Growing a consulting business means having the ability and knowledge to propel business operations and help the company get to the next level. As a consultant, you have to develop a level of trust to your clients that you will bring value and impact In this episode, host Michael Zipursky interviews podcast host and executive consultant Connie Steele. Connie talks about how she used her background in math and statistics to transition into marketing and consulting business and shares what it takes to be an effective consultant to your clients.
I’m here with Connie Steele. Connie, welcome.
Thank you so much for having me.
Connie, you have many years of experience working in Fortune 500 companies and startups. You run your own consulting business and have expertise in quite wide-ranging areas, marketing strategy, product development. How do you take everything that you do? I know your husband is involved in the business as well. What’s the “Elevator pitch?” How do you describe to people when you meet someone at an event and they say, “What do you do?” How do you respond to that?
We’re a business strategy marketing operations consultancy that supports scale-up businesses and helping them get to the next level. To do so, it’s about bridging the gap between strategy and execution and delivering immediate time to value.Getting new leads and filling the pipeline is about referrals and networks on a personal and authentic basis. Click To Tweet
You’ve clearly worked on that and it sounds good. Let’s go a little bit further back because you have a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and Statistics and a Master’s in Applied Statistics. You’re in business strategy, how do you go from math to marketing and strategy? Do you find you leverage your education in your work? Are these skills of math and statistics something that you did and you know longer on how to use?
I use quantitative thinking and that problem solving all the time. I didn’t even realize how valuable it would be in what I do. I’ve always been interested in terms of what triggers people to buy, not from a creative standpoint but from a quantitative perspective. When I started in marketing research because I took that math background into applied statistics, which then led me into marketing research because I wanted to understand the human aspect behind the numbers. In that experience working at General Mills where I started my career, I learned how to get that 360-degree view of the consumer. Being able to tap into their needs, frustrations, attitudes and motivations. I got to see early on how the strategic insights manifested itself into various activities that ultimately brought up a product and the marketing efforts to market and how they all got supported. All of that thinking, process, data collection is very much what you have to do when you build a business strategy too. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those were skills that I was able to leverage into what I do.
You’ve been running your consulting firm Flywheel Associates for several years. We see this a lot with the consultants that reach out to us and end up coming into our coaching program. They come from a corporate background and they’ve used all these different frameworks, ideas and 360-degree assessments and all these tools. They come into building their own business and they’re tasked with how do I go about getting my first client and how to build this business because no longer is the company or the brand the product. I am the product. How did you approach that when you first launched the business? How did you get your first few clients?
The way we did it was through our network. We have a strong network thankfully, but it’s the relationships that we built. I know that’s one of the things that you’ve talked about a lot and in your book and the content that you write. It’s about building those relationships that deliver value. When I decided to go out and do this, it was about reaching out to that network, talking to them about what their needs were. We’re catching up with them and understanding where they were in their business and communicating thoughts and ideas on how they could maybe approach a problem differently. Not selling anything, but providing my point of view. Based on that, that put me on top of mind. Somebody I had worked with reached out to me and said, “I think you’d be perfect for this current engagement that I have. I need your skillset because you have multiple areas that you could tackle.” That’s where it all started.
How long was it from the time that you left the corporate world into consulting? When you decided to start your consulting business to land your first client, how long did it take that relationship-building process and leveraging your network to get your first piece of business?
It’s for three months. Interestingly enough, it would have been sooner. It might’ve been right after, but there were specific decision criteria that I had put in place that made me realize while I could start consulting immediately, it wasn’t the right fit for different reasons. I had specific parameters as to why I went to consulting in the first place. I wanted to make sure that those are fit.
What were those things, because it sounds like maybe there are some life decisions where you want to place your priority? Tell us a little bit about what was going into your decision-making criteria about what kind of client you wanted.
One of the things that made me do the career pivot I should say was being able to achieve a bit more flexibility and control in the things that I wanted to do and focus on places where I could deliver that impact. Coupled with that was being able to achieve greater flexibility and control in my personal life as well. At the time, my children were young and I had a pretty crazy job as the head of marketing where I had to commute two hours a day and I was working 70, 90 hours a week. I needed to take that into consideration. The location of the company was going to be important. I wasn’t going to drive 1.5 hours from one direction to go work at a potential client if I was already driving an hour or two hours already for a full-time job.If there is somebody else within your network that could be a value, help them because then you're seen as the connector. Click To Tweet
I want to dig in as well to a few years into the business. What kind of marketing is working best for you? If you’re reading and going, “I’m beyond that early stage.” I want to serve both groups here. You worked on leveraging your network, the relationships and adding value. Tangibly, what did you do? Did you send emails to people and say, “I’d love to have a coffee with you,” and started to ask them what they’re up to or were you sending out newsletters? Take us back to those early days. What do you think was working best for you to get that top of mind awareness and then ultimately have conversations and generate your first few clients?
