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Episode 24: How Consultants Create Balance in Their Lives—with Deb Zahn and Guests

Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to episode 24 of the Craft of Consulting podcast. In this episode, we are going to focus on one topic, one really important topic, which is life balance. The reason we're going to talk about that is, one, is it's really near and dear to my heart, but the other reason is I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who's a consultant and she said, "Well, summer's over. There goes my life."

And she meant it, like that was not a joke. She said, "The kids are back at school. We took some time off. That's a faint memory at this point, and now it's all just stress and grind until we get to the next holiday, assuming that I don't have to work that holiday."

And it just made me really sad because she's this wonderful person and I thought wow, what a horrible way to think about something that you absolutely love doing. So I thought this was an important topic to focus on, particularly as we move into the fall. So what I'm doing is I'm actually going back to previous episodes and giving examples from some of my guests of how they bring balance to their lives. If you've ever listened to any of my podcasts, you know that I ask every single guest—doesn't matter who it is—at the end what they do to bring balance to their life. And I get a lot of really different and interesting and thoughtful answers.

Deb Zahn: I picked 4 of those that I thought were really good. And what you'll hear is not just what they do to bring that balance, but they talk about how they think about it and how they approach it, so what their mindset is. And then you'll also hear a few of them talk about how it enriches their consultancy, how it brings more to their clients than they're able to do otherwise. And in some of those you'll also hear me talk a little bit about how I do it.

Deb Zahn: So we're going to hear from Michael Field from EvettField Partners, and that goes back to Episode 8. Then we'll hear Deb Cullerton from PMA Philadelphia, and that goes back to Episode 2. We'll hear from Diana Crabtree-Green, that's back in Episode 17. She's an independent consultant. And then we'll end up with Andrea Fabbri, who's from Branding Business. That's back in Episode 5.

Those 4 examples hopefully will help jump-start if you need it or remind you if you just need a little reminder about how important life balance is, to be able to not just have a great life, but also have a consultancy that is sustainable over time. So a lot of great tips and techniques and mindset that you'll hear in these different responses, so let's get started.

Michael Field: It reminds me of an old consulting joke that I was told many years ago, that there's three burners on the stove. There's health, there's family, and there's money. Choose any two. I have a very simple philosophy. For me, it's a three-legged stool. It is health and family and business success, and they're all intrinsically intertwined. I have a young family, I have a 6 year old, a 3 year old, and a 1 year old. It's a demanding home life, and I really, really value that. I've always had a strong view around social contribution and creating value, so I've found really meaningful ways to do that within those boundaries, so within my family life, my business life, and maintaining health, and that's a healthy mind and healthy body.

For example, I'm on the P&C committee. I'm the president of the P&C committee for my son's school, and that keeps me very engaged in school life. I find that that's a way that I can keep balance, contribute, and still feel that I'm behaving in a meaningful and appropriate way with raising a family. I say to people that I live a very small life, as in those are really the priorities I've got. At this age and stage, I've got no interest in any exotic travel or anything else. I'm really just focused on building the business, spending time with my family, and staying happy, healthy, and fit.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. And you then get to bring that happiness and that fitness to your work life as well, which is always great in client engagements, and they sort of tell the difference when a balanced person is actually in front of them.

Michael Field: Yes. It's amazing the level, the depth of relationship that you build with your clients over the time is very much based around common values, common hopes and aspirations. And in family businesses, particularly, they're doing the same thing. They're putting their children through school. They're spending time away from home because they've got travel commitments and work commitments. And we need to be, as consultants, as empathetic and supportive and understanding of those personal issues for the client as the business issues. We can't simply go in there and just do the work and leave. It's a very short-term view of things. Although you can never really solve somebody's personal problems, whether you like it or not as a consultant, if you're a good one, you'll hear about them.

Deb Zahn: You sure do. Absolutely. And that's also part of being a good consultant is recognizing that that comes up too, because your clients are people.

Deb Cullerton: Always it comes back to know yourself, right? And 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 things. For me, at least 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. And I felt like, because I absolutely love what I do, and I continue to love what I do that, and I think a lot of 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.

Now, that said, there is definitely value that I can get from some of those balance activities, 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. So for example, in the early years, I really felt...I'm a big believer in lateral thinking. So I really felt like, if I was doing things that allowed me just a 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 a show or the museum and I would have a pad in the car. And the reality is, I would 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 on 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 this.

Now, all of that said, I think you also have to know where you are in your life. I'm in 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. So, hobbies and creativity, I love woodworking, I've always kind of 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. And so, 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 kind of feel like it all feeds a need and that 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: Yeah. And so, you and I often have parallel things going on in our lives, so I also finally have a workshop. I built a workbench about the same time you did. Yours is so much better.

Deb Cullerton: Yeah, it was kind of eerie. Kind of eerie…

Deb Zahn: I just want to say that. But it's OK. Like I said, I've told you before is, what I lack 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 is, 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 this.

