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Episode 87: 5 Big 2020 Lessons for Your Consulting Business in 2021—with Deb Zahn

Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting podcast. In this podcast, I'm going to talk about 2020. Now I'm not going to complain about it or say how horrible it was. What am I actually going to do is I'm going to pull out lessons from it. These are lessons I'm going to use, and I'm going to encourage you to use so that you can make decisions for 2021 that are going to give you more of the life you want and give you more of the consulting business you want. I do think that, as much as 2020 felt like an anomaly, there were so many lessons in it. They were just larger than they typically are, but that's actually really helpful to pull those out. And that helps us make a plan for 2021.

So let me jump in. I got five that I want to talk about.

The first one is to expect disruptions. Now you might be saying, "Well, gee, Deb. I didn't really expect a pandemic." You're right. I didn't. Lots of folks I know in the public health world knew something was coming at some point, but we didn't know it was going to be this. We didn't know it was going to be as huge as what we're seeing now. But we do know that even in normal years, disruptions happen. They happen all the time. And they don't wait politely in line and then when one's done the other one comes up and they're like, "OK, it's my turn." They tend to crowd the field, and they happen all on top of each other.

I'll give you an example. And this wasn't even specific to 2020. I had a week planned out. I knew it was going to be a busy week. Suddenly, my mom, who's 80, got kicked off of her supplemental insurance and her dental. They decided, "Oh yeah, we don't want to cover retirees and widows anymore." So setting how horrible that is aside, we suddenly had to solve this problem for her. It was me and my husband and her trying to sort through what was going to be the best option for her. If anybody's familiar with Medicare, you know that it ain't easy. We knew a lot about Medicare, and wasn’t not easy. So suddenly that's five hours in the middle of a week that I knew was busy that I didn't know I would be spending. But I had to make adjustments, and things had to happen. And obviously that wasn't the only thing that was going on that week.

That's the reality. That type of stuff, whether it's business disruptions or life disruptions or some combo, they happen. So then what do you do with that? What do you do with that reality? Well, here's the lesson that I'm pulling out of that—and I really felt this in my life throughout 2020—is that it tells us how important our baselines are. That baselines matter so much to what we're doing. I'm talking about two kinds of baselines. There are the life baselines, and then there's the business baselines. And sometimes those go together. But you have to have a strong foundation because, if you don't, when a disruption hits, then it's so easy to just get sucked into the stress and chaos. And not have anything that is actually working. That you can fall back on and use to more quickly make things better.

So for me, that means the basics. I’ve got to eat well—good, healthy, nutritious food. I’ve got to sleep well, and I need to exercise regularly. That's it. Those three things have to happen or my baseline gets completely out of whack. When it gets out of whack, it makes it much more difficult for me to make decisions and take the right actions. Now what it also means, and this is the part that I didn't do as regularly as I wanted to this year, is to have some type of reflective or meditative practice. Something that calms and focuses your mind. Feeds your spirit. Those types of things that, again, you can rely on when disruptions happen. Those are the basics. I have to have those. I encourage other folks, whatever version works for you, to have that because then you're going to be able to base your business on a solid foundation.

Now on the business side, there's also a baseline that will make disruptions easier to manage. And that is things like if you've got the right systems in place. If you don't have systems, here's what happens. You are going to have to use your executive function to assess, analyze, and make decisions over and over and over again for repetitive things. So for things that happen all the time. I need that function for solving problems, making choices, and dealing with those disruptions when they actually occur. But if I'm overtaxed because I'm spending my time and my brain power thinking about things that I don't really need to be thinking about because I could have solved them once by building a system for it, then I'm in trouble. So having those systems in place. Where you initially make the decision, you create or have someone create the system, and you automate it as much as possible. Then you let it do its thing. You look back at it or you have someone look back at it periodically to make improvements, but it's set up. That repetitive task is taken care of. If you have a role in it, it's now been minimized. Then you don't have to use your time and your brain power for other things. You can use it to manage the disruption that's coming up.

Now the other thing that is absolutely essential to be able to manage disruptions when they happen that's related to your baseline is your mindset. You have to be able to keep it in shape because if you don't, and I by the way do the same exact thing. If I don't, I easily, quickly revert back to an unhealthy and unhelpful mindset. That means that my decisions and actions are going to flow from that. And it's going to be much harder when I face disruptions to be able to manage those in the way that I want to.

