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Episode 241: Evolving a Consulting Business Over Time—with Hoda Shawky

Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting podcast. So, in this episode, we're going to talk about sort of the journey into consulting, some when you first start and how you make decisions and evolve your business over time.

And I brought on someone who has done that. She's about three years in. Her name is Hoda Shawky. And she is going to talk about sort of how she made decisions along the way to make sure that she had the impact that she wanted to have as a consultant. And she ended up doing the type of work with the clients that she really wanted to work with and also had the life that she wanted.

And she's going to share what that journey has looked like. So, let's get started.

Hi, I want to welcome to my show today. Hoda Shawky. Hoda, welcome to the show.

Hoda Shawky: Thank you. It's So, exciting to be here.

Deb Zahn: So, let's start off. Tell my listeners what you do.

Hoda Shawky: So, I am a maternal child health equity consultant. And I work with organizations that are interested in promoting anything related to maternal child health equity with a focus on behavioral health, wellness, and the attachment between the parent's wellness and their child's well-being.

Deb Zahn: Oh, I love that. And you know, as someone in healthcare and public health, that just makes my heart sing because there's such a great need for it. So, you've been doing consulting for about three years? Yeah, you've been at this for a little while. What drew you to being a consultant in the first place?

Hoda Shawky: Well, I never planned to be a consultant. I loved healthcare. I always wanted to be a pediatrician my whole life. And as I was nearing the end of my undergrad, I realized, gosh, that's a lot of schooling and a lot of hours. So, I did a minor pivot and I ended up becoming a nurse practitioner in pediatrics, which was an incredible journey. I spent 15 years working in a number of community health clinics, federal qualified health centers, and the communities I worked with really touched me. I was happy to go to work every single day, and I did So, for about 15 years. And near the end of that 15 year span, I started to feel more and more frustrated because I wasn't Seeing the shifts over time.

So, it didn't matter how much time I spent with the family. It didn't matter how much education or even how many certifications I got to be better at what I did. There was more going on beyond what I could do within the four walls of the clinic supporting the family to help them, whether it was with their child's behavioral health, whether it was with just successfully breastfeeding, whether it was avoiding having obesity for all their kids, or there was always one child in the family that would be underweight and the issues were the same.

It wasn't about problem eating. It was about the social determinants of health. Through those 15 years, I came to discover the definition of social determinants based on what my family taught me. And I felt like my wheels were spinning just working with clients. I needed to do more and I really wanted to get into public health. There was an opportunity that came along to join a fellowship through the Pritzker Foundation, and it was to advocate for early childhood well-being. So, I took the opportunity in hopes that I would learn more about public health and be able to step into spaces that affect sort of the broader influences on family and community well-being.

And I haven't looked back ever since. It's been wonderful.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. And to think that from sitting in a clinic saying, I can't do what needs to get done here to a fellowship, and then there was a leap to consulting. So, how did that? And that's a beautiful journey. But how did that leap to consulting happen?

Hoda Shawky: So, I just got engaged in the work that I was doing as a fellow, the focus was on maternal mental health specifically. But it seemed like every issue was impacted by maternal mental health. So, I slowly got involved in a number of different projects in the organization that I was with doing the fellowship.

And it was hard to let go of any of them. I just kept getting deeper and deeper into the work. And fortunately, they liked me enough and agreed to hire me as a consultant after the fellowship ended. So, I've just been finding additional help. Projects within that organization as well as within other organizations.

And it's just going from there.

Deb Zahn: I love that. And I love how it was the mission first, and then consulting was a way to realize that mission because you were in the right place and there was a way for people to actually pay you to do the good work that you were doing. That's wonderful. Now I know how important it is you, and you've said this in the story that you just told, how important it is for you to make an impact as your business has sort of matured over time. How do you make decisions about whether you are you in the right place? Are you making the impact you want? How might you change your business based on that really important mission part to you?

Hoda Shawky: This isn't the most, I guess, professional way to say it, but really what, what helped me determine was whether I was happy doing the work. So, if I was excited and getting ready to sit down and just dive in and spend as many hours as needed to come up with a final product or to come up with a way forward.

And it was something that I enjoyed. It means that I was aligned. And if it was something that was just painfully difficult and causing issues in my stomach, there was probably something I didn't want to continue doing or renew a contract in that specific field, but it was OK because there were always five other options that were a good fit. And it was fine with the organization and it was fine with me.

