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  • Writer's pictureDeb Zahn

Why “Can I Pick Your Brain?” Is Attempted Robbery

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

How Not to Let People Steal Your Value

You have worked hard for your expertise. Everything you’ve done, everything you have experienced, and everything you’ve learned over your career has created your own personal wealth of expertise and know-how. That is so valuable that it is the basis of your consulting business.

If you’re like me, you love giving advice, sharing ideas, and using your vast experience to help people, organizations, and companies. That’s why you chose consulting as your livelihood, right? And that’s why you get paid.

Your Value is Not Your Time

And then comes the call, the text, the email: “Hey, can I pick your brain about something?” Or, “Can I have 15 minutes of your time to bounce something off of you?”

It seems harmless enough, right? After all, what’s the big deal about 15 or 30 minutes of your time?

But they aren’t getting 15 or 30 minutes of your time. They're getting the value that you have been accumulating over many years, and they're asking for it for free. A social media post that went viral in 2019 relates well to this reality: “If I do a job in 30 minutes it's because I spent 10 years learning how to do that in 30 minutes. You owe me for the years, not the minutes. (@davygreenberg)

Your Brain is Your Business

Sadly, folks trying to get value for free happens to consultants a lot. Business coach Malla Haridat raised this issue on a recent TrepTherapyTM online event hosted by consultant and entrepreneur Shaunice Hawkins. All of the participants, including myself, rolled our eyes and groaned knowingly. We all have had that happen to us many times and recently.

Sometimes it can even go on for a good long while. I had a colleague who was just a couple of months into consulting. A CEO who she knew and reached out to for the purpose of getting business asked if he could pick her brain over drinks. She said yes and then generously shared her best insights and advice based on decades worth of experience. Naturally, she hoped that he would see the depth and breadth of her value and hire her. Yet at the end of the night, he didn’t even mention the possibility of working together. Sadly, this repeated itself several times. Frustrated, she asked for some advice about how to pivot the conversations to a contract or stop the cycle of freebies.

Now, most of the folks asking us likely don’t realize how their request devalues everything we have done to create the value we offer. They might even think it’s a compliment. They probably don’t know that they're just one among many requests you get throughout the year, let alone throughout your career. The truth is that if I calculated the income loss for saying yes every time someone asked for my value for free, it would easily sketch into five or likely even six figures.

Generosity Doesn’t Mean Letting People Steal Your Value

One of the things I have based my consulting business on is being generous. I do not hold back with my value and my time when I am working with clients. I always strive to give every client the best of what I have to offer, regardless of how much they're paying me. I am generous with helping people who work within the organizations and companies that hire me. I have encouraged and mentored future leaders. I look out for my client even when I am not working with them and communicate any opportunities or threats I see to them, even if I can’t help them respond to those. And I have helped them find other consultants and resources when they need something I can’t do.

That’s generosity.

Saying yes when people ask me to provide consulting services for free—which is what “Hey, can I pick your brain?” means—is not generosity. It is allowing them to steal my value. Consulting is based on a reciprocal exchange of value. You provide your value in exchange for money that enables you to make a living as a consultant.

Here’s the thing: I do make exceptions. If a client who I have worked with for a long time and who I’ve developed a healthy relationship with wants to pick my brain, the answer is always yes. Why? Because they have helped me grow and sustain my livelihood by hiring me and helping me get other clients and because I know that they would never take advantage of our relationship or devalue my value. That’s the only exception. Everything else should always be in the context of a discussion about a contract.

Make Protecting Your Value a Habit

Your value is worth protecting. And as with other things we protect, you have to know that it’s OK to protect it and then get into the habit of doing so. The benefit of developing that habit is that you don’t have to labor over your decision every time someone asks. You are just used to saying no.

If someone asks to pick your brain, you can reply in a few ways, depending on the nature of your relationship with the person.

You could just tell them that you are slammed with work and unfortunately do not have the time. You could tell them when you’ll be freed up if they need some help from you. Always frame it in terms of talking about a project, contract, or engagement.

You could ask them to send you an email describing more of what they're looking for and then send them to a publicly available resource or one of your free resources to help them answer their question. That helps them without you having to do work for free.

You could talk to them and focus the conversation on uncovering what they need by asking them clarifying questions instead of giving them the solutions or your advice. Then restate what they need and say something like, “I can see why you need help with that. I’d be happy to help, but I’d need to do that under a contract.” This works especially well with situations for which there is not a quick answer that will help them. It also trains them to recognize that you get paid to help.

If you have someone repeatedly ask you for free consulting, you can say, “It sounds like you have several things you could use my help with, which I’d be delighted to do. I’d be happy to talk about what a scope of work could look like.” That pivots it back to you being paid for your value.

Sometimes they come clean and admit they were just hoping to just get some free advice. I’ve occasionally had that happen. Once someone even said, “Oh, I was hoping you could be like my wife and just help me out.” Setting aside how problematic that statement is on so many levels, I replied, “I’m not a wife. I’m that other profession.” He laughed embarrassingly and dropped the subject. You may want to hold the sarcasm and just state clearly that your livelihood is consulting and you need to get paid for it.

Regardless of what you choose to answer, learning to say no to people asking for you to do consulting for free is an essential skill to learn and practice. It will help you build a sustainable business and embrace your value.

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