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Episode 54: Growing Your Consulting Business When Your Niche is People—with Kim Wilkerson

Deb Zahn: Hi, I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. My guest today is Kim Wilkerson and she's from the Wilkerson Consulting Group. We have this great conversation about how she went, contrary to the advice at the time, which was to pick a niche and specifically as you do consulting, focus on that niche. And she went a different direction. Her niche is actually people. She talks about how she has been able to use that to build a business and how her business has evolved over time so that she can offer more value to her clients and she can do more for the clients that she has. So wonderful episode, let's get started.

Hi, I want to welcome my guest today, Kim Wilkerson. Kim, welcome to the show.

Kim Wilkerson: Deb, very happy to join you today. Thank you very much.

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

Kim Wilkerson: In the old days, the type of consulting that I do would have been organizational development (OD) consulting. That's really evolved and broadened in the decade that we're in now, to the point where I always say that I'm on the people's side of the business. And it doesn't matter what aspect of people that might be or what type of business or industry or market.

Deb Zahn: That's great. And how did you become a consultant?

Kim Wilkerson: Well, I smile when I get asked this because consultants get asked this a lot, and I know a lot of consultants say, "Well, like everybody else, I kind of stumbled into it." And I really didn't stumble into it. It was very intentional, tentative, but intentional, from the standpoint of I had been in a number of different businesses and organizations. And what I found is for the first maybe 12 to 18 months, I loved what I did and then I became somewhat disillusioned. And in analyzing that pattern after pattern, I figured out that I just didn't do well with, and I'm using air quotes here, "the system," whatever that system might've been. And I got to a point where I looked at it really long and hard and I figured out I was the common element in all of that. And maybe I didn't belong in the middle of the system to be effective.

Deb Zahn: Yep.

Kim Wilkerson: So I said to myself that I would give this consulting thing a year, and if it didn't pan out, if I wasn't successful, then I would go get a job again. And not that consulting isn't a job, but it's the difference between whether you're your own boss or you're working within a system, so now I have my own system.

Deb Zahn: I love that, and relate to it wholeheartedly. And I experienced that. I had the best possible version of a job and it still wasn't right, so it must be me. So I love that.

Kim Wilkerson: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: And when you first started, the advice that folks often give, and I've certainly given this, is look, "Pick a niche, you can always expand it later, pick a niche and that's what you start putting your shingle out and selling yourself as," but you took a really different approach.

What did you do instead?

Kim Wilkerson: You're absolutely right, Deb. That is the advice that was given, and when I started my business 30 years ago, there wasn't a lot of advice out there. There were maybe one or two books on consulting. There wasn't a lot of advice from solo consultants doing the same type of work that I wanted to do. So the little bit of limited information said, "Pick your niche. You have to be specific in regards to what you do, what you're known for, the results that you achieve," that type of thing, in a very specific market, if you will, whether that was an industry or the expertise or whatever it was. And because all my career, up until consulting and getting into consulting, focused on the people side of the business. I couldn't figure out where to be specific. So I debunked that and I said, "I'm going to be nonspecific."

So I can go into any vertical market, I can go into any industry, I can go into any size business, whether it's for profit, nonprofit, government, civic healthcare, the wide range, and I'm not going to have any limitation in regards to where I can do the work. And my specific niche is going to be the type of work that I do, which is the people side of the business. So, one year into consulting, I figured out that was working and I didn't look back. And because of that, it's given me tremendous opportunity to be in such a variety of types of businesses and organizations, that I not only get to partner with them with my expertise, but I also get to learn from them that I can apply those learnings to additional clients that I'm working with.

Deb Zahn: That's great. I love that, and I imagine also simply because different industries have different things that impact them and ebbs and flows, you're not now locked into the realities of a single industry that you're sort of at the whim of what's happening. That's wonderful.

