Company culture is at its most pronounced state in the cofounding pair. With nothing to serve as a buffer between the two different personalities, it is a culture that either works or doesn’t. Happily enough, it works out pretty well for Erin Mies and Kristen Ireland, HR consultants at People Spark Consulting. In fact, one could say it is as close to an ideal company culture, if there is such a thing. Ever since the company started in 2018, it has seen nothing but leaps and bounds of growth. A big part of this success is thanks to the interesting dynamic that this duo brings to the table. Michael Zipursky gets to the heart of the matter in this episode. If you’re working with a partner or cofounding something, this is one story you can take inspiration from.
I have the pleasure of being with Kristen and Erin from People Spark Consulting. Welcome to you both.
I don’t remember doing another interview with two guests. This is going to be a first. You both bring a lot to what we’re going to be exploring because you’re relatively new to the consulting world, but you’ve accomplished so much relatively quickly. I’ve had the privilege and honor of having a firsthand glance into that or a first-row seat into watching that growth. You bring 15 to 20 years of experience in coaching executives in HR and working in the HR world. You are well-credentialed. You have a whole bunch of certifications, which we won’t get into here, but you’re well-certified. You started People Spark Consulting in 2018, but the real official kickoff was in 2019. Let’s go back to the beginning for both of you here. What prompted you to go out on your own and leave the “corporate” world and start the business?
Kristen and I, what we found ourselves in our last roles was that we were reading a couple of books together. We had worked on a few projects. We had co-facilitated some courses together in our last role. We were reading a couple of books for personal development in our own roles. I started getting the itch to go out on my own. I took a couple of courses through some local business development centers. At one point when we were reading one of these career development books, I had told Kristen, “You’ve got some complementary skills to what I have and vice versa. I think we should do this together.” She laughed at me, but we ended up going ahead and putting together a business plan. We even pitched our husbands around how serious we were about it, and what we thought the business could look like within 1, 3 to 5 years as well. Within about 3 or 4 months of that, I ended up incorporating and putting in our transition plan with our employer to transition out of those roles by the end of 2018.
We were talking about the growth that you guys have been seeing, and hitting record months after month. A lot of good stuff are going on, which we’ll get more into the details of that. I know people will want to learn a bit more about how you’ve been doing that and what’s been supporting that growth in terms of the actions that you’re taking. Before we dive into that, you bring an interesting dynamic with the two of you working on this together. In our work together, I’ve seen multiple times how well you guys connect and communicate. I want to dive a bit into that. For those that are considering working with a partner or cofounding something, first of all, what went into that decision? Was there any moment when either one of you hesitated about, “Maybe I should do this myself versus going in and doing it together.”
I can speak for my own. I never thought about doing it myself. I’m grateful and thankful every day that I’m on this journey with Erin. You always have that support, that cheerleader, somebody to add a different perspective, and somebody to push me. I’m not sure if we would’ve asked this years ago, if I would’ve been able to answer it so clearly, but our strengths are so different that it’s pushed me out of my comfort zone and help me accomplish things that I wouldn’t have. The other thing that ties in well to this is a lot of what we talk about from a human resources perspective in coaching managers and leaders on how to communicate with teams and some of those skills that they use, we actually use those with each other. We say that in our training and we joke about it but we really do. We both have that perspective of I need to hear what Erin is going to say because I know she’s going to see it differently. I know that we’ll have a better product and a better result because I know she’ll see it differently.
Let’s dive into that a bit further, Erin, I’d love to get your perspective as well. I’m thinking about the consultant out there, the firm owner or whatever it might be. Maybe they have a cofounder, they’re bringing on a partner, or they’re bringing on someone else to complement an area that they’re not strong in. What have you guys learned through all this process over the years? What are some of the big lessons that you found have been important that have allowed you to work at the level that you’re working in, and essentially operate together effectively? What stands out? It might be for some HR staff that you teach or maybe things that you’ve identified yourselves. If you had to say a few things that allowed you to work well together and feed off of each other, what would they be?
Even building on what Kristen was saying with using some of the tools that we use with skill-building with managers and leaders. There’s a few of them in particular that we’ve used and have helped us to draw one another out when either one of us is starting to close up a bit, where we might not be feeling comfortable. I might not be feeling like it’s something that I want to speak up and say that I disagree with, but we go back to those words and we go back to the language.
Even though she knows the secret code words, it gives us the safety to be able to bring things up that otherwise could sound as though I might be attacking or I might be disagreeing or being disrespectful with someone. Even though she knows the secret, it allows us to have some of those discussions and conversations. I don’t know that I ever expected those tools to be something that we would use in the way that we have. It’s helped us keep things out on the surface and to talk through versus feeling as though maybe I get frustrated with it, but I don’t say anything. It builds and builds into the snowball that causes much bigger challenges.