Deb Zahn: It's huge. I was reading an article about crop rotation, I was reading a book, and it was fantastic. Something just jumped out where it said, "Here are the five most important things to do. Here are the five things to do first."

Deb Zahn: And 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.

Deb Cullerton: Fantastic. Yes.

Deb Zahn: 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. And again, as a consultant, some of the hardest thing you do is make yourself unique from another consultant, right? Like everybody's got...And the internet, and the internet. Everything has been rehashed and redone so many times that, really, finding your sparks of creativity anew 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 presentation for a job and you have three other consultants coming in, there's a likelihood that they're going to pitch the same process. And so, finding that really creative angle that oftentimes comes from those balance activities, you know, I think it pays you back in more ways than just peace of mind, we'll put it that way.

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

Deb Cullerton: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Diana Crabtree-Green: I love that you asked this question, Deb, because I feel like this question applies to everybody. It especially applies to consultants, and then even more so it applies to self-employed individuals, who have so much autonomy but then have so much falling on their shoulders. So, with that, I would say I've got a few rules that I follow here. And first of all, I have a separate office space. I come into this office to work. I try to avoid working from the dining room table, from the couch. I want to keep my personal space separate from my business space, so that I can shut the door on my office at the end of my day or my two hour work period or whatnot and be done, and not feel like it's nagging at me to come back and address it.

Deb Zahn: Right, and that's almost like a ritual too, that I know some people do. I do it, because I have a distinct office, which is tax-deductible. But that ritual of walking out the door, shutting the door sort of punctuates for you, "OK, now this is not work time."

Diana Crabtree-Green: Yes. And I know people that even go out the front door and come back in the front door to actually ritualize the start and end of their work day. I don't necessarily have to do that, but I'm not exactly in my pajamas right now either.

Diana Crabtree-Green: That's the first thing, is having a separate office space and yes, established rituals around that. That's important for me. The second thing, there's a great book called Deep Work, and it's written by Cal Newport. He talks about scheduling work times and windows while also eliminating distractions. The idea there is to really hone in and focus on your work. And boy, I'll tell you, as a society, with so many distractions right now, as a whole we've lost the ability to focus. His book really gives some great tips and advice on how to really, really get in and focus, and focus is especially important when you're an independent contractor, when you're self-employed, because your time is yours.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Diana Crabtree-Green: You're not punching a clock, trying to fill the work day, checking Facebook, checking Instagram, trying to make it look like you're busy so you can get your 40 hours in during the week. Nobody got time for that when you're self-employed. You want to get the work done so that you can get on with your life and get other things done. As a result, deep work and real focus is important.

The one tip I took away from him is scheduling out times for projects. I'll take my day, and I personally like to work in the mornings, I like to get it done when I'm fresh and bright and lucid, which I lose later in the day, let's be honest. But also, to get it done and to allow myself the treat of my free time in the afternoon. I'll schedule out, "OK, I've got this model that I've got to work on so from 10:00 to 12:00, that's what I'm doing."

The office door shuts, I might turn the ringer off on my phone, I will definitely ignore e-mail, and I will dive in. I will do a deep dive and make my time very focused and very efficient.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. I have this, I mentioned this on another podcast, I have sort of a similar system which is, included in that is to batch things. Because if I have to go on and off of something, forget about it. I'm wasting a bunch of time because my brain has to adjust. So I dedicate that time, and I've found that to be tremendously helpful. And if I stray from it, forget about it. I'm wasting time, and that time doesn't come from the work for my clients, because that has to get done, it comes from my garden time, it comes from my family time, it comes from the other things I like to do.

Diana Crabtree-Green: Absolutely. Yeah, I hear you loud and clear.

Deb Zahn: That's great.

Diana Crabtree-Green: And you know, the other thing that's really important for me, and again, important for everybody, but especially when you become self-employed and you're managing all aspects yourself, is being incredibly organized.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Diana Crabtree-Green: For me, that means having a very strict e-mail protocol. I mean, I use my inbox as a loading dock and I've got a system for what I do with every single e-mail. Nothing goes missed. Very, very little ever goes missed with my e-mail, because I've got a great system in place. Utilizing task lists, super important. Developing tools for yourself to become more efficient. These things are all incredibly important. Scheduling your clients, scheduling your client times. Kind of juggling everybody and placing them in a time slot that makes sense for you and also them, and really honoring the importance of spacing that out. All of these things are really important. Organization is critical.

Deb Zahn: That's right. What I like about that is, often I think when people hear...A lot of this falls under the umbrella of productivity, and I know when I used to hear productivity, I thought, "Oh great, that's another thing I have to do now," as opposed to, no, this is a gift for you, to make choices so that you can have the time that you want to have in your life.

The e-mail system, I was brand new to that, and I know...So I turned my alerts off, because I'm like, "Squirrel, squirrel," any time I would see an alert. And what would happen is because I know, I have really horrible short-term memory. Anybody who's ever worked with me can tell you. I actually had an assistant that used to call me Etch-A-Sketch, because she said if I moved my head, it would be gone. And that's a legit thing to say about me. So I used to answer all of my e-mails right away because I was afraid I would forget about them. And so now I do what you're talking about, which is I use it as sort of a loading dock and I just move it over to my schedule so that I have a discrete time in a block that I answer e-mails, and it's going to go into that block.

