Episode 39: Strategies for Helping Your Clients’ Leaders Improve Their Performance—with Lisa Bing
Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to Episode 39 of the Craft of Consulting podcast. Today I'm talking to Lisa Bing from Bing Consulting Group. She works with companies and organizations of all sizes in a variety of industries, specifically on leadership. She helps leaders at all levels learn how to perform better. She's going to break down for us in this episode exactly how she does that.
So we're going to hear about how she helps them learn how to influence others more and better so that they can actually achieve the things that they want to achieve. We talk about dynamics and power structures and how to get things to stick within organizations. Lots of fantastic content on this episode. Can't wait for you to hear it, so let's get started.
I want to welcome by guest today. Lisa. Thank you so much for joining me.
Lisa Bing: Thank you for having me.
Deb Zahn: So let's start off. Tell my listeners what you do.
Lisa Bing: I am a strategy and leadership expert, and I work with executives to help accelerate strategy. So that can take a variety of forms but in these days and times, what I'm finding is that organizations large and small are growing or shifting in some way. And those who have a strategy, a business strategy let's say, there's an organizational strategy that needs to support that. And that's really where I come in.
Deb Zahn: That's great. And so, what types of clients tend to come to you for that type of help?
Lisa Bing: Well, just this morning I was with a client, it's a $120 million company that's looking to double in size in the next seven years. So those types of companies—growing mid-cap companies. I also work with large organizations. I've worked with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. They came to me because their automation and statistics function—the area that supports the reporting areas domestically and internationally and then works directly with the banks to set interest rates and keep the economy stable—this group was operating in three separate units. They had attempted to restructure twice before to create a more seamless, more efficient process, and it had failed. And so they called me in to help create that, to restructure these three units to work more effectively together, which required working with the directors to think differently, to take new approaches with their staffs, and so-forth.
Some nonprofits also come to me. I've worked with a couple that were adding new chief operating officer roles. Part of that work required defining what that role would look like and then helping to upscale the person designated to move into that role, to shift. And those are big shifts because as you move up the leadership ladder, moving from individual contributor to manager, you’re moving from doing the work yourself to getting it done through others, to then managing managers and how you coach and develop them. And then you move from managing managers to managing a department, and then perhaps to managing a division where you don't have expertise in all the areas you're managing.
So it's a huge mindset fundamentally. It’s helping people shift their thinking about what the work is and in what ways, specifically, the work has changed, which then drives how you need to change your day-to-day functioning. So those are three different kinds of organizations I work with.
Deb Zahn: That's great. That's really helpful. So we said we would focus on something that's critical for so much consulting work, which is to focus on how you, as a consultant and a coach, help leaders ultimately perform better and make some of those shifts you just talked about. So let's start with a clear definition. How do you define leadership?
Lisa Bing: I define leadership very simply. I think that, in many instances, leadership is overcomplicated. It's not easy, but it's not complicated.
I define leadership as fundamentally having vision, which means having some imagined new future that’s beneficial to others in some way, and using influence to get things done as opposed to management, which requires maintaining the status quo, stability, which is important; maintaining systems; and using authority to get things done. So the hierarchy, if you will. The military uses authority by and large to get things done.
The challenge today, and what makes leadership so tricky, is that many folks, particularly in the middle of organizations, are having to both manage and lead. And the heart of the challenge lies in the tension between using authority and influence. If you over rely on authority, even as a first-level supervisor, you're likely to have some struggles. And so today's managers really have to learn how to use the skill of influence to get things done.
Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. And let's dig into influence. How do you define influence?
Lisa Bing: I love talking about influence. Influence is often used interchangeably with power, and I make a very clear distinction. Power is the potential to influence, and I identify 9 sources of power which I can talk about, and influence is the ability to direct behavior or outcomes in a particular direction.
So, for example, if I want to influence a leader to try a new approach, I have to figure out, "All right, how am I going to get him or her to just step out of their comfort zone and try something new?" If you're trying to influence your boss to take your idea, how do you do that? So you want someone to do something you'd like them to do, presumably, well, I make the assumption that you're not doing harm, right.
Deb Zahn: Hopefully.
