zahn: That's great. And because there's enough interest in adverse childhood experiences, because I've certainly seen over the last 7 plus years that the interest in it has increased. So the market's ripe. But I also know that you're really good at, and, at the risk of embarrassing you, you are very good at creating raving fans. So that's how I found you, is you have a cheerleader that I know very well, and I've worked with before and has been a client of mine for many years. You've been really good at becoming one of the go-to people on how to do this type of work. I know that there's no one way that that happens, but how do you think that's happened, and are you doing anything to nurture that, or is it an organic process of the good work you do?

Laura Porter: I think that's a great question. Part of the reason that I am a go-to consultant is that I'm a really great listener, and I do take the time to find out what's happening and to make initial suggestions about the direction of the work we might do together, that are based on the person who's calling me and not based on my agenda. And so even in the early calls there will sometimes be long silences in those calls because I'm listening to everything that's been said and integrating all of that and coming up with ideas for next steps that would be really the right fit for that particular person or group.

I think that's a little bit unusual. I think the other factor that makes me a go-to person is that I really love people, and so I enjoy the conversations. I enjoy the process, and I love to come onsite, and I genuinely get delight from working with groups and people, and folks can feel that. I'm not overly serious, although the work I do is serious. But mostly I think, I hope what's coming across is my true love for community and people.

Deb Zahn: That's great. I will let you in on a secret in terms of what I've heard about why you are a go-to person, and I think this is relevant to a lot of consultants, is you also focus on the how. So there is a lot of folks out in the market who are talking about your topic, and it's true with other types of consulting topics, and there's a lot of what...Like, here's what it is. Here's why it's important. Here's what the research says. Here's who it affects, etcetera. But, people want to dig their teeth in too, I get it. You've gotten me. I know it's important, and I know I want to change it. How specifically can we do that? Particularly with something like adverse childhood experiences, which I can imagine for some communities or groups feels overwhelming. So what I've heard is you're very good at bringing very concrete things that you can do that have proof that they've actually worked in other places.

Laura Porter: I think that's true, and there's a delicate balance between sharing with people the how other places have successfully used and leaving open the space for that new place you're working with, coming up with even better ideas that no one ever thought of. That's part of working on the leading edge of a science or a discovery, is leaving a space open for whole new innovations to arise, and I think I have a deep appreciation for both of those, the importance of example and the importance of getting those examples right so people really can imagine the how. At the same time, I am really listening and helping people service the how that they're thinking about that maybe they haven't expressed yet.

Deb Zahn: That's right. That's great, find their own how. I love that. Now, so you used to be in state government, and I know you've been in county government as well. And when you're in government, whatever it is that you're in charge of, you're in charge of. So that's really different, leading an initiative within a government entity, versus being a consultant and helping other people do it. So what was that transition like, and what surprised you about it?

Laura Porter: It was a very big transition. It wasn't as big as for some people moving from state service to consulting, and the reason is that my role in state government was to help local communities to reduce the rates of 7 major social problems. And so I was both in a funder role and a consulting role to those communities. The big difference was that I also was a funder, and so while I was providing help, I also provided money. And when you move from state service out into the consulting world, you're not providing money. You're charging money.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Laura Porter: So that was a very big change, and I've had to spend a lot of time thinking about and getting feedback about what is helpful for motivating change when you're not a funder, when you can't use funding to motivate change. And there, I think stories and the practical wisdom of seeing so many communities move through various different phases has helped me tremendously, because I can pull examples out that are similar enough to the place where I'm working, that they can see themselves in the example. That sort of pulls them along into the next phase.

Deb Zahn: That's great. I imagine though that your government experience is also helpful, because to some folks, what happens in government is a mystery. They either like or don't like the outcome, but they don't understand how it happened. One of the things that we heard...I did a previous podcast with someone who's in state government who was talking about her experience with consultants, and she said, "At their best, they should understand that the world I operate in is really, really different than the world they operate in." And so it's not just, "Oh, yeah. Why can't you just do that?" There is no why can't you do that when you're in government. So how do you think that experience has helped you then, also now as a consultant be able to help people navigate sort of all the twists and turns?

Laura Porter: Well, it's invaluable. Both by county experience, because I understand how county processes work, how county budget-building works, but I understand also the calendar of an elected official and what pressures are there, what's reasonable to expect of an elected official and what's not reasonable to expect. And then from my state service point of view, I understand all the bureaucratic systems pretty much inside and out, how you work with them and how you move around them when you need to, and I also understand what's reasonable and realistic inside of the constraints that you have in government contracting and government implementation of policy.