Kim Wilkerson: Exactly. And that's really opened doors for me. And there's some very basic things around the fact that I can work with non-profits and tell them that they need to learn from for-profit businesses in this way. It's not that they need to become a for-profit, but here are the things that for-profit businesses do that non-profits don't think they can or should do, when they really can and should. The same thing is true in reverse, I can talk with corporate clients about what happens in healthcare that's applicable to their industry that isn't healthcare. And so, all of that knowledge and learning and expertise goes full circle with all of the clients that I work with.

Deb Zahn: That's great. You are the consummate cross pollinator.

Kim Wilkerson: Hey, I love that. There's a new brand.

Deb Zahn: There you go. You can have that one. This is how gardener's talk, by the way. So how did you get your first client? So when you first said, "I'm doing this," how did you get the first clients in the door?

Kim Wilkerson: Well, sadly or appropriately, it was very passive. From the standpoint that a VP that I had worked with in a previous business had become CEO at a new organization, and my phone rang. So when I left the last organization that I was in, because I was at this crossroads of realizing that it wasn't the system, it was me, and I needed to design my own system. The now CEO got wind of that, that I was no longer with the organization and invited me in to do some leadership development work with his team and that was my initial engagement.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful, and that's not unusual. I've seen that with a lot of consultants. If you do good work before you become a consultant, then often those are your first clients. My first client was someone that I was their funder and I wasn't a jerk.

Kim Wilkerson: And so those two go very well together in terms of credibility and reputation.

Deb Zahn: That's right. That's right. Now you mentioned your business has evolved over time, talk a little bit about from when you were first doing the work to how that's changed over time.

Kim Wilkerson: When I was first doing the work, I was known as being in the training and development realm primarily. So I did lots of workshops, programs, internal in organizations. I was heading up L&D for sales, management, development, leadership, customer service, doing a variety of programs internally, so that's what I was known for. So my initial coaching, or excuse me, consulting engagements, were to come in and do programs, if you will. And from that I figured out, in addition to having X number of people in the room, in the program, going through all of this together, there was opportunity to work with people individually. So, I know coaching has been around for a long time. But again, in my world and in my mind, coaching wasn't nearly what it is today in regards to brand, reputation, execution, and those types of things. So what I did was just a natural evolution for me to look, when I was doing programs and workshops, to look at what types of issues were happening that were standing in the way of either individuals or teams or organizations at large from getting to where they wanted to be.

And that's one of my taglines now, is helping people and organizations get from here to there, wherever here is and wherever there is, to help them make that migration if you will. And sometimes it's incremental, sometimes it's a big leap. So, I carved out this niche, if you will, in regards to coaching. So then I was known for programming and workshops and training, and then I was also known for coaching from an individual development standpoint. So now people are coming to me, referrals are coming to me, from either direction, and I could start to cross reference that in the customers, clients that I was working with. So if they brought me in for coaching, there may or may not be workshop opportunities, but if there were workshop opportunities I could discover them.

Deb Zahn: Right.

Kim Wilkerson: And the same is true. If I was brought in for workshops, I could see the opportunities for coaching. And so what happens is it's that exponential growth, that once I got into an organization, I could see opportunities, not for the sake of me getting a check, but for me to truly be able to make a significant contribution and difference in partnering with these organizations. So I'm not big on this expression, but this is the best that I know to position it. It's like health care that's looking holistically, that's a little bit what my approach was in organizations.

So, it wasn't just about fixing this piece over here when something over there was still broken or missing or needed attention, it was being able to look at all aspects of that. And I am by no means a savior going into an organization, because I work on the people's side. I don't focus on the product. I don't focus on the geographic footprint. I don't focus on R&D. My world is the people's side. So it's not like I'm trying to fix everything or address everything or elevate everything, as much as I could come in as the people specialist and focus on that aspect of the organization.

Deb Zahn: Which is enormously powerful. So even if a consultant isn't... that's not their niche, I still think they absolutely have to learn it. I've worked with other consultants who are, "But we have this great plan and we're ready to implement and it's just the people." And my answer is always, "Well, we're not switching to hamsters, so this is what we've got."

