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Episode 95: Pearls of Wisdom for Your Consulting Business and Life—with Arnold Salazar

Deb Zahn: Hi. I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting podcast. We're going to go really deep today. And by deep, what I mean is that there are lessons that you learn over time as a consultant that make your life better. That make your consulting business better and enable you to serve your clients better. You just pick them up over time. And we're going to share some of those with you today. I brought on someone who is just, he's a fantastic consultant. And I know this because I recently worked with him, but he also just has a really profound understanding of what creates a successful consulting business and a successful life.

Arnold Salazar is an independent consultant with community mental health providers in Colorado and other states. He's going to share multiple pearls of wisdom that you don't have to wait to discover yourself. He's actually going to share them, and you can start applying them immediately. And again, it's going to help your business and it's going to help your life. So let's get started.

Hi. Welcome to my show today, Arnold Salazar. Arnold, welcome to the show.

Arnold Salazar: Thank you, Deb. Thanks for inviting me today.

Deb Zahn: I'm really excited to have you on because, of course, we know each other because we've worked together. And so I've seen you in action, and I know how fabulous you are. I know today you're going to share some pearls of wisdom with us. But let's start off. Tell my listeners what you do.

Arnold Salazar: Well, I've had a long career in community behavioral health. As a matter of fact, that's all I've ever done is working with community mental health centers. I started at the ripe old age of 24 and just recently, just 2 years ago, finished a 40-year career of working through behavioral health at the community mental health center level. Two years ago, after I finished my career with behavioral health in the organizational standpoint, I started my consulting business, Strategic Executive Advantage, which is a consulting company that provides advice, direction, and help to community mental health centers, mostly in Colorado…I have a few clients from outside of Colorado…to help through these difficult times that we're going through in trying to convert from community organizations to the competition that we're seeing and just to become stronger, better organizations to survive the times.

So it's been great two years into this. I wish I would have done this sooner. And I think you hear that from a lot of your podcasts. I wish I would have done this five years ago because it's been absolutely wonderful. Very fulfilling. And I'm happy to share my experience with you. Whatever detail you'd like.

Deb Zahn: That's great. Well, so we talked before. I know you've been really great at capturing lessons that apply to life and lessons that apply also to consulting. So let's just dive into those and we're going to go in whatever order you want. But let's hit the first one. What's the big first pearl of wisdom you want to share with us?

Arnold Salazar: That's one of the most important things we do as humans I think, is to raise our children. And the children that we bring into this world are our responsibilities. And I think it's an incredible burden for us as parents to really think about what that is. So what I've tried to do is really look at anybody who asks me, “What advice would you give me about raising kids?” And I would say that there's only one piece of advice that I would give you, and that is that you've got to raise the kids you get not the ones you want. And that is an example that I've seen over and over. When you don't do that, you end up with the athletic father who wants to make a quarterback out of a 98-pound kid that happens to be his son. And you see the trials and tribulations and the pain that people go through. And for me, that is the one thing I can say that kids come into this world with innate capabilities and innate features that you just got to work with them to raise a kid that you get. Not the one that you want.

And as I look at what I do in my consulting work, it really does apply. The organizations that come to us, come to us with certain DNA. You can't turn a community-based organization, struggled in community organizing and came up through that process into some Fortune 500 company. You really have got to take the organization that comes to you. Work with them on a day-to-day basis and make sure that the things that you are doing are in sync with who they are as an organization. You're in sync with the community they live in. You're in sync in the cultural experiences that they bring to you.

And you got to work with that. Otherwise, I feel sometimes that consultants come in and try to remake organizations into something that the organization doesn't want to be. Or that the organization can't be. And it leads to frustration. It leads to, I think, a bad experience for everyone. So I've been really, really conscious that even though I work with mental health centers in the State of Colorado, I can tell you that no one of the 13 centers that I work with is the same. They all have different features. They all serve a different part of the state. They have a different geography. They have a different history of where they came from. And you can't really jump in and work with them unless you understand that. And so for me, that is the top lesson if you will.

