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Episode 229: Three Capabilities to Cultivate for Success—with Deb Zahn

Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. On this podcast, I'm going to get a little philosophical. It's just going to be me, and I'm going to talk about three absolutely critical things that it's important for you, as a consultant, to cultivate within yourself and in the way that you look at the world and the way that you look at yourself and the way that you think that's going to make everything easier for you and better for your clients.

I'm actually going to talk about it in reference to the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. I know that seems a little bit odd, but there's three maxims that were inscribed on the entrances of this temple, and one of them you know really well, which is, "Know thyself." That's certainly powerful and really helpful, and I'm going to talk about it. But there were two others that I also want to dive into that, again, make everything easier and make it more enjoyable and allow you to serve your clients better. So, I'm going to dive into what those are and then give some examples, so that by the end of this you're like, "Get it. I know what to go work on."

Let's start with know thyself. That's the famous one. That's the one everybody knows about, and it gets thrown around a whole lot. But as it relates to consultants, the reason that I think it is so important is that I know, from my own experience, now 13 years as a consultant, is that self-awareness and self-reflection are extremely powerful consulting tools, and I would even put them into the category of superpowers. The best consultants I know are extremely self-aware and reflect on an ongoing basis, and it's just a normal part of who they are. Now, that doesn't mean if that's not something that you do today, "Oh, well, forget about it. This doesn't apply to me." You can cultivate it, so I will talk about that.

But the reason that knowing yourself is so important and paying attention to yourself and your responses to things, et cetera, is that it helps you make better decisions and it also helps avoid drama. I don't like drama, so I want to do anything I can to avoid it. I don't want it to get into any situations where I do these unforced errors that create drama in my business or create drama with my clients, simply because I'm not paying attention to myself. Or they make it harder for me to build a consulting business, the one that I want to have, simply because I am not paying attention to who I am relative to the choices that I'm making. Let me give you some examples of how I've seen that play out.

The first one is pricing model. There's a lot that goes into before you pick what your price is, it's important to know, OK, what kind of pricing model do I want to use? There's a few different ones that you can pick from. I always tell people, don't default. Decide which one you want to use. Knowing yourself is going to help you pick the right one because it's not just picking the one that you think your client is going to say yes to, or on paper, is going to give you the most amount of income or the highest profit margin, but it's also the one that you're going to be able to manage.

You have to manage different pricing models in different ways so that you don't lose money, and that's a big thing that happens. I'll give one example of where I see this quite a bit is if you're a consultant and you charge a flat fee. Flat fees can be fabulous. They reward you for efficiency. They reward consultants who really know their stuff and can do things quickly and deeply and easily, and they work really well and they can give you a really good profit margin if as long as the scope and the timeline stays exactly the same. And as long as throughout the engagement, you actually get what you need from your clients so that you can do the work that you need to do.

It basically relies on, in some ways, ideal circumstances in order for you to make the margin that you expect to make off of that, and in order to not lose money because losing money is one of the biggest risks of a flat fee, either because you underprice it or because the scope, the timeline changes, you don't get what you need to be able to do your work. And then, it actually takes more effort to get the job done. And then if you look back at what is your effective hourly rate, and your effective hourly rate means, what would I have been paid if I were billing this hourly?

What you never want is for that to just keep dipping down and going lower and lower and lower because you're ending up having to do more work or you're doing more work over extended periods of time, or you're constantly just trying to get things from clients and you're stuck until you're able to. Your effective hourly rate is actually going to go down, and that means you are losing money. It happens a lot. Anybody who's done any consulting engagements, if you have not encountered scope creep yet, or scope leap as often happens, or timelines that get expanded or anything along those lines, things that are really different than what you budgeted for, if you haven't experienced it yet, buckle up because it's going to happen and it's going to happen more than once.