I love to dig into the details and try and provide tangible tactics, advice or perspectives for people. You mentioned a few things there that are important and I want to go deeper into them. The first thing that you mentioned was that if you notice that the other person is maybe a bit upset or holding something back or whatever it may be, can you give us a more tangible example of what you do? Let’s say that Kristen is talking to Erin, and Erin feels she might be holding something back, uncomfortable, might be upset or concerned. What’s an example of something that you would say to get the other person to open up in a way that they don’t feel that it’s threatening for them?
Two other phrases that we use a lot are, “What am I missing?” and “Can you say more about that?” Erin talks about the code words. Whenever we use one of those, we’re like, “I know I need to pay attention more or I know there is more to this.” It helps engage your brain that this is something that we need to work through and there’s something that needs to be said. I would say we both have strong personalities and we see things differently. A lot of times we put stuff out there like, “This is it. This is the way it is.” We say it strongly. Encouraging that other person to say, “This is what I feel. What do you see? How are you seeing it? What am I missing?” If she is explaining something and it’s striking me wrong, it’s the, “Can you say more about that?” I know that there’s more in there that I’m not understanding. It forces in a good way to listen more like, “Can you say more about that?” I know that she’s got brilliant ideas, I’m just not fully understanding it.
Erin, are these words that you’ve defined in advance? Do both you and Kristen know like, “Here are the 5 or 10 words that if we’re ever uncomfortable or something’s going on, we use these?” Did you define them beforehand and you both know or did they just come up and over time you develop them? I’m wondering for people who are reading going, “I want to make sure that I’m operating at the highest level of communication with my team.” Is this the best practice to essentially make a list of specific words, and everyone knows when those words are being said that here’s the underlying meaning to them? Can you talk about that for a moment and what the perspective is there?
We didn’t define the words and what that meant behaviorally for us in advance. With that said, both of those phrases are on our top ten list. It’s a top ten list that we use in any of our speaking engagements or as we’re talking with managers and supervisors around the key phrases that we’ve coached managers on how to interact with employees over the years that we’ve gravitated towards. The intent in those phrases is to open up the conversation and open up a discussion for more input. The other two phrases that we use too is from one of our favorite books, Crucial Conversations by Joseph Grenny and a number of other authors.
There are two phrases and they’re called contrasting statements. We use those regularly as well. If I’m not necessarily in agreement right away, I’m asking a lot of questions and clarifying my intent upfront. My intent isn’t to second guess where you’re going with this. My intent is to better understand what’s happening because I feel like I’m missing something. There’s another code phrase there with the contracting statements. We joke about them, but we use them. We can see the power in how it’s helped our business.
I love that because that was going to be the second part of that question. What’s the secret society and words you guys are in or know about because it sounds cool? It’s essentially these words that you use in your teaching with clients, but also that you have adopted and you both use, and I can see that. Go ahead, Kristen.
We use it with our clients and with each other. We use and practice them a lot with our kids too.
I’m going to have to dig deeper into these then because I could use this my eldest daughter. Let’s come back a bit. You started the firm together. How do you guys go about getting your first client or two? It sounded like they may have landed in your lap. Tell me about how do you get those first couple of clients?Share stories of the things that you have been able to do. It helps people see that you’re getting results, that you’re making a difference. Click To Tweet
In probably the same way that a lot of early business owners or early consultants would be doing. It’s looking at and talking with others that are in your network or people that you’ve worked with before. In our case, they were in smaller companies who didn’t necessarily have a lot of HR support in the way that they did when we were in larger companies. Re-reinvigorating and reconnecting with those people early on helped us find some of our earliest and longest standing clients in a couple of cases.
They certainly did not land in your lap. I definitely misspoke on that. You are taking action to have conversations. I got off a call with a new client and we’re talking about how they have this network that they have not leveraged for quite some time. We see this come up with a lot of consultants. Even if they’ve been consulting for many years, many people have a network and connections that they’re not reaching out to consistently, checking in or staying visible with. More tactically or tangibly, what did you guys do? Did you send emails? Did you start making phone calls? What was the method or the format? The second part of that is what did you ask? What was the actual message that you were sending initially to people?
The first thing that we did was tried to find ways to get to speaking engagements. How do we get in front of people? How can people get to know us that way? It’s either establishing contacts or leveraging our networks of people that could put us in front of our ideal client. One of the things that we have experienced with HR people is people aren’t always the most excited to hear from HR people. You can get that cringe. I remember our first speaking engagement where we were in front of about 25 ideal clients. When we were introducing ourselves to participants ahead of our presentation, they were like, “You’re the HR people.” They weren’t necessarily excited about that, but then when people get to know us and start to like us, it made a difference. By the time we were done, people were saying like, “That was the best presentation that we’ve been to here.” We found that speaking engagements allowed people to get to know us and who we are. For us, that differentiated us, especially in the human resources space.