And I always tell people that I got this idea of the pearls of wisdom and the things you've learned through life because I grew up with my grandfather. And my grandfather died at the age of 90 when I was 15. So I spent the first 15 years of my life. He and I were pretty much alone. As we grew up, he would take care of me. And I would be the one person that would be able to watch him as he provided advice for my uncles. For my cousins. For his nieces and nephews. People would come to him for advice, and I'd sit by the side and just watch. And over time, I came to understand that what he would tell them was not what to do, but how to think of something. How to think through a situation. And so that really is the one big pearl of wisdom that he always used. And one that I find over and over again. It's a Spanish saying which we refer to as dichos or the wisdom that comes from our elders, and that is No le pido a Dios que me dé, nomás le pido que me ponga donde hay. And the translation of that is that he would say, “Don't pray to God to give you something. Pray that he puts you somewhere where you can get what you need.” It's very powerful to think in that way.

I think about this as my experience at the…I luckily was able to get an undergraduate degree at a small college here in Southern Colorado. But had the great fortune to go to the University of Michigan for graduate school, and to me that was the first time I'd really left this small community. So it was an incredibly inspiring experience for me. But one of the things that I still remember, the first class that I went to. I sat down and the professor started talking about the syllabus and the book that he assigned of course was a book that was his same last name. And I thought, what a coincidence. The author and this guy have the same last name.

So I go to the second class. The second class, the author and the professor had the same last name. By the time I went to the third class, I said, all right, this isn't a coincidence. And I started seeing that I was actually learning with the people that wrote the books. And it came back to what my grandfather said. Don't ask for something. Ask to be put somewhere where you can get what you need. So I took that opportunity and it rang like a bell in my head. This is where I need to get what I need.

Deb Zahn: Wow.

Arnold Salazar: I have been put somewhere for me to get what I need. And for us as consultants, I think a lot of times that's really the role that we play. How do we help organizations? Not give them stuff or get them things or whatever, but put them in a place where they can learn how to get things that they need. Learn how to survive in this competitive world because the first lesson that you teach them we'll use over and over and over again. It's not about giving them things. It's about putting someone where they can learn for themselves how to become self-sufficient. And I see that often in the work that we do. The context that I have over the many years that I've worked are as valuable as what I know, about how the business is done, that I can really connect the right people to the right resources and teach them how to do that on their own. So that to me is really another one of the big lessons. To put me where I can get what I need.

Deb Zahn: I love that. And I love that because it's in contrast to what you know. And I know that other consultants often do. They either show up with their model and they try to shove it down a client's throat, or they attach to a client like a sucker fish, and...

Arnold Salazar: Yeah.

Deb Zahn: They do it. That's the visual I get. And they want to do everything for the client so that they continue to get paid instead of working with the client so that they can adapt and become what they are meant to be. What they most want to be. Ultimately, making you irrelevant for what you started working with them with.

Arnold Salazar: Well, I've always said that even in the business of behavioral health, the happiest day of my life will be when we don't need mental health centers. It hasn't happened in my career. And the same thing with consulting. There's nothing happier for me than for the client to say, “I've gotten what I need. Thank you.” And we can both walk away because I think that is really the true measure of success. And it seems to build on itself. As you become successful in helping clients in that way, other people start coming to you.

It's not a matter of not having the work, which leads me to one of the other really important pearls of wisdom. And that is one of the things I've learned through my life is that sometimes your job gets in the way of your work. We look at that and I say to myself, “I know what my life work needs to be. But I also know that I have to have a job.” And so what is interesting is an experience that I had once when I was running the mental health center early on in my career. And at the time, it was in the early seventies when we had gone through the deinstitutionalization of mental health centers. We had moved people out of these horrible facilities that were warehousing people. We had gone to the next level, but there were still a lot of people lingering in state hospitals. So I was on a committee to talk about how we transform the resources of the state hospital into community resources, where people can live in the community. And so to do that, of course, you had to go to Denver.