So if I yield territory in my mind to the dreaded imposter syndrome. Or if I'm not embracing what my value is and really understanding what it is on any given basis. Then any disruption can actually throw me into a bad spiral. And then suddenly that's now much bigger than the original disruption. That probably sounds familiar to you if you're listening. Most folks I know have done that at some point. But that's why having that baseline in a good place is so essential. Otherwise, what you're left with is making panic decisions or taking panic actions, which often are not going to yield the results that you want. And they might actually make the outcome of the disruption much worse. Now the other thing is you have to also have done the work. The basic business things you need to do to be able to be comfortable selling. To banish any thoughts you have of perceived scarcity.

This is the scarcity of work that doesn't actually exist. It's just in your mind. During the pandemic, there was actual scarcity. But if you're dealing with both types, the real one and the unreal one, now it's a much bigger problem. You have to have those things in check because otherwise, when you're under the duress of a disruption, it's going to be much more difficult to manage. If I took anything out of 2020, it's the time and attention that I pay to my baseline is worth its weight in gold. It helps me in my life. And it helps me in my business. So I encourage everyone to think about it. To look back at how your baseline's doing. How's it doing now? How did it manage when various disruptions came up? That'll help you make decisions about how you want to strengthen your baseline when you go into 2021. So that's the first one. And that's a big one. I think that's a really huge one.

The second one is, you got to be the boss, right? Doing consulting work, like the actual work when you're working with clients, and if it's work that you love and it's work that you enjoy, it can be a wonderful thing. But the thing is, you are also in the business of consulting. And that makes you the CEO. It doesn't matter if you're within a firm. You're a CEO of your practice. Or if you're an independent consultant or own your own firm, you are the CEO. So you have to do those boss things, which I put in quotes, but those “boss things” that make your business thrive. Now, I'll tell you, and this was true for me in 2020, it was really easy to forget that until there's a crisis.

What I saw, and I certainly saw this a bit in myself and I saw it in others, is we were just chugging along. We get business. We're doing good work. We're focused on doing good work. And then there's a crisis. Obviously, the pandemic was an exaggerated version of a crisis. But then suddenly, if you're like me or other consultants, you had at least some of your business either disappear or get delayed. I didn't have any disappear. I definitely had some get delayed. But I knew plenty of consultants that all or the majority of their business pipeline disappeared overnight. Within a day. Gone. And so suddenly now you got to get into boss mode and figure out what your financial circumstance is. You got to figure out how to act fast to get income in the door. You have to consider, "Oh, should I pivot? And if so, how? And what should that look like? What do I do? Oh my gosh. My visibility isn't really high. I need to do something about that. I haven't talked to my network in a while. I got to re-engage them. And now everybody else is re-engaging their network. What do we do?"

Those are things that, before the pandemic, if you haven't gotten your business set up in a way that you can really focus on making those types of boss decisions on a regular basis, it's going to be much harder to do it when there's a disruption. Again, what a lot of consultants do, and I've certainly been guilty of this in the past and I've always regretted it when I do this, is that you may just get business and then just focus on that work. And then you just go get more business when you need it. That might work if you are a well-established consultant in your field and you've set it up such that people tend to come to you and ask you to do things for them. But if you do that, then you are also opening yourself up to significant risk. I think the pandemic highlighted that. But it's always a risk. And so even then after, hopefully we get past the pandemic. It's still going to be a risk to do that. It just might not be as big a risk. But it's something that you really should attend to so that you can minimize any risk that you have.

Here's basically a way to think about it. If the goal is not to spend all of your time working in your business, this is doing the actual consulting work when you're working with clients. But you also need to work on your business as the boss of that business. That means continually, not just when there's a crisis, but continually looking at and making decisions about the totality of your business. And looking at making decisions about how the different pieces of it work together. And making changes. Making tweaks. Getting rid of things. Adding things. Those things that ultimately create a sustainable and profitable consulting business. And not just being a consultant who gets paid to be a consultant. And there's a distinction between those. The second one should be part of the first one. It should not live by itself. Because again, you open yourself up to risks and when disruptions happen, which we cannot always predict. You may not be able to manage them and get the income you need in the door.