That allows me to make really relevant suggestions, and even sometimes to say to a client that's a government official, "Maybe this particular next step would be best done with a host that's outside of government. What partners might you have," and be able to redirect the work when necessary in order to sort of create more innovation opportunity for a client that's looking for that.

Deb Zahn: I know that one of the things that you also encounter, both the little P politics and the big P politics, whether it's state government or within communities or things like that. How do you help work with communities so that those, whatever the politics are, either don't get in the way or support the change you're trying to create?

Laura Porter: Well, one of the first rules of thumb that I use is that everyone doesn't have to come on board. Everyone doesn't have to agree at once. According to Everett Rogers' fabulous work on how innovations are taken up by the society and become the norm, we really only have to reach about 50% of the people. And so one of the first guidances that I give to people is, go where the energy is. Go where there's excitement, where there's enthusiasm, and work with those people first.

Don't worry too much about where there might be folks that want to block the work or people that are hesitant or have their own way of thinking about it that's not consistent with the science.

That gives people that are in leadership roles enough energy and enough efficacy that they can continue, because you can always find people that are interested if you're not sort of hitting your head against a wall of trying to work with exactly the right titled position. I found that you don't need to do that. What you need to do is find the pockets of the community that are ready to change, and there are plenty of them, and begin to work with those, and then others will come along.

Deb Zahn: Now you seem to really have an excellent grasp of people, change, and change management, group dynamics, things like that. Where does that come from? Where did you learn all of that?

Laura Porter: Well, I've been a hobbyist in systems thinking. I've read a lot about chaos and complexity theory, network theory. I love those new science perspectives, and I love where those come into alignment with ancient wisdom of indigenous cultures. And so that's a pretty complex answer, but I'm always looking at where does science come into alignment with ancient wisdom, and I believe that human beings are creatures of change, that change is the norm. And we have to align ourselves with the natural flow of change, and then it won't be so difficult. So I'm constantly realigning my work with what I know from how river systems heal, how oceans heal, how forests heal.

Deb Zahn: Wow.

Laura Porter: And always double-checking, am I advising a client in a way that's going to be consistent with the way all living systems work here on earth toward healing? And if it is, then I just trust that that's going to work in community as well, and that served me very well.

Deb Zahn: Since you started doing consulting...You made your transition, your big leap. How have you changed what you've done and adapted it based on what you actually experienced out in the field?

Laura Porter: I've had to learn, and I'm still getting better at this, but I had to learn how to make units of information, because I had an ongoing relationship with communities for 17 years while I was in state service. I didn't need to deliver in discrete units or workshops, kind of. And now, that's how the consulting world works. And so what's important to do in a phone call? What's important to do in a site visit? How do you use a keynote to help people imagine a different future? How do you use a workshop and use it differently than a keynote, for example.

I think that's a huge learning process for me, even though I've been a consultant now a bunch of years. I still learn every week about that process, and I find it difficult. I'm much more fulfilled by an ongoing relationship where we can build on what we know of one another from past exchanges, and more and more I'm getting that kind of repeat customer. That's really great, because I think I'm better at figuring out what should be next when I know people better.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, I've really enjoyed some of the clients that I've worked with for 6 years, 7 years, because they know they own a portion of my brain and my soul and my heart. And, I always get to think about how to make their lives better and to help them achieve their outcomes. It's a beautiful thing.

Now because I know that you are so mission-driven and the goal really is transformation of our country, and I imagine it would be even beyond that if you could, how do you think about how to scale this? Because you're one person. I know that you work with a partner, and a lot of people want in-person. They still want in-person things, and so you can get in front of a room and maybe it's a few hundred people, maybe it's even more than that, but if you really want to achieve the level of change that you're thinking about across the country, how have you been thinking about scaling what you do and making it easier for you to reach more folks?

Laura Porter: We have 2 primary strategies for scaling, right now. One is, we train people how to teach and how to consult using this information, both the Adverse Childhood Experience information and also the community change information that we know. We're teaching people how to teach and how to hold fidelity not only to the science, but also to the spirit of healing, and how to hold that with your whole self. And the second strategy we use is to try to do enough general promotion work to create a market force, so that there's more demand for those people, and so that more and more people can earn a living in the field that we work in.