My ride to Denver was typically a one hour, very bumpy plane ride to Denver. And so I went to the airport. It was snowing that morning. A cold day like today. And then the plane didn't leave because they couldn't get it off the ground. But I had to get to this meeting. And I saw this man walk over from the private airport. I could see his jet sitting out on the runway. And as I looked over to him, he came walking over. He walked in and said, "Can I get on the commercial flight?" “No, the commercial flight's not leaving.” And I made the comment that I'm going to drive to Denver. And so he asked me if he could go with me. He had been here hunting at this really exclusive resort here in Southern Colorado. And I said, “Sure. I'll give you a ride. Jump in.”

I'm going to tell you, Deb, that I was very envious of him. I know that that's something that we shouldn't be. We should not be envious of others. But I can tell you honestly, when I saw that jet sitting there, I became very envious of him. So we get talking. He asked me what I did. I asked him what he did. And I wanted to know, how did you get that jet is essentially what I wanted to know. And he started telling me that what he was the biggest cardboard manufacturer West of the Mississippi. And I thought to myself, if I go to my grave knowing that my biggest contribution to this world was that I made cardboard I am going to be thoroughly disappointed in my life.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Arnold Salazar: And that's when I put in perspective of saying, I get to go there to talk about how we free people and bring them to the community. And I'm in the process of doing that. Feeding my soul. But at the same time, I'm feeding my bank account. And to me, that became the lesson. And to me, it's you got to feed your soul and you got to feed your bank account. And you got to do that in a balance that makes you happy. And for our clients, I think we need to look at the same thing. We can't just make them into these efficient money-making machines.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Arnold Salazar: Something that they do needs to feed them and feed their soul as an organization. And when those things get off balance, usually they call us to consult with them.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Arnold Salazar: And so trying to find that balance for me as a person, as I live my life is something that I've done. But for our clients as well, is how do we do that in a way that is meaningful to them? In a way that can work through some of the issues that we deal with on an ongoing basis.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. Yeah. I always remember the term “mission plus margin.” And the goal is not to replace. If you're not getting the margin, it's not to replace your mission with margin. It's to have them both in balance and talk about a fulfilling way to live your life.

Arnold Salazar: Yeah. So that really to me is another one of those little things that I've picked up over time.

Deb Zahn: Great. So I know you have others. What else would you share?

Arnold Salazar: Well, another one that really comes to mind is something that I've observed over time. I've worked with and supervised employees. And looking at especially managers that are embedded in the question is often the answer that people want. People will ask you a question in a way that reflects the answer that they want. And so I was reading this book recently. It's a book The Man With No Borders. And the book has nothing to do with behavioral health or whatever. But there's one line in there that really caught me in the book, and it's a line that they use. It says that “the truth is in the silence that hangs like tombs between the words.”

Deb Zahn: Wow.

Arnold Salazar: The truth is in the silence that hangs like tombs between the words. When people are telling you something, there's something else that's embedded in that. And for us to learn how to listen to our clients. Listen to our kids. Listen to the people that we supervise. To try to look at what that is. What are they trying to say? And a lot of times we think that as consultants, we're hired to talk.

Deb Zahn: Whoops.

Arnold Salazar: And I don't think we are.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Arnold Salazar: I think we're hired to listen. We're hired to listen to what they're telling you. And what may be embedded in what they're telling you may be good. May be bad. May be wrong. May not even understand what they're telling you. But help them understand that through the process of questions and the dialogue back and forth, I think is absolutely critical. It's a really good way of connecting with clients over a period of time to understand what they're saying.