Here's the deal. In order to not lose money and have that effective hourly rate go down to lower numbers than you ever want to see, you have to be willing and able to address it with the clients. You have to do that proactively, so that you set the stage in case it happens that they know what to expect and they know that you're going to intervene. You have to also do it reactively. If anything happens, if they're like, "Oh, can you just add? Can you also do this?" Or, "Oh, I thought this was in the contract," I've heard that one a lot, you also have to then be able to respond to it to manage against what is in the contract, to manage against what you committed to so that you don't end up losing money.

Now, that's easier for some of us than it is for others. If you're someone, and you know this about yourself, this is where the know thyself comes in and you know that you are conflict avoidant. You just hate conflict, you run from it, you don't like it, you don't want to do it, and you haven't gotten past it enough to be able to do hard things anyway and push yourself to respond, even if it's super uncomfortable.

If you're not there yet, then you're not necessarily going to have those tricky conversations that you need to with a client. You're not going to say to them, "I absolutely appreciate that you would also like that work done. Let me take a look at the budget and timeline and see what that does to that," or, "Be happy to do that. That's beyond the scope that we currently have." And if they push back on that, say, "Well, let's take a quick look at the contract together just to make sure we're both on the same page."

If saying those things out loud to a client sounds horrible, then you might not want to pick that pricing model. It doesn't mean that I'm letting you off the hook for improving because let's face it, conflict is a normal part of life. It's definitely part of consulting, and the better you get at managing it, the more successful you're going to be. But if you're not there today, and this is a situation where you can't imagine yourself doing it, you probably want to pick a different pricing model that's going to be easier for you to manage so that, again, you get paid for all your value and you don't end up losing any money because your effective hourly rate goes down.

But you have to know that about yourself. If you're just going along and saying, "La, la, la, la la," I think it's all going to work out." You're either hoping that everything stays the same, which it often doesn't, or I'll handle it if conflict comes up. And then when it happens, it's too big, it's too uncomfortable, too scary, and you don't want to do it. Or you're worried about losing that client and you need the income coming in, so you just kind of suck it up and roll with it. If you know this about yourself, then you pick a different pricing model.

Or you say, "You know what? I know I need to practice, and I'm going to have to do this sometimes, but this is a really high stakes engagement. This is a lot of money for me. This is a client I've been dying to work with. This is work that is going to help me get other work. Let me practice on something that's not so high stakes. Let me get a small engagement that's less important in my consulting business, and I'll practice there." Again, that's about knowing yourself so that you can make choices that help make sure that ultimately your business is doing what you want to do and you continue to have good terms with the clients that you're in.

Another example is then you pick your pricing model and then you go to price. This is a big one where know thyself comes into play. If you know that you have a ton of insecurities and doubts about what you offer and your value, you've got to plan for those feelings. You can't just let them run amuck. Well, you could, but I'm really encouraging not to let them run amuck, take the wheel, steal the show, whatever analogy you want to use, and suddenly that's what your prices are based on. You don't want them based on your most negative feelings or your most self-sabotaging feelings. You want to base it on a variety of factors that make that price make sense, some of which don't have anything to do with you, they have to do with the client, they have to do with the market.

But if you know that you have a really hard time getting past those insecurities and doubts and that you're likely going to underprice yourself or you know that I've underpriced myself in the last four engagements, it's something that I do, then you know that you have to come up with a way to intervene so that you don't do that. You got to plan for your weaknesses. We all have weaknesses. I got a ton of them. I've inventoried mine quite carefully. Thank you very much. And I tend to know, ah, yes, this is one of those situations where my weaknesses is going to come up and I got to plan around it.

That might mean that you need to get out of your own head, get out of your own feelings, and go spend some time gathering market intel, talking to other folks, finding out a little bit more about what the price ranges are and what gets people to the top of that price range. What is it that they're doing? What types of work are they're doing, results are they achieving? What types of experiences are they giving folks? So that you have an understanding of, OK, now I kind of know where to position myself in terms of pricing. I know how to get myself sort of at that upper end. If I make some changes doing X, Y, and Z. Or I'm already there, I'm good. I don't need to devalue myself simply because I've got some tough feelings going on. Again, the more you know about yourself, the more you'll be able to plan for those things.

