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Episode 47: Consulting When Life is Difficult—with Deb Zahn

Hi. I want to welcome you to episode 47 of the Craft of Consulting podcast. So today it's just going to be me, and I'm going to talk about something that’s really from the heart and extremely important to me. And that is: How do you do consulting when life is difficult? I've been inspired recently because I have some dear friends and colleagues who've been going through some really tough times. They are extremely in-demand consultants. They have built wildly successful practices and then something happened in their lives and it became really difficult to do the work as a consultant.

I've been through this, and I've seen it over the course of the years, whether it's an illness that suddenly strikes someone or someone in their family, or going through a divorce, or dealing with things like depression and anxiety, or dealing with somebody close to you who has died. These are really big things that happen in our lives, and it's tough when you're a consultant. And if you're independent, you're dependent on your consulting for your livelihood. Or even if you're at a firm and you have the pressure to bring in business and pressure to meet whatever other requirements are part of being at that firm.

So I want to talk about that. And I want to share some of my experience and share some of what I've learned that, hopefully, will help you if you are in this situation now or if you're ever in it later. Because I've seen a lot and I've had to help other, and watch others and myself personally manage the pressures of consulting when the pressures of life just get to be too much.

And I've had this happen to me multiple times. One of the biggest times that actually went over the course of 2 years was when people that my husband and I were close to died. And we had over the course of 2 years multiple people die. And it just kept coming and coming. We could never ever fully recover or cope with the grief because there was really no space to do that because, by the time we were dealing with one death, somebody else would die.

It got so bad, and not to make light of it, but it got so bad that I was meeting with a client once, and he said, "How are you doing? How is your mom doing?" And I couldn't remember who the last person was he’d heard about. So I actually had to ask him, “Who was the last person you heard that died?” And that was 2 people ago. He, of course, felt awful, but I just couldn't remember because it just kept happening and it was really tough time. Some of those were people who lived far away from us, but who we were very close with, and some of them were people in our immediate family and we were at the hospital with them. We had to stop everything we were doing and make sure they had the best experiences possible.

So here are the things I've learned that I hope can be helpful to you, and the things I used as I went through that 2-year period and when I've had other times that have just been really difficult. So here's the first thing I would say that’s absolutely essential, is that you are human. And you get to be human. And so whatever you can do to give yourself permission to take time, to not be some version of perfect that you have in your head, will make all the difference in the world for you. Because taking care of yourself doesn't mean that you're going to fail. It in no way means that you're not going to be a successful consultant. What it means is that you are prioritizing the things in your life that matter most to you.

I've seen many extremely successful consultants, including myself, who have gone through this and couldn't do everything they would typically do as consultants and didn't just try and power through but made choices about their life. And guess what? They're still successful, and I'm still successful, and my business has only grown. So it didn't get in my way to give myself permission to be human. So I offer that to you as my top advice—is to allow yourself to do that.

The other thing I would say is—and this is more of a proactive approach—so if you're not in this space now, you might consider opportunities you have to create a bit of a financial cushion, particularly if you're independent. If you're at a firm, it's a little bit different. But if you're independent, and you can have that just-in-case fund. That's a really helpful thing because then if you're not able to work for a while, you've got some dollars you can depend on. If you're in the middle of stuff right now though, don't beat yourself up about that. Just mark that as something you're going to consider doing later, in which case, the other advice is hopefully going to be more helpful to you.

So here's one of my favorite strategies when things get difficult. I heard it from somewhere and I wish I could credit the person, but I don't actually know where I heard it. But that is to find 5 or 10% of what you're currently doing and just stop doing it. So there are likely things in your life that you're doing that aren't particularly helpful to your life, they're not particularly helpful to your business, or they're only marginally helpful. And if you stop doing them, it would be fine. Find those things in your life and just stop doing them.

The next tip is related to this because I want to clarify what I wouldn't include it in that 5 or 10%. I would include in that top 5 or 10% things like too much social media, even if it feels like an escape at the time, or spending time with people who really aren't nurturing your life or doing types of work that you don't really need to be doing and you don't really need the money. Just stop doing them.

But what I don't mean is the next one, which is, if you can, as much as possible, nurture your baseline. And what I mean by that are things like sleep, healthy eating, exercise, meditation, and whatever else has helped keep your baseline of overall health as high as it can possibly be. That should not be in the 5 or 10% because these are the very things that are going to help you get through difficult times. And it may be hard to do all of them.

So I know when I was dealing with the death of somebody close to me, there just wasn't a lot of opportunity to sleep. So I made sure that I took some time out to exercise, or I made sure that I took some time out to meditate and to eat some healthy food. And meditation, I remember spending 5 minutes in a car just meditating, taking the little bit of time for myself. Because by nurturing your baseline, it's going to help you get through those difficult times. And they are the things that I think form the foundation of the self-care and healing you can do when you're doing difficult things. And I understand as well as anybody else that it might feel like eating a pint of ice cream is what will actually make you feel better. It might be nice while you're doing it but, ultimately, it's not going to help you build a strong foundation to be able to get through these difficult times and to be able to clearly make choices and nurture yourself through it.