Deb Zahn: Let me ask a little bit about that because I think that is dead on. Because clients, particularly if you're talking to someone you haven't worked with before, they don't always know, but they're revealing it. And if you ask the right questions you can really get to the heart of what they really care about. What are some of the questions that you ask if you start to see that there's something that's hanging in that silence to actually get that to the surface?

Arnold Salazar: Well, I think it's the questions of, “Tell me more about…” Or “How did you…” Or “When did it…” It's the open-ended questions that I think are always useful. And of course, as a therapist, those of you who are therapists understand that. And it's always intriguing to me to watch that approach of how you leave people with questions. And one of the most powerful things that you can do in asking questions is the silence after the question.

Deb Zahn: Yes. Don't fill it.

Arnold Salazar: Don't fill it. And you let it hang. Let it hang. Let it hang. And people will eventually come out and really share with you things that you otherwise wouldn't hear if you were talking. Right? And so open-ended questions, I think helping be insightful and helping them talk through the things that they're asking you can become a very effective way of understanding what the organization is doing because organizations are more complex than individuals. They're much more complex. And so it's, to me, a luxury to really talk through issues with an individual. When you're talking through issues with an organization, it really challenges you to listen. It really does. And it gives you an opportunity to really understand deeply where the organization is and what they're doing. Understand what motivates them. What drives them. Where they want to be as an organization.

And that has been the really, really fun part of the discussion that I've had with people, which is pretty interesting. That gets me to one of my other things that I use, and that is that if I know how you think then I know what you know because all we're doing is changing the situation, right? And so listening and learning how your clients think about things. How they process information. How they address challenges. How they work through problems. Is always a very important part of our discussions with them.

So learning how the organization thinks. How do they react to the political environment? What did they do in the situation and why? And do they think that was effective or wasn't effective? Talk through those kinds of things. But I want to know how you think because we all have certain models in our head of how we think. And organizations are the same way. To my surprise, as I talk to different organizations. There's this organizational culture that processes the work of the environment in a certain way. And so giving your clients the opportunity to look into that. To ask questions again about why this, and why that. Once you learn their pattern of how they think and how they go through things, I think it could be very insightful and very helpful to a client. To a client organization.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, and I would say not just when you're helping them, but also when you're trying to figure out how you can serve them. What a scope would be. What a budget would be. Because I think just in terms of: one, how do they think about and respond to conflict? And so, it's one thing if you notice. If you're meeting with a few leaders and you notice they're not on the same page. And that they have conflict and they have a completely different idea of what the outcome they're trying to achieve is. It's another thing to see that process behind that because that's going to tell you if you're going to work with them how much time might it take. What do you need to bring to the table to make it work and be effective? Do you need to add certain elements of the work so that you can manage that? And you wouldn't know that if you didn't listen deeply and carefully?

Arnold Salazar: Well, and to me, the biggest challenge that I've had in consulting is once you are good at listening and good at understanding. The biggest challenge for me is where do you start? Where do you start? Because if you start in the wrong place you're not going anywhere.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Arnold Salazar: And so to me, that's always been, and I don't think a lot of times we don't necessarily always start where the client wants to start. Right? And you have to help them work through that. Sometimes some of the biggest blocks that they have are the things that are not obvious to them.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Arnold Salazar: And so a level of trust needs to be developed. You have to have a level of trust that you're able to talk to them about these things in ways that are meaningful. And so the question becomes then how do you develop the trust? Right? You got to get to that point. And I use, this is not mine obviously, it's Theodore Roosevelt’s. The, "No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care."

Deb Zahn: Oh, I love that.

Arnold Salazar: They don't care that I've 13 years, whatever. 40 years in community behavioral, blah, blah, blah, whatever. They want to know that I care about them.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Arnold Salazar: They want to know that I'm invested in their future. They want to know that. And it's the same thing with clients. When you bring a client in if you're a therapist, it's not a different experience than that because they do want to know that you care. And once you can get to that point then I think they can start listening. And so the process of developing trust is that you genuinely need to care about what your client is doing. And if you don't care about it, don't take the job. Don't take the job. Sometimes we do our best work by walking away.