Kim Wilkerson: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: And…

Kim Wilkerson: So let's address this.

Deb Zahn: And I know also part of what you've evolved to be able to offer is being a trusted advisor. Can you say what that means and how that came about?

Kim Wilkerson: I can, in terms of my own world. I think trusted advisor means many different things to many different people, whether you're on the consulting, advising side or whether you're on the client side. In my case, how it evolved to being a trusted advisor above and beyond being a coach is, and again, I keep referencing the old days because this is the evolution I've had. In the old days, coaching was typically remedial. It was for someone that had a problem, someone that needed help, someone who wasn't performing, something that was dysfunctional, and coaches like myself were brought in to fix that, and in essence, fix them. In today's world, it's a partnership. So, where I still sometimes work in a remedial environment, even at an executive level, where I may be working with an executive who is just wicked smart about the business and the industry and the market and the competition and all of those things, but they're not necessarily a great people leader.

Deb Zahn: Right.

Kim Wilkerson: So I'm not necessarily going in because of remedial work with that, as much as elevating that aspect of what they do to be in equal balance with everything else that they're so wicked good and smart at. And then the next level of it is, there doesn't even have to be any dysfunction or void or nonperformance from a trusted advisor standpoint, It's truly having a sounding board. It's truly having someone who an executive can speak with confidentially and look for insight and input. And sometimes it's validation. Sometimes it's calibration. But it's not because there's something wrong as much as because there's a whole lot right, and they want to continue that path of being effective. And if you think about it, the very top tier people in an organization of any size really don't have peers, especially once you get to the CEO level. And even some of the executive VPs, they may have peers on an org chart, but they don't necessarily have peers that they can be totally open and honest and frank in regards to what's happening, what they're thinking, what they're contemplating, those types of things. And that's where I think the trusted advisor is a phenomenal partnership.

Deb Zahn: I like that. And I like how you've also not just evolved your service so that you see trusted advisors is different than coaching and that's an important piece of value that you can also bring to an organization, but also these things evolve and change over time and you need to evolve and change how you do it. I like that. And I've certainly been trusted advisor before to some of my clients, particularly once you get to the C-suite level and the CEO level. And you're right. They can't go to someone on their board because that's essentially their boss, and they can't go to people that report to them because there's always a power differential and there's always issues in terms of trust, transparency, etc. So when you typically go into an organization now and you're going to work with someone, is there usually one thing that they're asking for, like, "Come in and do trainings for us," and then it evolves to do coaching and trusted advisor work, or is it all different right now?

Kim Wilkerson: I would say for the most part, and I'm guessing you and I have both experienced this, is when the phone rings or the email comes in and it's via referral, they come in asking for something. So, they've identified whatever they want or need, although those two things are seldom one in the same. But they contact me saying, "Here's where we are, can you help?" Whether that is something that's remedial, whether it's, "We want a workshop on this," whether it's, "I have this hot shot executive who we're looking to promote and they need some polishing here, diamond in the rough kind of thing."

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Kim Wilkerson: So they come to me with what they think they need, they know they want, and sometimes they're spot on, but seldom.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Kim Wilkerson: So by the very process of having the initial in-depth conversation with them, I ask a number of questions in regards to not what are they looking for in the deliverable, but what are they looking for in the result. So typically they're calling me and asking me for a deliverable, whether it's a workshop or it's coaching or it's a team meeting or it's a speech or whatever it is, and I can ask the right questions to get them to the results that they want to achieve. And that's what positions me to know what the scope of a project should be.

Deb Zahn: That's great. And for new consultants, that's something you have to develop because that's where you get up to sort of some of the Jedi skills of knowing the right questions to ask. Can you give an example of some of the questions that you ask to help the prospective client understand how they're truly going to get there to the result they want?