It was sending emails to people that I had worked with in the past or who had been friends and colleagues of mine. Catching up, getting coffee and having those discussions. I will say that early on, I didn’t think I was a networker. I wasn’t a networker. When you work in the corporate world, you are focused on what you need to accomplish that day, that week, that month, that year. That is your sphere of influence. You’re not thinking about creating new connections and adding value to others because your job is to accomplish what you’re tasked to do in your corporate job. When you leave that, it’s different where you have to shift and build out a broader network of people who are aware of your capabilities or realize that you could support them in a different way.
Much of that was getting out of my own comfort zone candidly, and then reaching out to people and authentically reconnecting. Sharing with them a bit of my story as to why I decided to make that pivot where I was looking to support people where I felt I could best help them. From there, that created awareness that I could be available and support them in a different way. That led to consulting engagements. From those engaged, that broadened my network, which then creates a referral pool.
It’s interesting how that network effect takes place. People look at it and they feel it’s a bit of a mountain that’s going to be hard to climb to get started. Once you get started, then it connects to someone else and opens up a new door. It’s all about that action at the beginning. Let’s look at what you’re doing. Several years in, you’ve worked with many clients. What is your go-to in terms of marketing? What is working for you best if you had to hit on one thing in terms of new leads and filling the pipeline?
It seems old-fashioned, but it is about referrals and networks on a personal and authentic basis.
What does that mean? Tell us specifically what are you doing to make that happen?
If you’ve got your LinkedIn list and you’re going through those people where you’ve had a relationship and maybe you haven’t touched them for a while. It’s re-activating and re-engaging some of those people that you might not have connected with. Sending them a message and saying, “How are you doing?” Not that I want something from you. I think unfortunately in this day and age, things are transactional versus relational, which is something that I know you talk about a lot. You genuinely want to connect with a person because you’re curious as to how they’re doing. You start off by sending that quick message, whether it’s a text message, whether it’s an email, whether it’s on LinkedIn message. It’s truly seeing how they’re doing and connecting with them there.
Based on that, you’ll be surprised at how many people come back and say, “I’m great. I haven’t talked to you in a long time. What are you up to?” You have that next follow-up conversation to get caught up. Based on that, what you’re listening for is where could they be struggling and how can you help. Not what I’m going to sell you, but how can you provide insightful recommendations or if anything, you should connect them to people that could help them. You might not be that person that has any resources or insights. You might be the one that has the necessary information to support them right there and then. If there is somebody else within your network that could be a value, help them that way because then you’re seen as the connector. I think that’s another thing that’s important is that you have to be the one to look at yourself as a person that can connect others. In that way, that can provide a new expensive resource for a potential client. When they see that, that shows how authentic you are in supporting them.Marketing is not always about the product because other people could offer the same thing. It's about how you deliver it. Click To Tweet
What would you say is one of the biggest challenges that you face within your business? Something that if you apply hindsight, you go, “That was a real challenge, but I’m glad that we fixed it or overcome it.” Maybe you’re even still working through it, but based on where you’ve been, what stands out as a challenge that you’ve encountered?
I think this is still a challenge for everyone, which is still finding leads and prospects. It’s still an ongoing process. While we are reaching out to people, we’re reconnecting. You have the ebbs and flows and sometimes it all comes at once and sometimes it is something in which there are quiet periods. The one thing that I’ve learned is that it has to be an ongoing process because we have a small team. When we are doing the work, we are not always doing the necessary re-engagement, business development with potential prospects. Because of the way that we work, we like to be embedded.
Those are what you’re saying, you get busy delivering for clients that your marketing then takes them to the back seat, which is common. We hear this from clients all the time. What have you found that you put in place to help with either try and balance it out?
We’ve started to operationalize the reach-outs and making it a specific task that we do on a weekly basis, which is something that you hear a lot of. When you get knee-deep into work, it’s something that can go by the wayside. I think everybody thinks of all the task-oriented things you need to do. When you take a step back and you think about your own strategic plan, what are the goals and objectives that you need to do? We reset things and look at it that way, we’re like, “This is something that always has to be done. It’s a habit. We have to create a habit.” The only way we create the habit is making that an initiative that we do all the time every week so that we can continue the pipeline.
At your website, you offer many different types of services from marketing to financial and operational leadership. Some people might look at that and go, “Isn’t that a bit of a generalist approach?” How are you able to market those different types of services effectively? How do you think about that from a marketing and a positioning perspective when you have quite different services that are listed on the website?
For us, it’s not about the services. Being a marketer myself and having done a lot of brand strategy work for others, you also realize over time that it’s not always about the product because other people could also offer the same thing. They’re going to say they do it better. It’s about how you deliver it. For us, when we talk about bridging the gap between strategy and execution, that is our position. It is all about being embedded in your organization. Understand your business very well and connecting the dots. Because we’ve worked as an operator in these businesses, we know what it’s like being on the client’s side. We’ve worked in various roles. What’s important is that we understand how they all thread together. We’re able to think and do dynamically. Because we’ve been on that side and we know how to think and do, that’s where we add value. We can understand quickly what those gaps are, but we can come with solutions that are relevant. We know what it takes to create the right momentum in your organization because we’ve been there.