When we first started, it seemed that the funding streams were thin enough that only a few people were becoming sort of stars of the work, and we felt that that was a threat to the possibility of scaling this work at the scale it needs to be, which is why we believe everyone needs to understand the science and participate in helping their community to heal. In order to get to that scale where everyone in multiple countries has enough awareness to act, we can't have just a few superstars. We have to have many hundreds of thousands of people. In order for people to dedicate big sections of their lives, they have to be able to earn a living. So that idea of generating a market force that will help others to earn a living has always been in the back of our mind. It's in the process of designing new products or new approaches that's always a part of how we filter which thing should we do next.

Deb Zahn: I love that your answer was about essentially building a movement in a market, rather than how do we scale our business so that the demand flows to us. I do believe that that type of generosity is not only good practice when you're trying to change the world, but I think it's good business practice. I said to a client of mine who was actually going to do a consulting gig similar to what I do, and he asked if he could use some of my stuff, and I said, "Of course," and he was a little surprised even though he's known me a long time. I said, "Look, I just want good things to happen. I don't care who does them. So if my stuff helps you make good things happen, by all means go do that." I've never suffered from a business perspective by holding that perspective at all.

Laura Porter: Yeah, I always think there's plenty of work to be done and plenty of good work to be done, and certainly I couldn't possibly do all of it. So there's not a usefulness in becoming a bottleneck, but there is a usefulness in asking people to have fidelity to the information and the presentation of it. That's the balancing act, is to give it away and ask for that fidelity.

Deb Zahn: That's right. Right, because you don't want just quantity. You need quality, because you have a handle on what actually can make a difference.

Laura Porter: Yeah, and the work that I do is very tempting for consultants to want to make their money by telling communities what to do. That is the antithesis of trauma-informed guidance. One of the principles of trauma-informed care, trauma-informed guidance is choice, and when we tell people what to do, we're actually removing choice. We're adding to the dynamic that we might call adversity or trauma, and so we are always looking for people who can support communities and change, who can use robust examples, and who can leave that space open for the community to make their own choices.

Deb Zahn: That's great. What other types of mistakes or approaches that you don't care for have you seen consultants do out there that you're trying to head a different direction?

Laura Porter: Well from the perspective of me as a consultant, I've seen consultants who are fighting about the exact language. This language is right and that language is wrong, as opposed to really listening to meaning and intent. I think that fight over language is partly driven by the incentives of funders, that we end up feeling like we have to brand something ourselves in order to attract funding. I think that really harms the overall field that we're working in.

So I've seen that be a real problem, and my solution that I learned from a very, very wise elder who told me, "Just rename it periodically, and that way you'll be sort of a model for, we can take this a little lighter. It doesn't have to be so serious, so heavy, so competitive. We can lighten up and be in a much more giving spirit." I think that's been really helpful to me when things start...when I start hearing audiences or consulting customers debating about language. I literally do just rename the work in some way.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, because consultants are often trying to differentiate themselves. So that's one of the tricks, is to say things in a very particular way and try and brand that as the way because then you're attached to the way. And so I get it. It bugs me, but I get it. And yeah, my feeling is more, lots of goods work. Let's not get stuck.

Laura Porter: And to experiment with, perhaps the language that you're using as a consultant is helping people and it's sticking, and so that's something to listen for and being willing to change and use different language when the language isn't working for people. That flexibility, that nimbleness is also important, and when we get caught up in competing around language, we are not listening anymore to what's actually helpful.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. You seem to have not been afflicted by “consultant speak,” and I try and stay away from that. That's the one thing, is even specific terms and language that people use for things but also the insider language that actually...and I'm sort of split on this. On one hand I think insider language can be helpful to make people feel like they're part of something and an important part of something, but at the same time it can alienate folks that aren't in that position.

Laura Porter: Yes. I totally agree. I remember years ago when I was working for the state and I would try to be expressing myself in some way, and a researcher would say, "Here's the name for that in research speak." That was very useful to me, because I am not a researcher. I'm sort of at heart a community organizer. I've been in politics much of my life and then in government service, and so I don't know the speak of research. I do more now, but at the time I didn't, and so that was really helpful that I could talk to researchers more effectively. I think one of the reasons that I am a useful consultant is now I have enough research speak. I have enough political speak. I have enough community speak, that I can be a translator across those lines, and help people put into words for their audience, the kinds of things that they're trying to express.