Kim Wilkerson: I can. So, I'm just going to use a really basic example, so if someone were to call me and say, "We want you to come in and do a half day workshop," or, "a three-day workshop," or whatever that might be, "Can you do that?" I typically say, "Yeah, let's talk about that." So it's not very often that I say, "No," in the very beginning of a conversation unless it is totally out of my realm.

Deb Zahn: Right.

Kim Wilkerson: So I keep the door open to talk about it. And the main question that I ask is, "What do you want to achieve?" So this might sound lame, and yet this really happens. Your listeners may be rolling their eyes when they hear this, and yet this really happens. So if they want me to come in and do a workshop for a team, and they may say, "Well, 75% of our team is performing really well, but 25% aren't, so get everybody on the same page." That's one of the many questions that I would ask, then I'm going to drill down from there in regards to, "So what is going well? What's not going well?" And more times than not, if that's what they're looking for, a one and done, I will say, "I am really good at facilitating and presenting in workshops. I can keep your employees engaged and interested, invested. So, that will be a great experience, the issue is it's not going to solve your problem."

Deb Zahn: Right. That's great. Because even if they're asking for a deliverable, what they really, truly want is a result, whether they say it or not. So-

Kim Wilkerson: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. So being able to tease that out is great. And you're right, those sound like simple questions, but they aren't. And I've certainly seen a lot of consultants who just don't know better, skipping those and saying, "Oh yeah, yeah, I can do that."

Kim Wilkerson: And to be perfectly honest and upfront, I did that in the front end. If somebody said they needed a workshop, I was more than happy to deliver a workshop, not because I was not vested in their success, but I just didn't know any better for the first however many months or a year, that for however great I am in a workshop environment, that isn't necessarily going to fix the problem.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Kim Wilkerson: So they may get rave reviews. I might get great testimonials, but however many days, weeks, months later, they're not going to have achieved the results if that's the only service that's being offered or the only attention that's being paid to the problem because that's even less than a band aid.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And they will associate that experience later with the experience they had with you, even though they had a fantastic time.

Kim Wilkerson: Right. And that's why consultants get a bad rap for one and done and flavor of the month and all of those things, because the client is being given what the client is asking for, even though it's not what they need.

Deb Zahn: That's right. That's really helpful advice. So, what other advice would you give consultants who are trying to establish themselves or grow their business? What should they pay attention to as they start to do that?

Kim Wilkerson: I have two things. One is extremely administrative that I didn't do and I'm not even great at doing it now, that if I look back over the last however many decades, I wished I would have done in this day and age of technology, and that is keep track of every contact that you make. Have a database. That sounds so simple and elementary, and yet I didn't do it in the beginning and I didn't even get really great at it once technology made it easy. So in order to stay in touch with contacts, whether they're your current clients or prospects or within your sphere of work, you need that database, so that's one.

The second thing is to do exactly what I talked about earlier, which is to always be aware of what's going on around you within an organization. So my success has been, all this time that I've been in business, my entire business has been referrals. So I didn't even have that tri-fold brochure back in the '90s because I was never sure how to focus what I do. But once I did it, wherever I did it, that turned into a referral market that my phone rings and now my email lights up type of thing. So, the best advice that I can give is, don't wait for the client to say, "Hey, great job. Now can you help us with this?" Because they, one, might not know what your scope is in regards to what you can help with. And two, they might not be aware of things that you hear and see throughout the organization that they don't.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Kim Wilkerson: And that has been what has positioned me to work with some clients for 20 years, to the point where I was almost an adopted team member, so I was involved in their quarterly meetings, I was involved in their sales kickoffs, I went to their annual programs. They grew from a company of less than 200 people to short of 10,000…

Deb Zahn: Wow.