Lisa Bing: Right. And so I had a conversation with someone recently and he said, "Well, I don't really like to influence." This was an operations person at a large insurance company, and he was in a contract management position. He said, "I don't like to use influence because isn't that really," pardon me, "manipulation?" And I said, "Oh. Look, if you have no influence, you're not leading. If you can't get things done through people and get results, you're not leading."
But the difference between influence and manipulation is that manipulation is getting someone to do something at their expense for your benefit. Using influence is not at the expense of others but often for the greater good.
Deb Zahn: That's a wonderful distinction. I like that a lot because I've heard people say the same thing about strategy. "Isn't strategy essentially manipulation?" But you have a plan for it, and my point has always been it depends if you use your powers for evil or good.
Lisa Bing: Exactly. And manipulation does take a pejorative tone by and large. But it's all, math is manipulating numbers, right? But staying with the cultural definition of manipulation, that's when it's at the expense of someone else.
Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. One of the things I liked when I heard you talk before is that leaders aren't just the C-suite folks. They aren't just the directors, but it's more than that. So talk a little bit about how you define leaders within companies and organizations.
Lisa Bing: When I talk with clients, and I teach at NYU a leadership and management class which I just finished up this weekend, this leadership class at NYU is made up of working managers across industries and from around the world. So I had folks in there from Portugal, from Turkey, Brazil, and other parts of Europe and America.
Deb Zahn: So leadership is more than C-suite folks…
Lisa Bing: Which is why I brought up my leadership students because none of them are in the C-suite. But they want to be seen as leaders, or they have teams. One woman works for a global technology company. She has responsibility for 8 or 10 team members around the world. If she's not providing leadership, she's in trouble, right?
Deb Zahn: Yep.
Lisa Bing: And what I drive home, regardless of where you are in the organization, and I do work with some CEOs of smaller or midsize companies. But you have to be clear about where the company or your organization overall is going.
So if you're trying to become a global real estate firm you need to understand, in your world, in what ways you can contribute to that overall goal or vision. And as the leader of the sales team in the regional office of that real estate company, you need to then say, "OK. What do we want to create that is in alignment with the corporate strategy to become a global brand? We need to start hiring differently." For example. "We need to hire more international people. We need to hire people that speak different languages. We need to figure out where expats from these countries are here within our region."
So you start to shift your strategy, but you have to start to imagine a future that doesn't exist. And I find that that's really challenging for people at the top and in the middle these days because they're so goal-focused. So when you talk about vision, I worked with a performing arts company that has a rich legacy. But when I talked to them about vision, the direction was, "Well we want to be a financially stable organization."
Well, that's not vision. Because vision gets people excited. Vision creates some unity. Vision creates a reason for people to say, "Hey, I want to be a part of that" or “All right, you may not be sure how you do that, but I want to be a part of that.” So it's about imagining something that doesn't exist.
The other component to that, which I really drive home with my middle to senior managers, is you don’t have to come up with this all by yourself. As a matter of fact, it’s not in your interest to try to do that because then you're dealing with issues of buy-in, which I don't believe in.
When people have ideas, you need to be able to see 360 what's going on in the world around us. You know Kouzes and Posner talk about having outsight. You have to think beyond. I was with some clients last week and I did an exercise with them to say, "OK, in your wildest dreams, what would you want to create?" And oh, I get chills just thinking about the kinds of things they came up with and the excitement and energy it created for them going forward.
Deb Zahn: And let's keep paying the bills.
Lisa Bing: Oh, sure.
Deb Zahn: Because "we're financially stable" is not what people get excited about and what they're willing to get out of bed in the morning and cheer about.
Lisa Bing: That's right, which ultimately undermines your ability to pay the bills.
Deb Zahn: That's right. That's great. So when you're working with organizations and there are diverse viewpoints, or even just flat-out disagreements, how do you help them sort of disentangle that so that they can work on their strategy?
Lisa Bing: Well, I go back to a decision-making process, and I pull them back. First of all, whenever I start with any organization or any executive, I'm very particular. I spend a lot of time identifying, "What is your objective? What is important to you? And what do you need to accomplish?" Because that's always my North Star.
And this goes back to influence. When I teach people or coach people, I always say to them, "People do things for their reasons, not yours and mine." And it's essential to find out what their reasons are. And more often than not, many managers and executives are operating based on what they think people want as opposed to having confirmed what people want. And then the question is, "Well, how do you know what people want?" And it's very, very complicated. You ask them.