Deb Zahn: That's great. I think that role is critical, and all really, really good consultants I know can do it. I was explaining this concept, this financing concept that is a little complicated and it's a little tricky, and I said, "So think of it this way. You're basically smooshing a bunch of funds together, and here's what you can do." That's the technical term, and everybody of course laughs, because it's “smooshing” that made sense in the room that I was in, but I wouldn't go say that if I was talking to an investor and say, "So are we going to smoosh here? Are we smooshing?"

Laura Porter: That's right.

Deb Zahn: It would be silly. So what's next for your consulting? What do you see on the horizon that you're excited about?

Laura Porter: There's continuing interest in what I call, NEAR science, Neuroscience, Epigenetic, ACES, and Resilience, that cluster of science that says how experience shapes development. But, there's a tremendous growth of interest in sort of the systems and complexity aspects of the work of, how do we help communities move into a healing mode, where the very nature of the cultural norms in the community are healing to create healing environments for people who've been affected by adversity and trauma.

And so I think that's the future of the work. I think we're moving from people understanding the science of NEAR, and then taking it to clinical practice, which is important but probably not sufficient, given how common adversity is. And so we're seeing much more interest in, how do we take it from the clinical out into the community and engage a wider set of people in the actions that will help create a healing environment?

Deb Zahn: And so for your clients that you've been working with, that you've helped them or helping them get to a certain place, but you're also looking at the horizon and saying, as all good consultants do, and saying, "What's coming next or what's possible next?" How do you get your existing clients to say, "Oh, wait. There could even be more."

Laura Porter: 2 ways. One is I report on the success that communities in my state had. There are 4 factors that were important, but the most vital factor was expanding leadership to include everyone that wants to help, and that was the expansion of leadership had to include residents in order for us to see these really dramatic reductions in the rates of social health and education problems. So in part I'm explaining what we say on the ground that made the biggest difference.

Then the other thing that I do is I'll find a way to map who's talking with whom in the community system. In almost all communities, it's professionals talking to professionals. Then once I can lay out that in a way that the community leaders can really see themselves in it, then I remind people in public health groups say, "Where's the vector? Where is the locust of the problem coming from?" It's not coming from that relationship of professional to professional. It's coming in peoples' daily lives, in their homes, in their neighborhoods. And so we have to energize and engage the general resident sector. Once they start thinking more deeply about, where are we putting our time, energy, and money? Are we putting it in the place, the origin of the problem, or are we just putting it among the professionals who are treating the problem?

Deb Zahn: So let me dig into that. I was just in front of a group of about 85 folks mixed from all kinds of different sectors and included a few community members sitting right in the front. One of them at one point turned around, totally legitimate and said, "Look, I come to this stuff. I see all the same people there, and I don't see anybody that looks like me or comes from where I do or has the experience that I have." I know for a lot of professions that can be really uncomfortable, and as the consultant your job is to get them to push past that discomfort to the point where they're willing to do something. So I think there's something important about what tactics you use to enable them to see it in a way that they're willing to do something about it and be able to get past any discomfort. How do you do that?

Laura Porter: Right now, I'm promoting the idea that in a community there should be 3 different types of groups. There might be a dozen groups, but there should be 3 different types. There should be the kind of group or partnership that's talking about individual families or individuals, people, how we're doing with them, etcetera. There should be what I think of as a middle level, a group that's talking about 2 to 5 years where are we headed. That's usually the group that sees themselves as community change group, and that's often the group that would defend the idea of professionals working with professionals, would give that pushback and might be offended.

But, there should be a 3rd group, and that group operates at the meta level. It's often a very informal group, a breakfast club or just a group of people with a particular kind of personality, who should be thinking about, what tools do we need to create now so that we're opening up those future avenues? What parts of the population do we need to be engaging, and what does it take to engage them so that our future would be working with a wider sector of leadership? It's that 3rd group who observes the pushback, who observes the defensiveness, and develops new tools for reducing that sense of anxiety or worry or concern. Almost no community I've worked in has that 3rd type of group when I start working with them. It's very unusual.

And so they rely on consultants to come in and do that thinking for them, when really they do need an internal group, internal to their community or their organization that's doing that thinking.