Diana Crabtree-Green: You're preaching to the choir on this one. It's funny, because I'll look over somebody's shoulder once in a while, a friend, and I'll see 1,628 messages in their inbox and my mind is blown. My head explodes. I just have no idea how people manage it that way. And somewhere out there, somebody's managing it beautifully that way, I just don't understand how.

Deb Zahn: That's right. But I love that, I love that way of talking about balancing your life as get the tools that actually automate it or make it easier for you.

Diana Crabtree-Green: Yes, yes. Or develop the tools. I mean, I've got a spreadsheet that I create for my tax clients which allows me to duplicate the return in Excel, and it allows me to double-check my work, because nobody else is here checking my work, right?

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Diana Crabtree-Green: And also allows me to make an expectation for what that tax return looks like. This is something I just kind of created. I use it for every single client, and it is part of my process. I'll tell you what, I couldn't complete tax returns without this tool that I've created.

Andrea Fabbri: Balance to life is something that kind of goes up and down, because if you care a lot about your client's success, often times you need to leave your hobbies or your, you know, what really like to do aside. But that's something that has to be stated. For me, I play a little less now. Still regularly, playing music is like breathing. I have to play music. My brain plays music even on the subway on my own. I'm not really there bored, I'm actually having a full concert. That's what I wanted to be when I was younger, and then I made different choices. I'm still very active, and I'm fortunate that way.

Now, why I state that, because what I do is the yin yang of music. I'm using, in brand and consulting, the same skills that I use in music, exactly the same one. For me, what I became aware of that, that's when suddenly I realized, "Of course I have to be a consultant," because these are the skills that I have naturally, that I've been gifted. So I have to do that.

But this is more of a theoretical answer. In brush strokes, I think you can't be a great consultant unless sometimes you forget that you are one and recharging the famous batteries, if you want to use an often-used metaphor. So it is essential for me to go here and there on weekends, on my own, not with kids, but on my own, on climbs on my own. Just to be in nature, surrounded. I don't have to speak, which is beautiful. I speak all day long. Just with my own thoughts, with my own thinking and my own emotions. So physical activity is phenomenal for that, and really fun. Almost getting away and forgetting what I do, that is probably the most important thing I do, and I do it absolutely on a weekly basis. I have to. I'm happy to be with my beautiful wife. I love my kids, and they're very active. Take them to all kinds of activities. They play really, really well soccer, they're on an amazing team. So I'm happy with that, but I also have to have time for myself, I guess to answer your question.

So getting distance from what I do allows me then, when I go back to it, to have fresh perspectives. I have to tell you, often times the best ideas come usually after a long hike in the mountains. I come back thinking, "Wow, I didn't think about that." Anyway.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, my happy place is I have a huge vegetable garden, so I go out and I commune with my vegetables and talk to them and coax them into giving us food.

Andrea Fabbri: Yeah. I love cooking, too, so yeah, yeah.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, and I tell my clients, "So I was picking beets and I had this great idea." And that is often it, is when I just turn off that side of my brain and I'm in nature, and then I essentially let the ideas flow.

Andrea Fabbri: Yeah. One of the things that I noticed, particularly if I think about when I started compared to now...We were just talking this morning with my two chief creative officers, how design has almost become a commodity, and there is a tendency to be formulaic. I hate formulaic. I can't...Jazz is anything but formulaic. You can go to see a performance of the same artist night after night and he will not play the same notes. At least the good ones. And I really, I don't like that. That's something that we always have to be careful. We are valuable if we come up with something that isn't formulaic. We need to be grounded, we need to be structured, we need to provide and exude confidence, but we cannot be formulaic. We need to have that spark, and sometimes big one, a lot of times maybe moderate.

So I think that's one complaint that I have sometimes about businesses today, that they want things done quickly, and there's a tendency of going towards what it is known. My tendency is always to go where it is unknown. You know, let's explore, let's think big. And of course it has to be informed by data. So to do that, you need to sort of embrace, that's why I was saying earlier you need to be courageous. But you need to embrace the uncertainty. I'd say probably that is the one thing that defines a great consultant, the not having fear of the unknown. Any project I start, I have an idea of what needs to happen, but what do I know what's going to happen four months from now. Some people cannot deal with that uncertainty. I thrive in it.

Deb Zahn: I want to thank you for listening to Episode 24 of the Craft of Consulting podcast. Going to have a lot of other great guests, so if you like what you hear, hit subscribe. I'd also love to see some comments about what you like about it or what you would like to see me talk about in the future. And as always, you can go to, and there's a lot of other great information that can help you propel your consulting business forward and have life balance, as we talked about in this episode. Thanks so much for listening, I'll talk with you on the next episode.

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