So the other one I strongly suggest—and man, I used to have a hard time with this, and now I'm a pro because I've made myself do it a whole bunch—is ask for help. And for those of us, and I include myself in this camp, who want to be as perfect as we possibly can be, it sounds really hard for some to ask for help. I used to view it as a weakness and now I see it's absolutely a strength because what it means is that people actually care about you.

And you would be surprised. I was really surprised when I was going through that 2 years. People stepped up to offer assistance who I was shocked by. I expected my closest colleagues to do it. I expected some of my friends to do it. But I was shocked at how much of an outpouring of support I got from people, and again, extended over a 2-year period. And so my job was to let go of any pride I was feeling—that “No, no, no, I have to be perfect,” or whatever else it is. Just recognize that as a distraction, and if people offer to help, let them help you. And if it's even some little thing, that would be terrific.

I remember a good friend of mine was going through something really difficult. It was a death in the family. And at the same time, a tree limb fell in her driveway and it blocked their car from getting out. It was just one of those things where she just couldn't take anything else. And so what I and a friend of mine did is we actually got somebody with a chainsaw over there, and we got the tree out of her driveway. And I didn't think it was a big deal. I didn't personally do it. I just arranged for it to happen. But it was that little thing that meant so much because that was in the 5 or 10%, or even above, because she didn't expect it to happen, she just didn't have to worry about because somebody else took care of it.

I had other people who stepped in with clients and offered to facilitate sessions for me or finish writing something for me or reach out to a client and talk to them. And I had to let them do it. And when I let them do it, it made my life and what I was going through so much easier. So forget pride. Forget whatever is holding you back. If you're in a difficult situation, ask for help. People will help you.

And then the last one—and this is often a really tricky one for consultants to consider, but I did it and it worked. I would suggest that you consider it as one of the options, which is, you may have to renegotiate with clients. Now sometimes, and I found this true, and one of my friends who's going through something tough right now said the same thing, which is sometimes work can be a respite. So you don't really actually want to necessarily get rid of it. It could be just a beautiful distraction to get your mind off things for a while. But sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it's just too much and you can't do it.

It is OK to talk to a client and see if you can renegotiate the timeline. So maybe you just push something back further. Or if there's travel involved, make sure you're able to renegotiate with them that you can't travel. Or if there are certain deliverables that can be changed to make it easier for you, it's OK to call them up and have that conversation. And here's the truth and here's what I experienced: most clients will understand. Most clients will be delighted that they can do something for you to make your life easier because they've also had the really tough things happen to them and they, hopefully, had people around them who helped them, and they're going to want to be that for you.

Now, if they aren't people who understand what you're going through or care about it, then my advice is, “Do you really need them as a client?” I've never had that happen because everybody I've talked to when things got hard really understood and were willing to make adjustments for me. But it's worth considering whether or not you need to keep them as a client. And what I'd say to you is that you can still be successful even if a client is unhappy or even if they don't understand or even if they're unpleasant about it. It doesn't mean that you can't have a thriving, successful, long-term consulting business.

So if you just can't do something for a client, and you know they need it…One of the things that I had pressing when I was dealing with something really intensive, someone close to me who was dying and I had to be at the hospital, is I reached out to someone in my network. And, actually, I reached out to folks at that time when I worked at a consulting firm. I reached out to colleagues and there was another firm that I knew could do a piece of it. I found someone for them so that the client got what they needed. In my case, it was a federal grant that was due. It was due. It's not like the feds were going to renegotiate their timeline. So I had to make sure that the client got what they needed, but I didn't have to pretend that it was more important than what I was dealing with in my family. And so I was able to help them get their needs met.

All of these things I just mentioned are things I have done I have done successfully. They aren't always easy, but I've done them and to great success. And so here I am having weathered that as well as other things. And I have an extremely successful consulting business. So just know this: You matter and your life matters. So make yourself a priority. I say always make yourself a priority, but particularly when life is difficult, when things are happening in your life that are tough and the work you're doing just feels like too much, please take some of my advice. Try and make some space for yourself and make choices that are really about you and your life.

So that's what I wanted to share today. I've actually been wanting to do this podcast for a while, and then, just in the last week, I heard of a few consulting colleagues who are dealing with some pretty tough things and I was just inspired to share this. So I hope this was helpful. I'll be back next week with interviewing someone. But if any of this resonated or you have other tips for consultants who are dealing with difficult things, please feel free to leave it in the comments. I think the more we can share with each other and support each other the better. So thank you so much. I'll talk with you next time.

Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do three things. If you enjoyed this episode or any of my other podcasts, hit subscribe. I've got a lot of other great guests and content coming up, and I don't want you to miss anything.

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