Deb Zahn: Wait, what? That's crazy!
Lisa Bing: You ask them! And I do this in my leadership class in the first day. We have anywhere from 10 to 15 students and I always say, "What is your leadership challenge?" And we spend some time unpacking that. And that’s my guidepost throughout the four weeks we're together. So it's never about, "I think you should do this. You said you want to be able to influence your boss. Well, what you're doing is not working. What have you got to lose to try this?"
Deb Zahn: So the other thing, I know when you're trying to help folks with strategy and get used to being able to tap into the power of influence—and I say it that way because I've seen it in action and I know how powerful it is—how do you get it to stick? Because I think of the National Health Service and their definition of sustainability, which I love, which is "when new ways of working become the norm."
And so if the intent is to normalize that it's not authority and control dictating everything, but that influence is a critical leadership skill, as is vision, as are other things, how do you get them to embrace that within an organization?
Lisa Bing: Well, when you say "within an organization" I'm not sure what that means. But within the group, the individuals and/or the group that I'm working with, the way it sticks is they get a new result.
Deb Zahn: That helps. Proof is in the pudding.
Lisa Bing: I have an example of an HR manager I've been working with recently, who has a new HR VP and she wasn't quite connecting. She was worried about whether she was being seen, etc.
We worked out a new approach and she acknowledged she was nervous going into the conversation, but it was the best conversation she'd had in the three months that this new VP was there. And the VP asked for a follow-up meeting. So it stuck.
Deb Zahn: That's great. That's wonderful. And I know organizations and companies, as also teams, have their own dynamics, their own power structures, that are just part of the DNA of how organizations and companies are put together. How do you help the folks you work with understand and navigate some of that? So if they're influencing, presumably, you’ve got to understand the context in which you're influencing. How do you work with them to help them with that?
Lisa Bing: I think it goes back again to starting with, “What's the outcome here?” And not from your perspective, but from the person or group's perspective that you're looking to influence. So the dynamics get funky because I'm trying to convince you that you need to change the system, and it's not that big of a deal.
For example, I have another manager in a pharmaceutical company. She's in operations and she's trying to get the scientists to embrace a new communication system. They've been using email and they're resistant. And so when we unpack it, she says, "But all they have to do is..." I thought, "Ahh!"
Deb Zahn: Uh-oh.
Lisa Bing: "Ahh, OK. There's the problem." No! You have to look at it from their standpoint. And maybe it's not enhancing their lives. Maybe it is, but maybe it's not. Probably, it is. But unless you bring them into the process, you're going to have resistance. And then you're trying to create buy-in, which is trying to sell them on your idea, which they're never going to accept.
And then it becomes, "Oh, these millennials do that" and, you know, "The operations people do that." And then the process problem gets attributed to a person and then everything breaks down.
Deb Zahn: Yeah, or a category of person.
I recall years ago when I was in California working with…They were trying to retool something that was happening in a county's social service. and the folks that worked in social service had negative views of the clients that came in. The clients had negative views of them. No one ever asked them.
And so when we asked them, "What are your biggest struggles? What are the things that you would like different?" And we actually did, we presented them side by side, you couldn't tell the difference between the two. So the solution became obvious because it was in everybody's interest. And we had something we were able to communicate that said, "You're going to make everybody happier if we do this."
Lisa Bing: That's right. But I'm going to tell you that we had a huge breakthrough with this NYU group with the realization that leadership is not about me; it's about others. And it's about being in service. And that was literally a huge, huge breakthrough for this crowd, which makes me wonder how many folks out there are leading and managing with the belief that "I've got to be a great manager."
Deb Zahn: That's right. And that it's about me.
Lisa Bing: It's about me, yeah. And I often tell people, anytime someone says to me, "How can I become a great leader?" I know we're in trouble because it's about them as opposed to, "How do I have a great impact?"
Deb Zahn: I was coaching someone years ago who didn't know how to influence, and she was struggling because people weren't doing anything that she wanted. She asked me for help, and I talked to her about humility. She came back a week later and said, "Well, I acted humble and it didn't work." So I said, "Really? Didn't that work?"
Lisa Bing: Yeah, I wonder why!