And so if I'm the one who's helping to form that in a community, then I would be working with that, often small team. Maybe it's 3 or 5 people. It's not usually a huge group at first. What I'm doing is saying OK. For example, recently I was working in a community that's around a river valley, and so I said, "What if we use a river metaphor, and we develop some visual tools that will help the leadership understand the critical nature of engaging residents in this work?" And so we did that. We created visual tools that were all around using a river metaphor, and that opened up a different kind of dialogue for that middle group, the group that's really deciding on 2 to 5-year kind of direction. But, in another community I would use a different metaphor. Right?

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Well, I love metaphors because you actually use a different side of your brain once you engage that. So it can actually...I'm married to a behavior change expert, so we talk about this stuff. It can actually break up how people do it.

Sometimes I've had instead of a meeting where you write things out on a flip chart, I'll put in huge butcher paper, and I'm like, "We're drawing today," because I know drawing will activate a different part of their brain, and they're going to be more willing to be creative and they're going to be out of their comfort zone. Unless they're an amazing artist, they're out of their comfort zone. And then, really cool things can happen.

Laura Porter: Art can do that. Music can do that. I think helping a group get down to the values level, the common values that people have can help them...When you ask them to reflect on that level, emotion and values, you get a different part of the brain that lights up. So I think all those techniques are really valuable, and you have to have them in your toolkit. You have to be ready to pull them out and help people to use them.

Deb Zahn: Right, or grab the duct tape and some twine, and make something up at the last moment if you need to. So I have encountered, actually quite a bit recently I think since I started Craft of Consulting, people are telling me things about their wants and desires and what they imagine for their future. One of the things I've seen is that people who are in the sector that's really about serving populations, serving people, trying to make things better, who work for or run organizations, or are even in other positions, want to do more and they want to have sort of a bigger reach, and they think consulting might be a way to do that. But when they think of consultants, they think the suits and the consultant speak and the cookie-cutter and the framework.

So what advice would you give if you were talking to someone who really is mission-oriented and wants to do something similar to what you're doing? What advice would you give them to make that transition or to decide if that's the right transition for them?

Laura Porter: Well, my experience with consulting is, for me it's the exact opposite of the suits. I have much more time to reflect now than I did when I was in a job that required me to work 60 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. And so one of the questions I ask people to reflect on is, how motivated are you? How self-motivated are you? Because your time will become your own, and you won't have the kinds of time structures around you that are maintained by the rigidity of the work environment. And so you do have to have to love the work enough to want to do the work.

The second thing is if you're a person who really likes to be the one who gets the credit, consulting may not be for you, because the job is to put into place all of what it takes for the person you're working with to have success and for them to have credit for that success. And often, the consultant is the person who intentionally comes into an environment in order to take the arrows, so that those arrows are not taken by the local people. And so you have to have some toughness and some kindness, in terms of I'm happy to do that for you because your community needs you, or your organization needs you to stay intact through this difficult change period. Then, are you able to hold both the immediate kinds of things that need to be done at the same time you're holding the longer-term vision? Because if you can't do that for a customer, you're probably going to find this work to be very frustrating if you can't hold both ends of that spectrum at once and run back and forth when you need to.

Then lastly, consulting can be incredibly rewarding, and I've been lucky in that I've been successful without having to push too hard. But, I think it can be also kind of frightening from a financial standpoint. And so I always recommend to my friends who really, really need and rely on that paycheck every month coming in like a metronome, that maybe consulting isn't best, because there are seasons to consulting when there's more work and less work.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Laura Porter: ...Where I'll look at my calendar for a month and think, "What was I thinking? Nobody human can do this." And then there'll be other periods of time that are more open, more free time or time for me to be in my garden or whatever. You have to be comfortable with that ebb and flow. There would be big years and smaller years, etcetera. Those kinds of lifestyle considerations I think are very important. Often people have the right technical skills, but the lifestyle of a consultant is too stressful.

Deb Zahn: Right. Yeah. Well, it was funny. Even as you described the ebb, you described it beautifully. I also am a gardener, so to me it's like, that's free time. That's gardening, I'm in my pajamas. It's awesome. But for other consultants, that's terrifying, because they can't imagine or they have difficulty imagining where that other work’s coming from. And if you don't have a tolerance for that or faith in the ability that if you are out there doing wonderful, amazing things and serving your clients in the best way you possibly can, and then if you need to do additional marketing and network development and all of those things, and going and giving a keynote or whatever that is, there are things that you can do to solve it if it becomes a problem.