Deb Zahn: 100%, which is hard for new consultants, particularly to think, “Wait. I'd walk away from business.” But you're saying something that I think is really profound here, which is if you can't do your best work because you care, don't do that because they deserve the best.

Arnold Salazar: Right. And let somebody else do it that does align with them better. Does care better because the relationship is obviously two ways, right? And so we have the responsibility, I believe, as consultants to be honest about that. And to be honest with the whole concept of, I really do care about what you're doing and I want to help you. And we can work together. And my job is to be that. Listening. Understanding. Guiding. Tons of experience that we've had as consultants. That's the easy part. I can tell people how to work through rate models and put out...I can do all that stuff in my sleep. But I want to make sure that I'm doing it for the right reason. And the client understands that I'm doing it for the right reason. That we're doing this together because we really care about what the organization is doing. And yeah, like I said, it's hard. And some of the best work you can do sometimes is by walking away.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And if you end up walking away and only doing your best work for clients that you care about, that as a business strategy is brilliant. Because that's how you build a reputation of when Arnold's on your team. When he's by your side. These beautiful things happen. And he cares truly about you. And that's better marketing than anything on the planet.

Arnold Salazar: Yeah, no. It's a lesson that I've had to learn. Not necessarily in consulting. I've been doing it that long, but as I've worked through with clients or supervising clients, it's really an important part of what we do and that is important. So I talked to you about the fact that I've got these listening skills and these things that I do. But I want you to know, I'm a social worker by training, but I'm not a therapist. I tell people that the biggest contribution I've made to the field of social work is that I've never seen a client.

Deb Zahn: I love that.

Arnold Salazar: And what that is that early on in my career, I figured out that that wasn't the skill that I had.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Arnold Salazar: That my skills were business skills. That we were working with the politics. Dealing with the environment the people are in. So I really changed my whole focus to study the business side of human services. I never really went after a clinical degree. And, again, I think that goes back as we work with, don't try to sell something that you don't have. It doesn't help. Again, you do yourself as a consultant a favor. And you do your clients a favor by hooking them up with somebody that does know something else. And there's nothing wrong with us partnering with other consultants that have a better skill than I would have. In other words, I would never sit down and try to do therapy with somebody because I'm a social worker. I would refer them to some of my friends who are incredible therapists, right? As opposed to saying, well, I'm a social worker. Let me muddle my way through this. Probably not a good idea. Right?

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Oh, goodness.

Arnold Salazar: That's not going to end up well for anyone. And I think as consultants we need to look at the same thing. Let's see who we are. Let's do a serious evaluation of the skills that we have and make sure that when we talk to a client that we can connect them to other resources if we're not that individual. And again, over time, I think it pays back handsomely quite frankly.

Deb Zahn: Well, and you've probably experienced this. I certainly have, which is sometimes I will tell a client “I'm not the right person for that.” And they don't care. They want me anyway because they trust me. And that's when it takes not just the self-reflection and the introspection, but the boundaries to say your outcome is way too important to me to have me flub my way through this and give you something that's sub-par. And that takes, I think, a little bit of courage to turn that revenue away and to tell a client no. Who doesn't on the surface anyway care that you aren't the best person.

Arnold Salazar: Yeah, no, it is a difficult process. And what's good about consulting is that we come in contact, and what's great about your podcast quite frankly is that we come in contact with other consultants. And now, the ability to really talk to others and be in a community, I think is what's great about this. So we don't feel like we are carrying the weight of the world because to me it's difficult when somebody wants me to do a consulting piece that I don't know. But I have no other resource to turn to. I feel like I'm leaving them in the lurch. So this kind of a community I think is absolutely critical for bringing resources together. And I think the continuing dialogue, it only makes our business and our profession as consultants much more respectable because I think it's much more honest. It makes it to where it's not so burdensome knowing that we're not out there alone.

