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The Cobbler’s Kids Don’t Have to Go Barefoot — 10 Ways to Practice What You Preach

Sometimes I think consulting could be called the land of the Cobbler’s Kids, a land where we know how to make other organizations function at their best, but fail to do the same for ourselves.

Imagine if we shed that behavior and started practicing what we preach. We could be just as successful as we help our clients to be!

Here are 10 ways to get started.

1) Have a plan.

Imagine this scenario: You are visiting a prospective client for the first time. You ask if they have a plan for whatever it is you will be working on (fund development, grant-seeking, overall strategy). Their response is, “No, it’s hard to find the time. And besides, in our line of work, it’s really hard to plan – one can never tell what will be coming down the pike.”

Now imagine saying to that client, “That’s ok. I understand. I don’t plan for my business either.”

Silly? Of course. But unless you are prepared for this confession, perhaps it’s time to think about planning to make your business what you want it to be.

2) Remember your mission.

When my partner and I first got into the consulting business, we weren’t sure exactly what we would end up doing. What we DID know quite clearly was why we were doing it.

In those early days, we knew we wanted work that would let us grow, both intellectually and creatively, and work that would let us travel. We knew we wanted our families to join us in our travels and to grow along with us. Most of all, we wanted to know that our work was doing something to make the world a better place.

Getting into NonProfit consulting is certainly NOT about the money. But having forsaken that steady paycheck for “something more,” we forget that WHAT we do is not nearly as important WHY we are doing it.

Your clients’ missions help them define why they are doing what they do. As you develop your consulting practice, remember that your own personal mission should be doing the same for you.

3) It’s about them, not you.

For our clients’ work to have real meaning, they must constantly focus and re-focus on the community they serve – doing needs assessments, expanding services to meet demand, etc.

The same applies to consultants. We don’t exist for ourselves, we exist for our clients. Without them, there is no us!

And so consultants must remember to listen more than we speak. Ask more than we answer. Each time we face the same old task with a new client, we must remember to treat it as we treated our very first job – to approach the client with the same freshness and excitement we had when consulting was new and we wanted to know everything about how our clients do what they do.

Make it more about your clients and less about you, and your practice will blossom.

4) Understand your own finances.

Oh I wish I had a nickel for every consultant who complains about NonProfits who live from grant to grant, only to turn around and complain that they don’t know where their next consulting gig is coming from! “What will I do about cash flow?” they ask.

Finances are one of the many areas where it is easy to fall into the “do as I say, not as I do” mode. Duplication of effort. Wasting time and/or staff. Lack of sustainability. Even simple basics like understanding your own balance sheet.

Yes, cash flow is king, and it is truly an area where consultants must practice what they preach.

Which leads to …

5) Don’t allow short term decisions to jeopardize long term success.

We have all seen organizations jeopardize their long term plans for short term gain. It’s an easy thing to see in someone else, but when it comes to ourselves, we have all kinds of excuses about why it just wouldn’t apply.

Consultants who spend a whole day doing their own bookkeeping to save money. Consultants who can’t find time to do marketing, because they are busy bringing in money to pay the bills. Consultants who can’t seem to get past living hand-to-mouth.

Yes, we live our lives in the short term – the need to pay the bills is real. But accomplishing what we want in the long term (remembering your own personal mission!) has more to do with investing our time and less to do with saving or even making money in the short term. It’s a balance – one we might try to help our clients achieve, but that we are likely to consider too hard to do for our own businesses.

True story: Last year we decided it was about time I get serious about writing a series of workbooks. We knew the only way we could do that was for me to take time away from the business. And that meant no major consulting jobs.

Boy was that scary! But we knew that although a consulting job would generate revenue in the short term, in the long term it would jeopardize our publishing the workbook series. We couldn’t have made that decision if we were focused solely on short term survival. But I also wouldn’t be working on the second book right now!

It’s a simple law of physics: If we are spending time on one thing, we can’t be spending that moment on something else. And for our consulting practices to really thrive, we must invest our time where it leads to the most return.

6) Think about forming an advisory board.