Deb Zahn: I love that answer because I think doing a gut check—we call it sort of a gut check—

on something to see is aligned with who I am and how I want to use my life force on the planet and am I going to get so into it that it won't even feel like work to me?

That's a great way to pick what am I, what do I want to be doing as a consultant? I love that. And how have you? I thought about and made decisions about the sort of clients that you want to work with because obviously you're in high demand. You can work with a whole lot of folks. How do you sort of think about who do I want to be spending my time with every day helping?

Hoda Shawky: Yeah, that's a good question. I think it really comes down to relationships. I'm a very relational person, and the work that I seek the work that's relational. So, organizations that are looking to build relationships and trust with communities and have that same sort of practices with the people that they work with and are open to genuine, honest feedback and engagement that's two way, that's bi-directional. Those are the organizations that I love to work with. And this was inspired by you because you were my coach early on. I was very intentional about the organizations that I sought. And if they worked in a way that I wanted to be a part of her, that I wanted to learn from, I really tried to show up to meetings so I could be visible and try to interact with folks in that organization so that they can remember my name I wanted to learn how to operate on teams the way they operated.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Yeah. And what you're describing is really different than what I think a lot of new consultants think they have to do, which is to work with anybody doing anything.

And because they got to pay the mortgage, they got to get pay the bills, get money coming in. There's often less intentionality to it. And here you are three years in and you're showing that that intentionality and then the strategy that springs out of that intentionality actually works and that gets you to being able to do what you want to do.

How did you make other decisions about your business? Because obviously it's really different than employment, and you have to think about how many hours do I want to work relative to other things that I'm doing? Are there other parameters that I need to think about our boundaries that I need to set so my business looks the way I want and it doesn't necessarily eclipse other things that matter to me.

How did you approach that?

Hoda Shawky: That's a good question. So, I think it has came down to alignment and alignment with my values. As I said, sort of, the projects that align with my values, those were easy choices. I think the more difficult decision I had to make was to also align with the projects where the time requirement met sort of what I could give so I wasn't over-promising something that I knew I didn't have the hours for or even the duration of time.

Right now, it's kind of more shorter-term projects than, than. The extremely long term and part of that is because I have two boys and I want to be a part of their life. I'm a cancer survivor. That's one of the reasons why I stepped away from the clinic was to get treated and thankfully I'm healed.

But I need to take care of my health and I cherish every moment that I have with my family. So, I want to be around with my teenage boys. And while there's a lot of great work to be done and there's probably lots more projects that I could jump on. I don't always choose to. I also am involved in a lot of nonprofit work.

I want to make sure that I have time to do that and not feel burnt out because I want to do all of it.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. Ah, that's inspiring because again, it kind of goes against the whole notion that when you first start consulting, your life is consumed by it and that's OK. And I would assert, no, it isn't OK.

You don't go into any livelihood to essentially kill yourself or to take over other things that matter. Did you have to learn or what kind of new skills or ways of working did you have to learn in order to get what you just described?

Hoda Shawky: OK. So, it kind of goes back to what you just described, which is that first year of feeling like you have to do everything and dedicate your life.

I did because it was during the COVID pandemic. Oh yeah, that. And there was nothing else to do but work. Yeah. And I put in long hours and would stay up at night. Night like during odd hours of the night, just putting in work and I think a lot of it was yes to prove that I can be a consultant, but it was probably more so for myself than the organizations because they wouldn't have hired me in the first place to do this, and it was exhausting.

I got a lot of hours in, and it paid for a couple of bathroom remodels, which…

Deb Zahn: I respect that.

Hoda Shawky: But the bathrooms were done being remodeledm and I wanted my time and my health back. And I knew that that wasn't sustainable. So, I think I learned the hard way, and I don't know that I was that kind to myself to have to prove myself in that way, but after that first year, I started to be much more deliberate with how I use my time and just to realize that the work will get done. I don't need to kill myself for it to get done. And that I often remember your voice in my head, which is that's why you're a consultant. You're not a consultant so you can feel a slave to that schedule.

You're a consultant because you're supposed to be able to sort of dictate what hours you want to work and when and then spend the rest of the time doing other things that you really love. So, I think some of those skills that I learned and I practice all the time now is blocking time off on my schedule.

So, certain chunks of hours in the morning on certain days, Monday mornings and Friday afternoons are not times where I have meetings or much to do. What else I think again? Setting boundaries, but mostly for myself because I realized that clients honor my boundaries. It's me setting my own.