Being the boss also—and this is one of my favorite things to say and I continually have to remind myself of it—but being the boss also means that you need to free yourself up from the things you don't need to be doing so that you can focus on doing what only you can do. That is generating revenue. Doing all the things you need to be able to do that. And to deliver excellence to your clients. Which is going to help you generate more revenue. Which is going to help you serve more clients. That is the beautiful, virtuous cycle that you want to get into.

That brings me to my next point. Number three is to get help. If you are so low and you're doing it all by yourself. Or you're at a firm and you don't really have folks that you're connected within it that could potentially help you. Get help. I will tell you, in 2020, if I didn't have a team, I don't even know. I can't even tell you how much more stressful everything would have been if I had not had a team that could free me up to focus on generating revenue. That's what made a huge difference to me in 2020. I'll give you some examples of what I mean by that. I had somebody who set up all these beautiful systems for me, right? So a bunch of repetitive tasks that I used to do each and every time without a system. Maybe I'd have an Excel spreadsheet, or I'd have reminders to remind myself to do it.

But she set up all these systems for me. She automated anywhere we can automate so that I only had to worry about the slivers of things that I had to do within that larger system. That meant that I did not overtax my brain all the time trying to remember all of those details and doing it correctly. And I also freed up a whole bunch of time so that I could actually focus on the business itself. I had somebody who updated my website when it needed it. And it needs it on an ongoing basis. Now, do I know how to do that? Yes. I actually do know how to do it. And I'm glad I know how to do it just in case. But that should be just in case. I also, because I do a podcast, I don't edit it. Oh goodness, no. I don't oversee the post-production. When I started, I did. That was a tremendous amount of time. And that meant the time I was spending doing that was time I was not spending doing activities that directly connect to revenue generation.

Now again, can I do all of those things? I absolutely can. I actually do know how to edit my podcast. But again, that pulls me away from the things that I should be doing, which is doing great work for clients. Generating revenue. Being the boss of my consulting business. Here's what I would encourage you to do in 2021. Even if you just start with hiring a virtual assistant, right. If that's even just the first thing you do, I encourage you to find at least one thing that you're going to get help with in 2021. Free up your time. Free up your brain power. And again, focus on only doing what only you can do. It is absolutely 100% worth the investment. As long as you do spend that time where you are freed up in order to work on your business. In order to make decisions and take actions to build and grow a sustainable, profitable business. If you do that, it's 100% worth it as an investment. So that's what I encourage you to do in 2021 because that was definitely my big lesson, which is, "Oh, thank goodness I had help."

Now the fourth one I want to talk about is one that's really personal to me. A big lesson that I had in 2020 is the importance of taking professional risks so that I could live my values and I could contribute to the greater good. If you've ever heard me before, I think it will not surprise you that I think that consulting businesses exist in the world. And because they exist in the world, they should contribute in some way to making the world a better place. The consultants that I work with and the folks that tend to be drawn to me to get some assistance are the folks that have values that are similar to that, right. Where we do consulting because we like to help people. We want to make the world a better place. And consulting is the livelihood we've chosen to be able to do that.

But what that means is that sometimes we have to take professional risks in order to live that value. I did that in 2021 and I'm happy that I did it...Or did it in 2020. I'm happy I did it. I plan to do much more of it going into 2021. That includes going where you might get flak from others. It includes even doing things where you might risk losing some business. But it's important to do it anyway because it's the right thing to do. Doing the right thing, I believe, is part of the foundation of having a successful business, but also just being a good person that you want to be in the world.

I'm going to use myself as an example of this. So I unabashedly support Black Lives Matter and other movements whose focus is creating a just and anti-racist world. Unabashedly support that. I know as a white person, I have to show up and do my part. That's the only way it changes is if I step up. If other white folks step up, and they're willing to do things differently than they've done before and get out of their comfort zone and do it. That includes in my consulting business. It can be really easy to think, "Oh, I'll just do that on my personal Facebook or my personal Instagram. Or I'll do things behind the scenes."