You run a podcast called the Strategic Momentum Podcast. It’s a well-choreographed, serious endeavor for it. It looks like you’re focused on it and I’ve had the honor and pleasure of being on it and it was a great experience. What made you decide to start the podcast? How has that played into your overall business strategy?
What got me into doing the podcast was all about delivering valuable content. I wanted to tie to our positioning, which was how do you break through the common inertia that people face. How can you help somebody understand the strategic vision that they have, but how do you operationalize that? That’s where it first started. I thought, “I don’t want just to write blogs about my point of view.” What I want to do is get the perspectives of progressive thought leaders. How have they personally attacked a problem in a different way? How do they reframe a common issue that many people have? I think what various people struggle with is not the what. Honestly, what the problem is what gets them stuck is the how. This was the focus of being able to tell interesting tips, stories and advice on how. That idea is where it started.If you spend so much time not doing anything and not trying, you’re not going to move forward in the way that you need to. Click To Tweet
You’ve been a great guest on it. I’ve interviewed interesting people from various backgrounds to provide that how and what that has done is provided valuable content that has helped create top of mind awareness for us. We certainly get a lot of organic traffic coming to our site of people learning about the way that we think but interesting advice from guests. The other piece that our goal was also to be positioned as a thought leader. We use this as a way to create that thought leadership content.
Is there one principle or idea that you’ve discovered or maybe even followed that is something that you keep coming back to over and over? In our case, we try and apply the concept of 80/20 in a lot of what we do base on the work of Richard Koch and Perry Marshall. That plays into a lot of the thinking that we have in terms of our marketing efforts and where we spend time both in the business and outside of the business. Is there something like that for you that you keep coming back to or you use to filter and make decisions and distinctions within your business or even outside of your business?
Let me put it in this way, how we think about how to help the clients as well. It’s the whole notion of agility. How do we think about supporting clients in a way where we can deliver the most value in the shortest amount of time and get embedded quickly that they could see the fruits of labor? You could see a true impact. We apply that same principle also to our own business too. If we spend so much time and not doing anything and not trying, then we’re not going to move forward in the way that we need to. A lot of it is what is the goal and objective that we have? How do we break it down into much more digestible, tangible parts that can show action, traction and results? That’s the lens that we look at the way we operate our business, but also the lens that we support our clients.
It’s important for people to have some driving force or several different ways that you filter through and make those decisions or distinctions, live your life by, or ask yourself some good questions as you’re running up against different challenges each day. When you look at where you’re at in the business and what you’ve accomplished, what are you excited about going into 2020 to accomplish over the next several months?
What continually excites me is the opportunity to help create growth and impact for new businesses in different industries. Every year has been an interesting challenge and exposure to new areas that we didn’t even know about. From a business opportunity perspective, there are various clients that we have in the pipeline of which we haven’t had as much experience in. It’s certainly exciting to be able to learn a whole new industry because every time we’ve been in new spaces, we see where they all connect to others. Because of this broad experience that we have, we’re able to leverage that insight and create that tangible value quickly. The other thing is that we’re excited from a podcast perspective of interesting guests that we have that will be coming on that provides a different lens into how to think about your mentorship. How to think about career pivoting and other topics that we believe will be helpful for others.
A lot of consultants face that question or at least they’re internally playing with it in their mind around how do you respond to a client or an organization where you haven’t necessarily worked in their specific industry before or something that’s new there. A lot of people are concerned about that in terms of that might be a negative for them. It sounds like for you, you’re excited about that. That could be a positive. When someone says, “Connie, you and Flywheel, have you worked in our industry before?” The answer is no. How do you respond to that?
Because we have worked in a lot of different capacities, inevitably we’ve probably touched it in some way. A lot of it is the approach. When we walk through our specific approach to understanding their business, it’s no different than us taking that to another organization where we’ve had a lot of experience in there. It is being able to walk through our how methodically. It isn’t this black magic that they could be getting. I think a lot of times when you work with clients who may not have a familiarity, for example, with a brand, because that seems quite fuzzy to them. What do you do? Is it all creative? Is it all like you come up with this interesting tagline? That’s what you do.
It’s a strategic and analytical process. Let me detail the approach that we take to understand your business and how that leads to developing the right recommendations and subsequent actions to bring it to life in your organization. Once you create the necessary transparency into the way that you work, it builds a level of trust and confidence. Honestly, it minimizes risk because at the end of the day, what they’re concerned about is taking a chance on you and how do they know that what you’re going to do is going to be of value and impact that they expect.
If people want to learn more, Connie, about your work, your company and everything else that you have going on, where’s the best place for them to go?
Connie, thanks so much for coming on.
Thank you so much for having me.
- Connie Steele
- Flywheel Associates
- Strategic Momentum Podcast