Deb Zahn: Oh, yeah. I know what you mean. Yeah.

Hoda Shawky: And then just the nifty tool is that Calendly link that you had taught me about, and I think it took me like. Five to 10 minutes to set up a Calendly link. And I've been using it for like three years and I still get people telling me, wow, this is such a sophisticated way to schedule appointments.

It makes me look really smart, but it saves a lot of time in just finding time to meet someone, and you can sort of send an email and say I'd love, I'd love to connect and when you're ready, here's my Calendly link and then it's on them to make the appointment. It saves a lot of time.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And I love, and I absolutely know the, it's setting boundaries for yourself because what I realized is when I went from being employed where I was like working all the time and I was stressed out and my health was awful and I never kept appointments, medical appointments and all that stuff.

And then when I basically worked as a consultant and I had nobody who was making me do any of that. And I still did that. Then I realized, oh, wait a minute. I believe they were part of the problem, but I believe I am a huge part of this problem. So, how do, how do I change that? That's always a tough thing.

Any other sort of new skills that either to get business or to drop business or anything that you've had to learn as a consultant that's specific to being a consultant?

Hoda Shawky: Yeah. I mean, I think. One of the blessings of this journey has been that because I'm diving deep into the area and the field that I really love, which is the relationship between parents and children, I've been able to learn from the projects that I've been a part of and then also have the time to take advantage of other fellowships.

So, I'm in another fellowship right now on early relational health, which is basically parent-infant early childhood mental health and really fostering those loving. relationships that are kind of the foundation for mental health. While that's helping me to realize what more I can do as a consultant and realize even more of the types of projects that I want to be involved in, it's also just enriched me personally and has helped me to become much more of a reflective person as a human being.

And I also think as a consultant and to invest in the time to sit and reflect before acting or responding and it's just, it's been, gosh, it's been probably the best part of this journey and to be able to get paid as a consultant, to bring what I'm learning and it's new to everyone. I'm in a field where people admit and it's OK that they don't know and that, that we want to, that our knowledge is evolving and that we can only improve.

And to be a part of that force that's learning and improving has been just really, really a gift.

Deb Zahn: Wow. And what, and again, that's one of the magical things about a consultant is when people think of consultants, they often think of, oh, that's the people who show up and tell you. Or one of the jokes is they borrow your watch and tell you what time it is, but you're actually describing something that I have found is we are really good sort of co-journeyers with our clients into the unknown and the uncertain, where we're trying to.

Work with them to solve problems and achieve things that actually haven't been done before, and bringing all of ourselves and all of our skills and all of our knowledge to that, but not the, oh, here's how you do that, and I'm going to come in and, and make you do it the way that, that I know is the right way.

And I love that that's what your consulting business has kind of evolved to, is always at the edge of what's possible to make people's lives better. Yeah, no, thank you for sharing that. I'm actually taking notes to remind myself of that, that we are good co-journeyers. And I've been So, blessed with two of the large organizations that I've been working with and the way that they are developing programs and working with the community.

Hoda Shawky: It shifted since the Black Lives Matter movement. There's been this shift towards community-centered and community voice. My expertise is not, and is no longer me going in and saying, well, as a pediatric nurse practitioner, lactation consultant, this is what I think is best, but it's actually, let's go out to the community and listen to what they have to say, and let's understand that and translate that into how we can improve my work.

It's even more of that. I'm not coming in as the expert, but let's listen together and let's try to make meaning of what we're learning and produce something that's meaningful both to the organization, more importantly to the community.

Deb Zahn: I love that. Yeah, my husband, who also is in public health and mental health, and I think he coined this term mutual expert model.

So, he used to do tobacco work, smoking cessation work in prisons. And he'd go to Rikers, Sing Sing, places like that. His point was always, I know a lot about tobacco and you know about what it's like to be in prison. I don't. The only way that we're going to make this matter and work and actually help people and save lives is if we put our best thinking together and then we'll come up with.

The right thing, but it's not one of us. It's both of us. Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. Oh, I'd love that. And I keep pointing out things you're saying because I think it is So, magical. This is part of what consultants can do, is consultants can also develop and foster new ways of doing things that.

Also take ourselves out of the center and create really amazing, lasting impact instead of we get airlifted in, we do whatever we do, we invoice, and then we disappear, which for some things that might be exactly what the right thing to do is and you fix something and then you go away. But you're talking about something that is much more transformational.