Because the great thing about working with an organization that I always loved is I could always call on my finance director. Human services. Whatever I needed was there. As consultants, a lot of times we're out there on our own. And so creating a network for me is really important. So there are certain people that I work with that I would continue to stay in contact with, and I don't see them as competitors. I honestly don't. I see them as colleagues who have skills. I've never met another consultant that has the exact skills that I do. There isn't another one. OK. And so we may be in the same space, but really we all have different skills. And it's a matter of patching those things together I think that makes us really work in the most effective way.

Deb Zahn: And it makes it more fun I think. I have certain consultants, actually it's a law firm that does consulting type things. And a place that does finance. And the three of us, we call ourselves the triad. And I usually will call one and say, “Hey, let's get the band back together.” It's just so much more fun to work with other really smart people who are smart in things that you aren't.

Arnold Salazar: Yeah, no, it's been rewarding that way. I can tell you that was one thing I was worried about when I started consulting. Is, “Am I going to be isolated?”

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Arnold Salazar: Am I going to be out by myself? Am I going to be not having the contact that I want? And really the opposite has been the case. I've developed a whole other network of people that I work with. A whole other group of people that I didn't know before that has made it extremely rewarding. I wish I would have done this 10 years ago. Go back to where we started.

Deb Zahn: If only. I wish I had started sooner. I'm right there with you. So, other pearls of wisdom you want to share?

Arnold Salazar: I think we're close to time. I'm pretty much...I've got a few other things, but really those were the key things as it relates to consulting that I really wanted to share with everyone today because it's near and dear to my heart obviously.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And you think about it deeply, which I really appreciate because, again, I think introspection and reflection is a consultant superpower.

Arnold Salazar: Yeah.

Deb Zahn: And you obviously have a lot of that. But that's also the reason you're so good at what you do. But let me ask one last question because the other thing about being a consultant is we don't want to be isolated. We want to do work that we're best suited to do. But it's also, we have other things in our life, which I know you have other things that are meaningful to you. So how do you bring that balance to your life? However it is you define that for yourself.

Arnold Salazar: For me it's a matter of putting things into priority. And that is that my clients are very, very important to me. And I will be available to them whenever I need to, but not before my family. And that is just something that people need to know when they hire me. That my family comes first. And that if something's going on that I need to take care of, I will. I won't abandon them. And if something really bad happens, I will put them in safe hands. But I really need to find that balance for me. It's like I told you, I grew up with my grandfather. And to us, we're a very large extended family. Thanksgiving at my house is 70 people all related to me who live within 20, 30 miles of me.

So we're very connected that way. And it's not hard to be disciplined about scheduling things. And there's, again, that balance. And the family side feeds my soul as much as the consulting side. And I know I got consulting because that's the part that I enjoy doing as well. And so just really always striking that balance is important. And so we got to make sure that, and maybe the operative word for today is balance. I don't know.

Deb Zahn: I think so. It actually applies to a lot of the things that you talked about.

Arnold Salazar: Yeah. And I think that most of our life, we spend trying to figure out what...And you know when it's out of balance you know.

Deb Zahn: Oh, yeah.

Arnold Salazar: You get the feeling and you understand. And you just got to bring it back into balance. And I think we walk into organizations that are not doing that. Something has gone bad and it's out of balance somehow. It’s really an incredible opportunity.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, I would agree. Well, Arnold, I am so appreciative that you came on to the podcast. You know that I absolutely adored working with you. It's the first time we've ever worked together. And I was in awe of how caring and helpful you were to everybody that was involved in the situation. So I appreciate that you're willing to come on and share your wisdom with us.

Arnold Salazar: Absolutely. I love this profession and let's make it better.

Deb Zahn: I agree. Let's do that. Thank you, Arnold.

Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or if you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content and I don't want you to miss anything. But the other two things that I'm going to ask you to do is, one is, if you have any comments, so if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those.

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