With that speaking engagements, when you were reaching out to associations, companies or events, who were you reaching out to?
Even in response to your last question, a lot of email outreach to personal network around, “Here’s the business I’m developing. Here’s a bit more about People Spark and about Kristen and what we offer as a total.” Here’s what we stand for because our premise and how we base a lot of our work is on being straightforward and practical with our clients in our approach. Asking if you know people where this could be helpful to them, where they have HR support or maybe they have HR being covered by other people, these would be great ones for us to get in touch with. The speaking engagements, a big chunk of it was part of our network where I had several colleagues in my last role who were totally onboard and supportive with the work that we were doing and said, “I know of this particular group of people who meet twice a year and I know they’ve had some questions around HR. Can I put you in contact with them?”
That took a path of its own. Even a former colleague of mine that I used to support brings together some of his own customers a couple of times a year for development, for understanding what’s happening in their business, and asked us to come and speak with that group as well. It was a way that they, as a sales organization in particular, could offer more value to their customers that ended up being our ideal customers as well. We could serve them and also honor the relationship that we had with these former colleagues.
Is there any best practice that you’ve learned or observed or applied in reaching out that’s helped you to land, whether it’s speaking opportunities or even meetings with people? What would you say is some best practice that you continue to use or that you’d recommend to people?
For me, it’s showing the impact and being able to communicate the differences we have made with some of our organizations. We had a client that we worked with where the work that we did with them, even though we’re human resources, was able to drive operating margins and reduce shrink, which two of their key goals for the year. When people start to see that results and start to hear the stories of the things that we have been able to do, and the types of businesses we’ve worked with, that’s helped us. You’re making a big difference. You are valuable for us to put in front of our group. We are simply practical.
I love that you speak of that because a lot of people don’t share those stories, yet those are examples of work that you’ve done or results. Even if you’re transitioning and you’re new to consulting, you can still leverage from your past experiences in the employee or as an employee. That’s great that you’re using that and it’s working. Let’s shift gear for a moment. You mentioned that you were emailing people, reaching out and saying, “Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s what our company’s about, if you know anyone.” Many consultants regardless of whether they are brand new in the business or they’ve been doing it for a while, when they start having to shift and they understand the importance of marketing, in many cases they feel uncomfortable talking about themselves and promoting themselves. Especially when you’re coming from the corporate world, that’s not something that you typically are used to doing.
The focus is not on you, it’s on the product or the service that the organization has, or it’s on the company itself. It’s rarely about you as the individual. Here in consulting, it needs to be not about us, it’s about the client. You do have to talk about what you are doing and your area of expertise and so forth. What was your mindset going into that? Was there are a time that you guys ever felt uncomfortable with, and you did sign to work around it, or were you both from the beginning like, “We know we need to do this?”
We still deal with our moments of being uncomfortable with it. The speaking engagement that Kristen was talking about, that first one as soon as we were on our own, what was fascinating about that is that we have a mentor who was a former colleague of mine who is there, who came up to us afterwards. He said, “Ladies, you have an entire room full of people who want to work with you. They don’t know how they can interact with you. They don’t know what you offer.” We were early in our journey that we had an ideal of how we would engage with clients, but we didn’t have anything down to a crisp offering.
I would say, as our business has grown and as our offerings have been clarified, tweaked and edited over the last years, it has become much easier for us to talk about the results that we’ve seen with other clients, and be able to relate them because it’s more of telling a story. It’s around, “You’ve had this type of pain point. We’ve heard about this from a few others as well. Are you experiencing some of these other things?” I remember early on that they were experiencing something similar. As an HR person in a sales capacity now, we’re able to serve in a lot of the same ways that we were able to serve when we were supporting parts of the organization when we were in a larger company too. It’s slightly different now because we’re the ones that are the service offering.
There was a huge mental shift that had to take place in my mind for that to happen because I saw myself as a human resources subject matter expert that had a consulting company. Part way through, I had to shift to, “No, you are a small business owner who specializes in human resources.” As much as that seems like a small tweak, it’s a mindset shift. As we talked to other people who have been on this journey too, you can see the distinction of who has taken on that shift and who hasn’t. You see yourself different when you see yourself as the CEO, as the cofounder, as the small business owner versus an expert in a specific area. The moment that I got that, it allowed me to grow and develop more in that role. I’m more comfortable with it. As Erin said, we still have our uncomfortable moments, but that mental shift had to occur before I could advance in that.
There are many HR consultants and HR consulting firms out there. What will you say that you have both done to differentiate People Spark and to carve out an area of specialization or your brand awareness and visibility, and to land some great business? Any thoughts on the best practices that’s made the biggest difference there?