Deb Zahn: “Yeah, so, remember the part about actually being humble?”
Lisa Bing: That's right. And so it does start with a mindset. Talking about leadership is learning to think like a leader. And you really do. It’s a thought process first. Because if you don't believe that you can get more done through others, and that others have value to add that will enhance your experience, I can't help.
Deb Zahn: Because you have to have at least the right initial orientation, which I imagine then, as a coach and a consultant, you can then build on that. But if somebody's turning south and you need them turning north, it's hard.
Lisa Bing: I need you to at least be open to a new possibility. And it's fine if you say, "Lisa, you know, I'm not sure that this is going to work, but let's see." I can work with that. I cannot work with someone who says, "Oh, well I believe that once someone gets a title that power goes to their head and I would just never follow them," which someone has actually said to me.
Deb Zahn: I believe that. That's helpful. All the dynamics you're talking about I've seen in almost every single engagement I've ever had as a consultant, and these are the conversations I've had with other consultants.
So for somebody who's a new consultant or a coach, what would you tell them to flat-out not do? I loved you saying, "I can't work with someone who does this." That's a great thing for anybody to learn, which is you don't have to say yes to everybody.
Lisa Bing: Well, you can't say yes to everybody. And you can't say yes to everybody for a couple of reasons. Number one, everybody is not going to connect with you. And that has to be OK. Not everybody loves Shakespeare, but...
Deb Zahn: That's OK.
Lisa Bing: So that's number one. Everybody's not going to connect. And if you're trying to connect with everyone, particularly as a new consultant, you may be worried about getting business and you may have this idea that, "I just have to get business from wherever it comes." And I've learned from the School of Hard Knocks that all business is not good business and it's not all worth it.
So you need to be clear about what you stand for. Who is your ideal client? I know that I am not ideal for people who are…My ideal client is someone who is forward-thinking, looking to grow, and open. And if you don't meet those criteria, I'm not for you.
Deb Zahn: That's right.
Lisa Bing: And someone who doesn't take themselves so seriously. So that's number one. All business is not good business.
The other thing is that you have to be able to assess, "Is this someone who is coachable?" Everybody is not. And you also have to be careful with companies, organizations, and executives. You have to realize that companies don't hire anybody.
There is not such as a company. Because a company is a collection of individuals. So who is the person or persons you're referring to?
If an executive calls you in for a problem employee because it's a last-ditch effort or they're resisting firing them or dealing with a professional performance problem, I would run away. Yeah. I would run away.
Deb Zahn: And say more about why you would run. I mean, I can guess why because I've run away, but why would you run away from that?
Lisa Bing: Number one, it's not fair to the person. Especially if it's not a good fit or they have no intentions of keeping this person and they're just going through the motions—if they don't see value. My litmus test is, "Do you see value in this person?" and "What is the value they bring for you to invest in them?" Because are you investing or are you just sort of...
Deb Zahn: Handing a problem off to a consultant and coach.
Lisa Bing: Or just prolonging or avoiding a decision. And it's just not fun work. It's not good work. And you're not likely to get results. So I don't know, I mean, I get results. And I get results sometimes when my clients say, "Wow." Sometimes they say, "I knew it would be helpful, but I didn't know we would get this far." Sometimes they say, "Wow, we accomplished so much more than I thought."
I want to help people move forward. And sometimes the most compassionate thing for someone who’s struggling or not doing well is to let them move on. And not just for them but also for the people around them. So that's why I wouldn't do that.
Deb Zahn: I like that because it really is in essence, "Why are you on the planet?" And that should infuse the choices you make as a coach and consultant. I'm on the planet because I want to make things better. And I think I have a certain set, not every set, but a certain set of skills that I can contribute to that. If it's outside of that, then…
Lisa Bing: Then I'm not for you.
Deb Zahn: Exactly. There are other folks that can do that for you, but I'm not that person. That's really helpful.
Lisa Bing: And that triggers another thought for the new consultant. To realize that if I take on something that's not within my scope that prevents me from doing something that is within my scope, that will allow me to grow and prosper.
Deb Zahn: That's right, because you only have so much shelf space. If you put something ugly up there then you haven't got room for something pretty.
Lisa Bing: That's right.