But, for a lot of folks that's too frightening, in which case I say if you really want to do consulting, then consider a firm where you get a salary, and then just recognize you're going to have other limitations. They're going to expect you to hit certain hours, bring in a certain amount of business. You're not going to reap all of the rewards of your effort. But, you're exchanging that for stability and security.

So I always like to...and since you mentioned gardening, I'm going to transition into this. I always ask the question, because I do think life balance matters, and it's interesting, I think life balance matters for me and I think it matters for my clients. And so I take it truly to heart. Any client who’s known me for a long time has known that if I think they're burning the candle at both ends needlessly, I will actually tell them, "What can we do to offload you, because what you're doing is not sustainable.

You got to go hang out with your cat and your kids and all that fun stuff." So what do you do to bring balance to your life?

Laura Porter: Well, I have hobbies that I love that are really important to me. I love to cook. I love to garden. I like textile arts. I love my family. I love swimming in a pond. There's a long list, and so...But, it's always been true for me whether, even before I was a consultant, my staff used to say, "Make sure Laura has enough space-out time," because I need time to reflect and to integrate. And so I've always needed, even when I had a job that was grueling from a schedule point of view, I always incorporated into that schedule, time to reflect, because I can't do my best work without that reflection time.

Deb Zahn: Right, and you can't do your best work for your clients now that you're a consultant, and I've seen a lot of consultants just get into the grind and not recognize that means that you're not going to bring your best thinking, your best self, your best intuition, to your client. All you're going to bring is more grind.

Laura Porter: That's the very thing that they're hiring you for. If they just needed technical information or if they just needed some staff work to be done, they could get that in another way without paying the kinds of fees that consultants have to charge. And so they're actually hiring experience and insight. That's what they want, and if you can't bring that, then you're not doing your duty as a consultant.

Deb Zahn: Right. And so if you're thinking about being a consultant and you're considering how you're going to use your time and the ebb and the flow, part of it is you need ebb in order to do that, and you have to think about that from a financial perspective. Because there are times when I'm wrestling with a solution for my client in which case, yes I charge them specifically for that, but there's other times when I'm out in my garden and I'm pulling weeds and picking beets and doing that type of thing, and because of allowed open space, I now think of a solution for them or I think of a different tactic or I think of a different way to approach it. I don't bill them for that. That's me. I'm not billing them for picking a beet, unless I give them a beet. But otherwise, no. That's built into what your income expectation should be.

Laura Porter: Yes. When I first started consulting, I'm sure I charged too little, and meaning I charged not only less than the going rate, but also too little to really do what you're talking about, to give away the kind of time that's important to give away. It's a slow process to find the right sizing of fees and how that supports the pace of your work, and of course that's a balance between everything we just talked about and then also what the market will bear, what people want to pay or willing to organize funds to pay. For me, that's just been a learning process.

Deb Zahn: That's right. Yeah, if you know anybody. I have a great blog on it that talks about how if you're going to do an hourly fee, which not all consultants do, how do you come up with it? A lot of what I've seen when you look at the web, then you sort of Google how to come up with your price, it never made any sense to me. It always started with what was your last job, and then divide by this and multiply by this. But it's completely different. My feeling is you should start with your life.

You're going to have to look at the market. You're going to have to make some assumptions. You're going to have to adjust those. But start with what you want your life to be like, and then build it from there so that you don't get to the end of it, and you're now charging something that is not sustainable in the type of life you want, that you couldn't go swim in a pond because you got to grind because you're charging too little.

That's great. Well, I appreciate you so much being on this podcast. I will tell you, I was excited about this, because it was just yesterday I talked to one of those folks who's thinking about it and really wants to know, can I still make big change in the world and do big, complex things? I thought, "Well I'm talking to someone tomorrow who can answer that question." So I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

Laura Porter: Well, thank you. Thank you very much for having me on the podcast and for the work you do.

Deb Zahn: My pleasure. This was fabulous.

Thank you so much for listening to Episode 20 of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. Now, I don't want you to miss anything, so hit subscribe so that you get every single episode that's coming out, because I'm going to have a lot of other great guests.

And as always, you can go to I always have new information on there that can help you in your consulting journey and also help you have the life you want. So thank you so much and I look forward to having you on next time. Bye-bye.

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