Yes, NonProfits complain about boards all the time. But boards do provide a CEO with a group of individual experts he/she can call upon when the need arises for a sounding board.

Many consultants operate one person shops. While that offers autonomy, it also means there is only you to make decisions. Some folks may bounce ideas off a spouse, but spouses aren’t generally known for providing an objective view!

A group of advisors can be incredibly helpful in these situations – not just your attorney and your accountant, but other folks you respect. Perhaps someone in the industry you consult to. Perhaps someone completely unrelated – say in the manufacturing field. An advisory board can turn a hard decision into an amazing opportunity to grow in a new direction. And a side benefit is that you will have additional advocates for getting you work!

7) Work from your strengths, not your weaknesses.

We see our clients focus on their own weaknesses all the time – focusing on their fears, on solving minor problems rather than taking huge leaps forward. What we don’t see is that we do the same thing.

The biggest weakness of any consultant is fear. Fear that we won’t get the job makes us decide to work for less than we could. Fear of failure keeps us from expanding into a new field that seems interesting. Fear of taking time away from bringing in money keeps us from investing in our marketing. Fear is what usually stops us from doing the things that can most benefit our business.

You wouldn’t let a client’s fears rule their decisions. You’d tell them to focus on their strengths, on the things they do well or even better than most. It’s time to do the same for yourself.

8) Be accountable.

What is a consultant accountable for? Is it just to do the job at hand, or is it to further the client’s mission by doing the job at hand? There is a big difference between the two.

Consultants must remember that we are not being paid to simply do a task. We are being paid because the client wants an end result. The old story about the man who goes to the hardware store to buy a drill bit applies: He doesn’t really want a drill bit, he wants a hole. But he doesn’t really want a hole, he wants to hang a mirror. But he doesn’t really want to hang a mirror, he wants his wife to stop nagging him about hanging the mirror, and to lavish him with love and praise.

Always know what your client really wants, and be accountable for what portion of that you will provide. Then make sure your proposal and contract are infinitely clear in specifying those exact things you will do to bring about their desired condition.

9) Constantly educate yourself.

Read outside your normal scope. Take classes that expand your mind. Know about consulting, about the work you do, but also about the way the world is affecting your clients and your business. Take history courses, geography courses. Read business periodicals. Know about your world.

10) Did I mention planning?

It’s worth mentioning twice. Planning can make your consulting practice exceed even your own wildest dreams.

So make that plan and calendar it. Include a marketing plan, and stick to it! (Remember that the best marketing for consultants is speaking and writing – sharing your expertise – so calendar in time for speaking and writing as well!) Use post-its to create the calendar so you can adjust as life intervenes. And calendar in quarterly updates, to remind yourself of your goals.

Consulting has been the most rewarding profession I could ever have imagined. My business partner and I continue to enjoy reaching for all those amazing things we were striving for when we first started our practice years ago. By treating your own business as if it were just another client, your practice is guaranteed to blossom as well.

About the Contributor: Hildy Gottlieb

Hildy Gottlieb has been called “the most innovative and practical thinker in our sector.”*  As President of Help 4 NonProfits and its Community-Driven Institute, her ground-breaking work aims the Social Sector at its highest potential — creating the future of our world.

Hildy’s credentials include teaching, writing and consulting in the Social Sector, as well as co-founding 2 community organizations. Steeped in that in-the-trenches reality, Hildy has been labeled “a practitioner’s practitioner”** A passionate and dynamic speaker, audiences routinely rate Hildy’s talks “Inspiring.”

Hildy’s numerous awards include a Points of Light Citation from President Bill Clinton. Her writing has been seen in various publications including the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Her books have become industry standards, including her manual on Board Recruitment and Orientation, and her latest, “FriendRaising: Community Engagement Strategies for Boards Who Hate Fundraising But Love Making Friends.”

When not working, Hildy can be found in the garden, at the movies, shooting photos, or watching the Daily Show.
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* Jane Garthson, Canadian Ethics Expert
** Stephen C. Nill, Founder and CEO, CharityChannel

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