It's been a lot of fun. Oh, I'm So, glad. So, where do you see your consulting work sort of evolving from here? If you're sort of looking down the road, what do you want to see your business to be about? What do you want it to look like?

Hoda Shawky: That's a good question. So, I think it was really beneficial for me to be part of the membership group that you had for the Craft of Consulting because I learned a lot during that first year from the other consultants.

And one of the things that I sort of aspire to do is to produce something that can continue to bring in revenue, whether I'm sitting at a desk or not. I think with my passion around. Early relational health and healthy relationships for families and their communities. I would love to put together possibly trainings or learning series that could be beneficial to organizations as well as families that would be available kind of on a website for purchase or use or something similar.

So, while it's great to work. Every hour into bill for it, it's also wonderful to have something that you can offer. Maybe there might be a book as well. I definitely have a lot of ideas, So, something where I can sort of preserve what all the things that I think about and daydream about all day in different types of packages that people can use and benefit from.

Deb Zahn: I love that. And, and it's. The recurring revenue part of is a different way to generate revenue besides showing up somewhere and doing something or popping up on a zoom and saying something. But what I found because I've done a product before, a consulting product before, is it's also helpful on the other side because it can often be more affordable.

They can be more accessible. People can't, particularly families, nine to five is not always workable for folks So, that they can look at it in a time that's actually helpful to them. I've noticed with some of my clients, even using some new tools, like I use loom for communications and some of them really like it because it's one less meeting and you don't have to have meetings for everybody.

So, that sort of creativity around. Is there a way to provide value that is meaningful and is really going to help people and that people are willing, somebody's willing to pay for, and it doesn't have to look the way that it's looked. And that's when it gets fun. That's when we get to be creative and if consultants can't be creative, like who can, right?

Hoda Shawky: Yeah, here I am doing a podcast, taking notes.

Deb Zahn: I love that we always inspire each other to think of new things. So, I absolutely love that. So, if a consultant is just starting out. And they're not where you are. They're not this many years in. They haven't been able to do the wonderful work you've done yet.

What advice would you give them? What would you say? You know what? It's going to be fine, but do this.

Hoda Shawky: Good question. So, again, I'm going to have to go back to something that you taught me, which is to really think about your own value proposition. Um because I think So, much of this work involves kindness to yourself and that, that energy reflects and it radiates.

On the people around you and the people that you are working with. So, sort of having that piece with yourself as to who you are and what value you bring and also what matters to you too, that you're not there to just give 150% of yourself but it needs to be what's meaningful to you because you're an active participant in any interaction that you're working with a client.

I think really feeling grounded in who you are and what you have to offer and being selective and making sure that it's a good match with whoever you end up working with and just take them one project at a time there. I mean, I did not love every single project that I did, but there were skills that I needed to learn or relationships that I needed to build through them.

They were beneficial, but I knew I didn't have to go back and renew that contract. So, I guess also keep the big picture in mind and where you want to go and that belief that you can get there and that that's why you're in this position. It's nothing is a coincidence.

Deb Zahn: I'd love it. And I also know that you did things that I want to use the word fearless, but there may have been some fear, but you were create courageous.

So, the notion of showing up in meetings and being visible with the hope of developing real meaningful relationships that also might. lend itself to work is, is not necessarily something everybody's comfortable with. Where were those areas where you had to sort of muster up some courage to do things that you weren't used to doing?

Hoda Shawky: Yeah. Thank you for asking that. This has been such a journey for me. And that's why you're reminding me of an example of a big part of that journey. And as I think about the journeys of families and young children growing up in this society that we're living in today, there are way too many families who are unseen.

There are way too many children who grow up in societies feeling unseen. And now that I'm in this position, I recall vividly being one of those children who felt unseen. While I stand out like a sore thumb because I'm usually the only person with the hijab on in, in many of the rooms, and I'm used to that, you can stand out and be unseen at the same time.

Yeah. And because I didn't want on my clock, more families to raise children in communities where they're feeling unseen. I mustered the courage to begin to stand up and to begin to ask questions about what are the language services that are available for these families? How are these services being accessible to them?

And we know that XYZ factors prevent them from accessing certain services. And so, I became, I just became more, more and more comfortable becoming the voice for the voiceless until sort of the internal transformation is that I got to re-see myself being seen in the community because I'm standing up for communities that have not specifically been seen, and I'm using my privilege.

I mean, if that's one thing that we learned from the Black Lives Matter movement is if we can all find ways. that we can use our privilege to help others. The fact that I'm a consultant with these large organizations that, and I never intended to be, that's a privilege and that's a gift. I'm going to use it.