Deb Zahn: So one other thing I would ask is, there are certain skills that I think every consultant or coach should have. Hopefully you have it. If not, develop it over time. What do you think are the absolutely essential skills for folks who are doing this type of work?
Lisa Bing: That's interesting. And I need to step back. Because often people will say, "Oh, are you an executive coach?" And I'll say, "No, I'm a consultant who coaches." Because I’m looking to advance a process and sometimes that requires consulting: what's happening here, what could be done differently, clarifying.
What many of my clients appreciate and find the greatest value from working with me is that they can see clearly—whether it's the source of why there's been some breakdown, or why there's been some struggle, or what the opportunity is, or what the solution is, or how to execute the solution. So the clarity can come in many different forms and in different spaces.
And then the second part of that is, OK, if we're moving from A to B, and a lot of clients come now and they want to create a collaborative culture, for example. So you want to move from silos to collaboration. OK, great. What does that look like? Why do you want to do it? What are the benefits? That's the consulting piece.
Then the coaching piece is how do you help people learn the skills and the new habits to make those things happen? So I see it as two very different skillsets.
Deb Zahn: I really like that distinction. I think that makes a lot of sense because I'm not a coach, but coaching is part of what I do to help people get to the conclusion they want. But it's not who I am.
Lisa Bing: Right. And so I think for someone to be an effective coach, they have to have some counseling skills. They have to be able to listen. I've been trained in group dynamics. I've been trained in counseling and human behavior.
And then the other component, I think, that makes you an excellent coach is the teaching part. I'm a strong believer and I’m trained in adult learning. My leadership students were talking last weekend. One of them remarked to the group that she noticed over the four weeks that the confidence level of the group increased dramatically.
Deb Zahn: That's great.
Lisa Bing: Which was really gratifying. And they said, "And it's a safe space in here for us to grow." And I said to them, "Well, that didn't happen by accident." Because you, too, can create safe spaces. But to know how to do that, I think, is important, and to have those teaching skills and adult learning theory as a baseline. And communication skills in terms of being able to deliver a cogent, concise message, to deliver difficult messages with compassion.
And I think the other thing, and it's not so much a skill but it's a behavior, you have to be self-aware. You have to know what your buttons are so that you don't comingle your baggage with the baggage of your client. Because we all have baggage.
Deb Zahn: Again, you're saying surprising things! Yeah, we do. Some fit in the overhead bin and some have to be checked.
Lisa Bing: That's right. We all have baggage. And what I say to people is, "I will help you, but I will not take yours on as mine." But as coaches—and I've had therapists do this, too—you can't commingle your issues with the clients’ issues.
For example, if you're an effective coach there are times when your clients are going to get upset with you. Because you're pushing them and you're not accepting the crap that they're putting out that everybody else is taking that's causing them the struggles. And then they get upset with you. And if that throws you, you're going to have some trouble. Because then you don't want anybody to ever be upset with you, so you can't be as effective.
Deb Zahn: That's right. I think people pleasers, or people who tend toward wanting to be liked and wanting to please everybody, I've seen them struggle as consultants as opposed to what I generally say to people, "No one hires me unless they want to hear the truth." And they either know that, or they've heard it from other people. But I like your "bring compassion to it."
Lisa Bing: Oh, absolutely.
Deb Zahn: Because that's an important skill because that's communication. Do you want to be heard and understood? Or do you just want to say something?
Lisa Bing: Or are you just trying to be mean and throw your weight around and does this feed your ego and make you feel superior? Because that's the other side of the people pleaser, right?
Deb Zahn: That's right.
Lisa Bing: I never want to beat the hell out of people. But you have to be able to identify when someone is working against themselves. And sometimes you have to bring it up over and over again and they're going to get upset.
Deb Zahn: Oh yeah. That was my yesterday. I had that exact thing happen because I've said something repeatedly, but it's so critical to the outcome that I would be remiss if I didn't say something.
Lisa Bing: Right. And the compassion is absolutely essential in terms of the delivery, and also the patience and acceptance of someone's reaction to what you're saying that's hard to hear. And so if you're of the mindset, "Well just get over it and suck it up and keep going..."
Deb Zahn: Good luck with that.
Lisa Bing: Good luck with that, you know, as a standard. I mean, there are times when you do have to say to someone, "All right, that's enough, that's enough." “OK, now what are you going to do?”