Kim Wilkerson: ...and I was with them the whole journey. And that was great for me because it gave me some sense of a team, if you will, but not confined to, back to my beginning statement, of being in a system that I wasn't happy with. So that was the best of all worlds. So I've worked with clients for 20 years, 10 years, 15 years, I've also worked with clients that were one and done, if you will, and still got great testimonials and referrals from them. So, that's my second piece of advice, is pay attention to what's going on around you in an organization where you can be a great match and partner for them.

Deb Zahn: Let me actually, I want to ask you one other question about that because I think that is a huge source of business for consultants, is doing exactly what you're describing. But it also takes skill to be able to do it in a way where you're not looking like you're upselling or just looking to get more money. And as I've had a few clients on the podcast and talked to other clients, they've complained about that. So there is some, both I think, skill and a mindset for doing it well. How do you do it such that it creates those strong relationships rather than looking predatory?

Kim Wilkerson: Oh, the gears in my head are turning because this is truly an unconscious competency for me. Let me lead with this, I have trademarked the phrase, "The question is the answer."

Deb Zahn: I love that.

Kim Wilkerson: And if you think about that, it's a little bit confusing, it's a little bit mind boggling. And yet from my view as a consultant, that's what it's all about. And so, it's asking the right questions at the right time. And it's not the question, "Hey, I can do another workshop for you. Do you want me to do that? Yes or no?" It's not that type of hardcore sales that has a yes or no response, it's about drilling down into content so I can crawl into the head of the person that I'm talking with to figure out what's going on in their world. And so I do that, it is truly an unconscious competency for me and someday I need to deconstruct that to be able to pass this along. My point here is, and I'm going to veer off a little bit from what you're asking, is I use that same approach when I'm coaching.

So my coaching, for the most part, consists of asking questions, and not therapist's questions because I'm not a therapist in regards to "So how did that make you feel?" But questions from the standpoint, and this is the best way I can describe this technique, if I want to advise someone, to give them a tip or a technique or say, "Here's what you should do," a decision, whatever it is, I can ask a question in a way that it can help me lead them to what might be the right approach for them. And I know that sounds vague and ambiguous, but it really is about the questioning technique.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Kim Wilkerson: And if you drill down enough without interrogating someone, to get the lay of the land, to find out you know what they're looking for, what might be missing, what their concerns are, then you can make a recommendation. And oftentimes I might say, let's say I'm coaching this CFO who's the wicked smart person that really has not led people in the past and now has great leadership responsibilities. And if he's talking to me about a manager or a leader on his team that he's concerned about, I might ask, "So what are they doing well? What are your concerns? Have they ever worked with a coach before? Is that something that you think would help them? Whether it's me or someone else, do you think they would benefit from having an outside person in the same way that you and I are working together?"

Deb Zahn: That's great, because then that comes from the place of, "Does this really help?"

Kim Wilkerson: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. To me that's one of the mindset issues, which again, I think it's an unconscious thing, is if your mindset is around truly being helpful and truly helping them achieve the results, you can pick up skills that are going to help you do it well. But no matter what, you'll do it better than if you're just worried about your bank account.

Kim Wilkerson: Absolutely. Spot on. And to that point, all of what I'm talking about, for the most part, is around process and what I do, and communication and how I do it. And so, some of this I've talked about in a book that I've co-authored with Alan Weiss, which is “The Language of Success.” And it's applicable in any situation, whether it's organizations, business, social, whatever it might be, but it's truly a business book. And it's, “The Language of Success.” The confidence and ability to say what you mean and mean what you say in business and in life, and in some cases saying what you mean has to be proceeded with the right questions at the right time.

Deb Zahn: Right. That's wonderful. And we will put a link to that in the show notes. That sounds like a powerful tool for anyone, particularly who's starting out or struggling. Now let me ask you this, obviously, when we're taping this and when this comes out, we're still facing a global crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, and there's been other crises and emergencies, this is one that obviously has a global scale. How has that changed your business or the way that you're working with clients?