Now, the other one that I'll give an example of, and just so you know, there's a lot of them where know thyself comes in handy. But knowing yourself is really helpful when it comes to any type of tricky client situation. I mentioned the pricing model earlier. If you're not able to defend against what you put in the contract, then that's tough. But there are so many other situations that can come up where the client thinks you made a mistake or they don't like what you handed them or they want something faster. There's so many ways that tricky situations can actually pop up.

You need to be able to clearly answer the question, what part of this is me? And what part of this is them? And what part of this is the situation? Particularly, when you're looking at yourself and saying what part of this is me, you have to know yourself well enough to answer that accurately and in proportion to what reality is. You want to know, did I do something? Did I not do something that created this situation or contributed to it? You want to be able to do that without exaggerating what your part is. You just use it as a stick to beat yourself with and it becomes this really big thing, or you minimize it and you're like, "No, no, no, I did everything fine. It was great."

You can go either directions with those. It's a continuum. Or you catastrophize the situation and suddenly it means all of these big, bad, horrible things beyond the situation itself, and that's going to make it really difficult to respond to. So if you know about yourself, here's how I tend to look at things. OK. I know I tend to catastrophize things. Let me not do that. Let me take a step back and not immediately go to that place that I typically go to because you want to have enough of a clear head to be able to assess accurately what's really going on. If you're able to do that, then you're going to be able to respond more effectively and get the project and the relationship with the client back on track and not have any collateral damage to your business, simply because you weren't able to take a look at yourself clearly in the situation clearly to be able to respond effectively.

The other thing, which I love about it, is the more you know yourself, you can say, "OK. This is interesting. This is what I did, and I'm now going to learn from this so I can prevent it going forward, or I can handle it more effectively." But you have to have that type of self-awareness and reflection to be able to tease out the different pieces of that reality so that you can respond in the way that you truly do want to respond.

Those are just three examples of how this shows up, but the thing I want to really say is self-awareness and reflection can be cultivated. If you got a little bit of it now, you can work on it to have more. If you already have some and you've been using it out in the world and you see good things happening because of it, you can cultivate it more. This is not about contemplating your navel. That's kind of the big rock that tends to get thrown at self-awareness and reflection. This is basically saying I get who I am in this situation and I get who I am in my business and in the world and with this client, et cetera, so that you're actually looking at things quite clearly. Once you're able to look at things quite clearly, you make better decisions and you take better action.

There are a ton of tools for cultivating knowing thyself. I will tell you. Two of my favorite are journaling. I do love writing in a journal, and one of my favorite things to do if I'm looking at a situation and I'm thinking, "I got too many things going on in my head, I got too many of the fields running around, I need to think about this a little more clearly." One of my go-to is automatic writing, which is basically I will pull my journal out and I will use certain prompts. Prompts could be I think, I feel, I want, where you write down, I think, and then you just start writing without thinking, without editing, you're not allowed to go back. Gibberish is OK, you just pour it out of you. You're just doing a dump.

And then, you basically go onto the next one, I feel, and then, I want. You can use other prompts. You could look at a particular situation and put my part is, their part is. You could have other prompts that really just help you sort of get everything out on a page. And again, some of it might be gibberish, but within that, there's going to be gems that you're going to be able to pull out and say, "Huh, that's interesting. I didn't know that I had that floating around." It's going to help you get into the habit of reflecting on yourself. Again, that's what I do. That's one of my favorite things to do, but there's lots of other tools. The key is you got to find out what works for you and cultivate those capabilities and those attributes as much as you possibly can.

The next one, the next maxim that was written over one of the entrances is, "Nothing in excess." I love that, and I've seen it before as everything in moderation, but I like nothing in excess because I think that really gets to the point of it. I really like this one for consultants particularly because I think it refutes the grind culture that I find so toxic. If you don't know what the grind culture is, it's basically glorifying the notion that you have to push yourself so hard and work all the time and just grind, grind, grind, grind, grind until you start to get results. It's almost this, I think almost this worship of overwork, and I think it's toxic as heck.