Deb Zahn: Then you get, with more seasoning, you’ll know better when to be able to do that. So I know that to be able to have that compassion and that clarity, as an introvert, I need to have balance in my life, or all of my neurotransmitters go away and I'm just an angry person who needs a nap. So how do you bring balance to your life?
Lisa Bing: That's really good. I'm not sure that I have balance as much as I have self-care.
Deb Zahn: I like that.
Lisa Bing: I think balance sets people up for some frustration, disappointment, and upset. But I think it's about self-care. And so if you're going into a difficult situation, you have to take care of yourself.
For example, I’ve structured my NYU class over four Saturdays and it's 9:30 to 4:30. There's a break in the morning, a lunch break for an hour, and a break in the afternoon. When it's lunchtime, that’s not the time to speak to me because I have to take a break; I have to recharge and get ready for the afternoon.
So my taking care is in the best interest of my students because then I can be fully present and present with them and give them the best. Sometimes I think people don't quite understand. I think I'm compassionate when I say, "Let's talk about this afterwards, let's take lunch," and that most people are fine with that.
But occasionally, I think, in people who want attention, that may ruffle a feather. So you have to be OK with that. To plan, if you have a big meeting coming up or a difficult conversation, to make sure you're rested and you eat. I don’t have meetings where we don’t eat.
Deb Zahn: And you don't mean eating my feelings, right? You mean, like, actual good food?
Lisa Bing: Actual food, yeah! If we're having meetings through lunch, there has to be some accommodation for food.
And when I'm doing full-day meetings with clients and they're organizing breakfast and meals and snacks, I guide them in terms of the food choices. For breakfast, you want to have some protein—some hard-boiled eggs, some yogurt—and not just sweets because it affects people's energy.
Deb Zahn: That's right.
Lisa Bing: Some people may think that's a little funny. But trust me, it makes a huge difference.
Deb Zahn: Because otherwise you've got the sugar crash and you can only do so much.
Lisa Bing: That's right. And you're crashing with them, and then you can't be present, and you can't give your best.
So how I do self-care? In terms of scheduling, I don't schedule back-to-back-to-back. I think that's terrible for yourself and it's poor service for others. Because inevitably, you're always late and you're always rescheduling and it's always a mishegoss of madness.
I think the biggest thing with self-care is self-confidence because I think a lot of times—and I'll say this may be more of an issue for many women—we see that as selfish. We see that as selfish and "I want to be able to give you, and to give everybody." But it's the classic airline instruction. When the air pressure goes, you put your mask on before you can help someone else. It's impossible to help others effectively if you're depleted. So you have to look at sleep. I'm a big sleeper. I love to sleep.
Deb Zahn: I love sleep.
Lisa Bing: The fundamentals: sleep, food, rest, and play. I'm a big theater person. I love the arts. I'm involved with some dance organizations. I'm on the board of an organization, MOVE(NYC), which works with aspiring teenage high school professional dancers from around the city.
And these two young amazing talents, Nigel Campbell and Chanel DaSilva, 32 and 33, have created this organization where they're providing professional development for these high schools. I'm guiding them and that feeds me tremendously. So I have young people of a variety of ages in my life. So that's how I do self-care.
Deb Zahn: That's great. And I love the whole idea of it's really about keeping your baseline of your health, your spirit, your soul, all of that, keeping your baseline at the right level so you can serve your best.
Lisa Bing: That's right. And I'm glad you mentioned spirit because your spirit and your emotion— I've come to learn in my later years that it really pays to make sure you feel good every day. Because when you don't feel good, you don't do good.
Deb Zahn: That's right.
Lisa Bing: And that was a hard-won lesson. It's a simple idea but it was a hard-won lesson for me. So if I'm not feeling good, I have to figure out, "OK, what do I need to do to feel good because I need to get back to it."
Deb Zahn: That is absolutely wonderful.
Well, Lisa, this has been fantastic. I appreciate so much you coming on the podcast and sharing this with everybody. I’m ticking off in my mind all the things I wish I knew a year ago, two years ago, when I started. So this is enormously helpful. Thank you.
Lisa Bing: Thank you. Thank you for having me on. This has been great fun for me, and I would love to talk some more sometime.
Deb Zahn: That would be great.
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