And I think that's just emboldened me to continue it. And also having really positive experiences with the folks that I'm working with in terms of like, yes, thank you for opening our eyes to this, or thank you for raising awareness about this or helping us to design this grant or program or whatever it is to meet the needs of these communities that we didn't know how to reach.

And I think what it taught me, and I'll end with that, I think what it taught me also is, is, is to catch myself when sometimes I could have in the past made meaning of certain inequities to be. Coming from a place of, oh, well, that's because nobody cares about this community. And, unfortunately, sometimes there are intentional inequities for sure.

But I'm starting to learn that a lot of the inequities come from the lack of awareness and the lack of a connection or relationship with those communities. And it's kind of like, you don't know what you don't know. And So, if you're a person who knows that there's a gap and. Know a thing about it or two, that's a place for you to step in and become the consultant and the expert that's going to work on it because it's, you, you could probably assume that, that there will be interest in addressing the need when there's somebody who can do it because no organization wants to work on something that they don't know what they're getting into.

But if they have somebody with some experience with it or a connection with it, I think there's more of a willingness to jump in.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And that's more of the magic of being a consultant is. We're in rooms. We're in ears that not everybody gets to be in. And what a wonderful way to build those bridges.

I love that. So, Hoda, where can folks find you if they want to keep following your journey?

Hoda Shawky: Gosh, that's a good question. So, I don't have a website.

I'm on LinkedIn probably more than I need to be, but I can be found on LinkedIn, and I generally just share my email with anybody who is interested in reaching out.

I am actually in the process of restarting a practice because I really, really miss working with families. And So, I think I might just have an Instagram page that's going to have a link tree for those who are seeking sort of emotional parenting support in the early years of their kids' lives.

That'll be on Instagram and that'll be on nor, or L-L-C-N-O-O-R-T-U-R-E-L-L-C. Nice. And, yeah, you can scratch that part out because I don't know where I want to go. But I like that because you're...a lot of people think, “Oh my gosh, I have to be on every platform if I'm a consultant or I'll never get any business.”

Deb Zahn: And you've shown you don't really need to be, Oh my God, I have to have a website in order to do things. Yeah. You don't really have to have a website to do it. So, I actually love that. And you know. I'm on Instagram but only for cat rescue. We can follow each other and just know that that's who that is.

But yeah, a lot of presence on LinkedIn is good enough for a lot of consultants, particularly if you're showing up that the, the way that you want to show up for your business. Thank you.

Hoda Shawky: And I think, I think just most of the business I'm getting is through working with other organizations that work with those organizations.

So, people are going to come across my email or know me and they're going to reach out to me directly, which I like because, you know, I already kind of have a sense of who they are as well or referrals.

Deb Zahn: So, wonderful. Well, I got to ask you this last question. So, because I know balance in your life, you talked about it earlier really means a lot to you.

So, what, what are you doing these days to bring that balance in the way that you want it?

Hoda Shawky: I'm getting older and my energy is less, which gives me a lot of time to just sit and think I'm taking advantage of it. I no longer feel like I have to be doing something every minute, which is really nice. And then I can really think about what I want to do and what I miss doing.

And I'm not a person who consistently does the same thing every day. And I've, and I've gotten OK with that. So, I might have a burst of kayaking for a couple of months. I haven't pulled my kayak out for a year now, but I still consider myself a kayaker. And then sometimes I'm hiking, but most often it's our dog Atticus who gets in about 10 miles a day.

So, that makes sense. And then and then I let my family sort of dictate what else we will do. It's just I work within their schedules and I'm grateful for it.

Deb Zahn: Well, Hoda, thank you. So, I've wanted you on the show for like So, long, mainly because I just love talking to you.

So, I appreciate you sharing this because again, a lot of people, when they start, don't know they get to make some of the choices that you talked about. So, I think this would really be helpful and inspiring for a lot of folks.

Hoda Shawky: I hope so. Thank you So, much. Thank you for all the support along the way.

I truly would not be here without your help and your guidance.

Deb Zahn: Thank you.

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 you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up in 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, So, if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those. And then the last thing is, again, if you've gotten something out of this, share it. Share it with somebody you know who's a consultant or thinking about being a consultant, and make sure that they also have access to all this great content and all the other great content that's going to be coming up.

So, as always, you can go and get more wonderful information and tools at Thanks So, much. I will talk to you on the next episode.

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