I don't think you can build a good, solid, sustainable consulting business off of the grind culture. Doesn't mean you don't have to work hard, that doesn't mean you don't have to do hard things, but not the grinding for the sake of grinding and that that's some beautiful, glorious thing, and that's better than what everybody else does. I frigging hate that. I'm just going to say it just like that. I frigging hate it, and it's not helpful and it's not going to help you build the business or the life that you want.

Look, when you're new or if you don't have a full pipeline, yeah, you have to do a lot to get clients into your pipeline. Depending on your market, depending on what you do, depending on your recognition and awareness people have if you're in your market, it might take more or less to do that. But that doesn't mean that you have to push so hard that you are going to burn yourself out because you're doing every imaginable outreach, every imaginable marketing, all of this networking and everything is in excess. Because here's the trick, is if you push too hard and you're doing too much, your effectiveness goes down because you simply do not have the reserves to maintain the level of excellence that you need to, to have all of those things you're doing actually be fruitful. So, there is a reason not to grind.

Now, there are some people that they love work and they love working all the time, and that's what they want to do. They love it, love it, love it. Bless your heart. I’ve got no problem with that if that's who you are. I am not that person. I don't know a lot of people who are those folks, but if that's your thing, that's great. But it's really about making choices. You have to do things to make things work for your consulting business, but you don't have to do everything. Part of what happens is because there is this sort of glorification of the grind culture, and as an entrepreneur, you'll get a whole bunch of “should” thrown out at you.

You have to do all of these things or you're not going to be successful. So, you have to have a perfect website, and you have to have a blog. Oh, by the way, you have to release it every week. Oh, you got to do a newsletter and you have to be on every social media channel. Oh wait, how's your email list? Because you have to be able to do email marketing and send out four emails a week. And while you're at it, do speaking engagements as many as possible. How come you don't have a podcast? You got to have a podcast. Oh, you should be doing daily videos. Oh, how's your search engine optimization? On and on and on.

If you listen to all of that entrepreneurial noise out there, it sounds like you have to do everything in order to be successful. My point is, if you try and do all of these things, you probably aren't going to be successful because a single person can't do them. It's not necessarily going to get you what you want. More is not necessarily better. It's just more. I was exhausted, even as I was writing this, I was thinking about all the shoulds that are flying out there. I got exhausted just saying all of it, thinking about all of it. It is excessive. The point is, you are the boss of your business and you get to choose. You do not have to be buried against underneath what all these people are telling you you have to do.

What I tell people is keep it really simple. When you're going to choose what you're going to do, so nothing is in excess, think about, and answer the question, who are my buyers? With enough precision that you can really get down to who the people are that I need to get in front of, and I need to hire me because I do these wonderful things that they care enough about that they're going to pay for. You have to answer that with enough precision that it's going to help you make decisions about what you're going to do. Because then the next question is, OK, what do they care about and what will they actually engage with?

Those folks don't show up on LinkedIn. They might have a LinkedIn profile because they did it in 2006, and then they've never touched it. Or they were told to buy their business, but if they're not actively engaged on it, you pushing, pushing, pushing on LinkedIn isn't necessarily going to help you unless you have some other strategy where you're using some of the assets you're creating on LinkedIn. Otherwise, it doesn't make any sense. That should should go right off the table.

The other way that I would look at it, sort of the other criteria I would use is what will you actually do and what will you do consistently? If you let those things guide your decisions, you're going to make better decisions. So if your buyers aren't there or won't care, skip it. If you hate doing something and you still have another way to get to your buyers and get in front of them and get them to hire you, then skip it. You don't have to do things just because they're on the planet and other people are doing it. You have to find a mix that works for you and ultimately lets you build the business you want and have the life that you want.