But I do actually think it's very important to embody that within your consulting business. There are so many different ways to do that. I started exploring and experimenting with some of those ways in 2020. And as I said, I plan on doing a whole lot more of it in 2021. But the basic level is continuing to educate myself. If I know that I want to show up in a way that is helpful and not harmful, that's not a naturally-occurring phenomenon. And I need to do the work to educate myself to make sure that I can tell the difference and take the right action. I know I have to stay humble and embrace my mistakes, which I will make. If I get called out on it, which I will, then that's OK. And I need to own up to it. I need to take responsibility for it. I need to not just commit to do better. I actually have to do better.

Big thing, I think, particularly for white consultants is to...I know that I need to use my influence to encourage my clients who are influenced by me to do the right thing. If they're not doing the right thing or they're struggling with doing the right thing, it's my opportunity. And I should take it to encourage them to go in the right direction. Even if it's difficult. Even if it's hard. If I need to help them figure out how to be successful doing it, I should do that.

I also need to say no to business I have no business doing. I did that. Does that mean loss of revenue? Yeah. It absolutely does. But it doesn't matter. It's the right thing to do. That's why taking those professional risks I think are so important. It also means saying things publicly. So not just in private. There may be consequences to that, and again, that's OK because if we're going to live our values, we have to be willing to do that.

If it's all just about being comfortable and particularly for white folks, then things aren't going to change. I will say my consulting business, I've decided from the beginning, it is built on values. Values that I hold sacred and I treat them as such. I want to embody those values in everything that I do. I certainly encourage all other consultants to do that. It's going to help. It's going to make the world a better place. So why wouldn't we do it? It's OK to take those risks to do it. You can still have a thriving consulting business and be a person who's contributing to a better world. I don't think those are mutually exclusive. But I think making a better world is more important. That's how I would put it. That was a big lesson for me. I did that in 2020. I'm going to do it more in 2021. I encourage folks to do that with me as well.

Now the fifth one. It's really close to my heart, which is to enjoy the goodness. 2020 was rough. I'm not going to lie, there is a lot going on. I mean the things that we were all collectively sharing with the pandemic. But if you live in the U.S., there was all the things related to the election, which is still being resolved. And there were personal things. There were all kinds of things going on. The one thing I saw is there are so many good people in the world who are just doing wonderful things. And that being connected to them in any way is such a blessing.

It's funny because I'm an introvert. Not a little one. Like a big, way on the side of the spectrum introvert. So in terms of being socially isolated, that hasn't been terribly difficult for me. I tend to default to that. But I've been connected with people, even with the social distancing in 2020, more than I think I am in typical years. I have to say, it's been a huge blessing. Including internationally. I now have friends in Australia, Canada, and the U.K. that we have conversations about the world and our experiences in it. And it's such a blessing. I have met some of the most wonderful, dedicated clients. My colleagues. Other consultants who have just warmed my heart by being such good people. People that I've met on my podcast who just make my heart sing when I hear them talk about the things that they care about and the things that they're doing in their work. In their lives. Things that contribute to a better world. And the ways that they're living their values. It's amazing.

Or even people that I follow on social media that I'm new to following that are really challenging me and making me think. I mean, what an amazing blessing to be connected in that way and to be able to continually make ourselves a better person. And by emulating what we see of folks around us. It's been amazing. I could get very emotional about this. But I love watching people put their hearts forward. I have seen so many people ask how they can help and then follow through. The generosity that I have seen has truly left me in awe. And it's really helped balance out all of the other things I've seen in the world that are not good and that are difficult.

And so it's out there. I know what it's called me to do and the lesson that I've gotten out of it is I want more of that in myself. I think I'm a good person. I think I'm a generous person. But I know that I can be more giving. I know that I can be better and that's what I want to do. I'm a consultant and, obviously, I help other consultants become successful. I do that because I love to help people. So if nothing else, it recommitted me to that mission and certainly the power of it. But it’s also made me ask questions of myself about how I can amplify that. How I can do it more deeply? How I can do it more? And so that's what I'm going to be spending some time right before 2021 thinking about. That and coming up with some very deliberate plans of how I want to do that. So it's not just a sentiment, but it's a call to action for myself. And then action actually flows from it.

Those were my five big lessons. I want to thank you so much for spending 2020 with me. We're getting through it. It's almost over. I hope that you learn lessons from it, and it gives you the 2021 that you really want to have. I wish you health and calm and joy in the coming year. Thank you so much for coming on this journey with me. I can't wait to see what we can do together in 2021. Thanks so much.

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