Kim Wilkerson: It has changed it in degrees. So over time, again in the beginning, and I'm talking about the first 15 years of business, I was across the table, in person, in the board room, in the front of the workshop, that type of thing. I took great pride in getting on a plane and going somewhere to be with a client because I thought I was my very best when I was face-to-face with them. And I still think of that in terms of that is the Bentley of consulting, and yet that's no longer realistic.

Deb Zahn: Right.

Kim Wilkerson: So, maybe 15 years ago I had a client who I had been working with for close to those 15 years, who, as they grew from 200 to short of 10,000, started using technology to do programs. And I had my heels dug in a tad bit back then, because I didn't not want to be in front of people.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Kim Wilkerson: And yet, I realized the impact in terms of travel and expenses and all of that. So I started doing webinars, and by the time I got to my second webinar, I was converted. It was, "OK, I can be as effective in a webinar…" which is now Zoom and WebEx and all of that, "as standing in front of a room for the right reasons and the right purpose." So that was my first evolution into technology. So now, all face-to-face is shutdown.

Deb Zahn: Right.

Kim Wilkerson: It's not a 50-50 proposition with the COVID that's happening. And so the way it's changed my business, is that on one hand everything is remote. Two, I'm reaching out to clients that I haven't worked with for a while. I'm offering them complimentary services because they were really great clients at the time, I'm even offering that to my current clients. I'm still doing revenue work, so it's not that that has stopped, but I am gearing up to be able to engage with people more often remotely.

Deb Zahn: That's great.

Kim Wilkerson: Yeah. Whether that's technology-based, good old phone-based, email, whatever it might be.

Deb Zahn: That's great and I love that you're reaching out and the way you're reaching out, because that also shows a lot of heart, which is one just good, be a good human being. The other reason is they'll remember it, they'll remember who had heart.

Kim Wilkerson: Yeah. I think that's true in so many situations right now. Whether that's the coffee shops sending coffee to the hospitals, whether it's the pizza place sending pizza to the police department and fire department, whether it's consultants contacting prospects and clients saying, "How can I help kind of thing."

Deb Zahn: Yeah, I just love that. Now obviously in any time, but certainly as we're all contending with this, having some type of balance in our life is also important, so how do you bring balance to your life?

Kim Wilkerson: I will be curious to know if anyone else has answered this question in the same way that I'm about to answer it. I am one of those people who thinks I have an extremely well balanced life. I'm not focusing on doing anything differently from a balance standpoint, I am from a connection standpoint, like we just talked about, with clients. My standard line is I have a pretty uncomplicated life and very happy in that regard and satisfied in my work and in my personal side of my life. There's really not much delineation between those two. They're very well co-habitating, if you will. My standard line has been, "I'm Kim Wilkerson with Wilkerson Consulting Group. I’m the group and I get along with myself most days." So that takes us back full circle to how and why I decided to get out of corporate America and into this business. And as an aside, the very qualities that made me not a great soldier in corporate life, ironically have been my success factors as a consultant.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Kim Wilkerson: So it was just a matter of being in the right environment to do what my expertise is and to partner with my clients. So from a balance standpoint, I've had it all along in the way that I designed my career and my personal life.

Deb Zahn: That's great. That's great. And it sounds like by making deliberate choices about how you're going to do it.

Kim Wilkerson: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. No, I haven't gotten that answer before, so I like that. I mean everybody defines balance differently, holds it differently, but I love the idea that you've actually constructed it into the way that you've developed your business. That's a beautiful thing.

Kim Wilkerson: It is, and I'm very appreciative of it and I pray to the consultant gods once a week that I can do this for as long as I want because it is a great gig.

Deb Zahn: It really, really is. I have to agree with that wholeheartedly. Well Kim, thank you so much for coming on the show today and sharing just wonderful wisdom with us. I really appreciate it.

Kim Wilkerson: Deb, thanks for having me. It's been a great experience for me as well and I appreciate it.

Deb Zahn: You bet.

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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