I'm not giving anybody a pass saying, "Oh, you don't have to do anything." You do have to do things to get business. There might be some consultants on the planet that have to do nothing. My husband was actually one of those. He was a consultant for years. He didn't care about making a ton of money and he never marketed, he never did anything. People just knew him and wanted to hire him. That was great for him. If he was entering the consulting world now because that was years ago, I don't think that would work for him. He might get a few gigs, but he's not going to necessarily fill his pipeline.

And so, you got to do some things. You got to figure out who your buyers are. You got to figure out how to get to them, you have to figure out what you'll actually do, and you have to find those things that are effective. But other than that, you get to choose. It really is important to choose because you have to find that nothing in excess sweet spot, so that ultimately, what you're creating and building is a sustainable business that you're in for the long haul. Because having a profitable, meaningful, wonderful consulting business is something that you build over the long term. And so, you got to get the fundamentals right to be able to do that. Nothing in excess is one of those fundamentals.

All right. I'm now going to hit the last one. This is the one that hardly anyone knows about and it's my favorite, which is, "Surety brings ruin." Now this is, as I said, the least known of the three, and the translation itself is contested. I've actually looked at what other people think it actually meant, but I'm going to go with this one because I really love it, and I think that this is a call for consultants to not lock into certainties. Because if you lock into certainties, that's some of the things that can bring ruin. It can actually make your consulting business not work because you've just decided that something is true and you've locked into it and you're not going to be moved from that. And so, this maxim is useful in so many ways because you want to look at, "All right. Where do my rigid certainties? How are those actually showing up?"

I'm going to give some examples of where they tend to show up. One is our buyer and market. This is where rigid certainty shows up in a whole bunch of different ways. The first one that tends to bring ruin the fastest is if I don't say that I can do anything for everyone, then I'll never get clients. I cannot tell you how many consultants, particularly new consultants, believe that that is true and have a hard time budging from it because it gets locked up in feelings of scarcity, which is if I do anything to narrow, I will never get business. Of course, the opposite is true, which is if you have focus and clarity about the specifics of who your buyer are, then when you're out in the world doing outreach marketing, whatever it is, networking, whatever you're doing, they're going to be more responsive to you because they're like, "She's talking to me. She's talking about things that I care about. She gets me. Now, I want to engage with this person."

One of the certainties that folks bring into it is, no, I have to go as wide as possible. If I don't go as wide as possible, it's going to be ruinous for me, which in fact, the opposite is true. The other thing is if people, particularly if it's in a market you've worked in a long time, I made a bit of this mistake when I started, is not thinking you need any market intel to help you get business and do a good job for your clients because I've been in this a whole long time, I'm good, I'm clear.

You think you know exactly who the clients are, you know what they want, and you show up without having done any of your homework or a homework about what they care about or homework about sort of new things that are happening in the market. That can lead to ruin because you can get in front of a client and get surprised by things, or just completely miss the mark because you don't really know who they are, or you're not as up to date as you think you are. That's a certainty that I see consultants sometimes lock into.

Another one, going back to pricing models in price, is thinking that there's only one way to do things. For a lot of consultants, they think hourly pricing is...that's it. That's how consultants charge. By the way, a lot of clients get locked into that certainty as well, but that is not the only way to do things. It's not always wrong. I've seen the other certainty, which is, no, value-based pricing is the only way that you should ever be doing anything, and hourly is just wrong. I'm also going to say there's plenty of engagements that I had that had they not been hourly, I would've lost money and my effective hourly rate would've gone down because of that particular circumstance.

The key is there isn't one way to do things. You have to weigh the different considerations and choose. Choose based on the situation, choose based on the situation, choose based on who you are and the things that you know you are capable of doing just like we talked about earlier, and choose based on what's actually going to make the most sense in that particular situation. The other thing that I see people get locked into quite a bit is the feeling that you have to compete on price. You have to be the low cost alternative, and that's how you're going to get the volume. If you get the volume, then you're going to have the business you want. Instead of, it doesn't have to be a volume game. It's also, you can earn really good income by being a premium consultant who charges at the higher end of the continuum because guess what, you deliver better results and you deliver a better experience. And so, you've earned that, in which case you don't have to play the volume game.

The other thing that they don't think about, and I've mentioned this on this podcast a whole bunch, is that price communicates value. If you're so certain that you can only compete on price, which means you have to be a low cost alternative. What you are signaling to potential clients is that you have less value whether you intend to or not, and it's just because our brains are wired to take that shortcut from high value is more money, low value is less money. Our brains are naturally wired for that. So if you are so certain that you can only do that, you are going to have an unforced errand, an unintended consequence because you didn't really think through it and say, "Is that really the right approach for me to take?"

The other way that I see certainty dig in and surety bringing ruin is when consultants, again, particularly new consultants, think about their capabilities and they think about what it is they can offer. Often, what they get locked into is, "I can only do this if I've done this exact thing before." they don't think about transferable skills or knowledge or things that they can carry into other types of work that maybe is a little more unfamiliar territory. This is where you narrow too much, and you don't allow yourself the possibility of potentially doing other work and engaging clients in different ways because you've just decided, "No, no, no, if I've never done it before, then I can't do it." That, again, limits your business and limits your income potential.

One other example that I'll give because I just love this one, so I'm going to give more than one example, is when you think about clients. I've seen more than I care to see consultants not treating discovery calls as an act of discovery. They might show up thinking, "OK. My job is to pitch and my job is to get them to say yes." That's what consultants do, and that's how we get money is we show up, and we have a pitch deck, and we shove it in front of their face, and we say, "Here, buy this," and not really trying to discover what's really going on with that client and what's really helpful and what's not helpful. What do they have a true demand versus something that might be irking them but they don't really want to spend money on it. Those are really discovery calls, and if you walk in and you feel surety that they need exactly what you're offering, then there's going to be a lot of engagements that you're going to leave on the table.

Now, if you have one thing that you do, and that's all you do, then you have to be real careful about how you pick your buyers to make sure you're showing up in front of the people who are more likely going to say yes. But for a lot of us, you really have to treat that discovery call as a discovery. the other thing is showing up and you think you know them, you get them and dagnab it, they're going to do it your way as opposed to recognizing that you're dealing with human beings. Once human beings get into the mix, things get messy. And so if you're absolutely positively sure this is the only way to do this, then you might run into some trouble because you might get some pesky humans in there, and they're gumming up the works. This is where having some of that flexibility can be very helpful and not being so sure about everything.

I'll tell you, I could go on endlessly about this one because this is, again, one of the ones that I see trip people up quite a bit. What it's really about at the heart of it is having humility and curiosity. Those two attributes and capabilities are two of the most powerful things that I see consultants do because they're much more able to see a situation clearly and get to a result if they have humility and curiosity. You need to be able to say to yourself and say to others, "I don't know. I'm not sure. Let me go find out, but I'm not sure." That is a powerful statement to make.

I've actually made that statement to clients before, and they're potential clients, and they're blown away because they're used to consultants just making stuff up and saying, "Oh, yeah, yeah. No, no, no. No, I know how to do that," when it's not. Or the path to getting them somewhere isn't clear or it's not clear yet, and they appreciate that honesty. And so, having that humility and curiosity is a cure for the ruinous surety that can get in your way. You want to be eager to question your assumptions, question your narratives, and really seek out what the truth is so you can better respond.

That's what I want to say about those three maxims. I love them, and I think that they are essential ingredients. They're not the only ingredients, but they're essential ingredients to making exceptional, marketable, high-value consultants. If you cultivate these and you add that to the mix of what you know and what you know how to do, then you're going to be a consultant who really is worth top dollar and you're going to be able to deliver amazing value to your clients. Even better, you're going to be able to have the business you want to have, and you're going to be able to have the life that you have. So whatever you can do to cultivate these things, I can't say enough about how important that is.

Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or if you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content, and I don't want you to miss anything. But the other two things that I'm going to ask you to do is, one is, if you have any comments, if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those.

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