There are a couple of things that I’ll go into. One is focusing on our ideal client. We work with a lot of businesses in the agriculture industry. That helped us tailor and focus in that way. There hasn’t been a lot around human resources in that space. It has mostly been process and compliance. Our take is a bit different that it’s not how do you manage your compliance and your processes from human resources, but we differentiate by focusing on our goal is your business. What are your business strategies? Where does your business want to go? How can you strategically leverage your human resources to get there? How can you make sure that the processes that you have in place are aligning to where you want to go?
After we talk to businesses about it, they’re like, “That seems obvious,” but when you’re in the middle of it, you don’t know. You want to focus on performance, but you’re rewarding people for longevity. You want people to focus on shrink, but you are focusing somewhere else. You want to help people be successful, but in doing that, you’re not engaging your team. You end up micromanaging your team. We take it to that business strategy and business focus level that has been able to differentiate us. One of the things that we hear is, “You’re not the typical HR person.” It’s because we’re not focused on like, “No, you can’t do this. No, you can’t do this.” That’s what people have in their heads that we approach it from, “Do you want to get to point A? Here’s the simplest way to get there. Let’s focus on that.”
What you’re sharing are two big things and for everyone reading, even if you’re not in HR, these principles still apply to you. The first one you mentioned is that focus, that specialization, that getting clear on who your ideal client is, which allows you then to make your messaging more relevant to them. To make your marketing and your materials and your outreach and follow-up and your targeting on that specific industry or type of client. A lot of people hesitate to do that, but clearly that’s been beneficial for you both. The second is connecting the work that you’re doing. In your case, it’s HR but for some people it might be around technology, science, design, branding, leadership or whatever, but you’ve connected it to the business impact for the company.Look at yourself as a CEO instead of an expert. It’s a small tweak, but it’s a mindset shift that can make a difference in your business. Click To Tweet
It’s not about, “I’m going to help you guys with some HR training and get people aligned.” What I’m hearing you do is you’re looking at, “If we’re going to get people trained or get people aligned, here’s the impact that it can have for your business.” By doing that, has that had an impact on your fees and on your pricing? Is there any connection that you’ve seen? Since you’re focusing more on the business outcomes and the value that you’re creating, would you say that has influenced how you guys go about your pricing? I know that you have adjusted your pricing over time. Would you say are other factors that you think play into that shift that you made in you pricing more?
It certainly has impacted the pricing overall. Pricing is something where it continues to evolve, where you continue to see what kind of value does this offer up to a client, and allowing for that to influence where you take your pricing overall. It’s an ongoing evolution and that too also involves additional mindset work, especially in a function like HR, which in a lot of cases and a lot of instances, doesn’t always seem as though it’s aligned with business goals. It definitely has influenced it for sure.
As a client in the Clarity Coaching Program, I’ve had the honor of watching as you guys take action and apply dramatic significant results in your business. Before coming into the program, what were you dealing with? What was top of mind for you? What are the main areas that you feel you are running up against or you were looking for some new ideas or support or help with?
You were talking about ideal client and I would say we resisted it for a long time because it felt like there was going to be so much that we would miss out on by focusing our marketing message on one industry and on one ideal client and zeroing in on it. This isn’t to say that we don’t work with other people. This is to say that our marketing message, how our website looks, how we go and develop content, that is going to be the stuff that’s geared directly to our ideal customer and our ideal client. If we find other people or other great clients to work with, that’s icing on the cake. Kristen, what would you add?
We didn’t have a good process or a good flow of bringing somebody from connection to agreement. We’d get people started, and then not be able to drive the bigger agreements and bigger projects.
You move people through the pipeline more effectively at higher value price points and those sorts of things.
Yes, and closing the deal.
How about your marketing? Is there anything that you’re doing right now? I’ve seen your business grow considerably. What do you feel is driving that the most or what’s having an influence? Is there anything that you’re doing these days that you would say you’re doing differently than before or you weren’t doing differently in terms of best practices that others might be able to benefit from?
First of all, keeping our ideal client front of mind whenever we’re writing something or developing the content. We’re also doing things like using other medium. We haven’t done it as much in our social marketing, but using things like video a lot more has been something where we can see that in the absence of being able to do speaking engagements is another way of getting in front of people, and help build the know, like, trust factor.
In one of our first calls with you, we were right when COVID started. I think it was May so we were about six weeks in. We were still under a shelter in place order in the state. One of the things that you said was like, “You have all of these contacts and you haven’t reached out to them, and thinking about how you are continuing to reach out to them.” I feel like we both got off the call and went, “We should have known that. That’s such a great idea.” It made a difference because we immediately then started to reach out and connect with people and we’ve gotten projects from those connections. I feel like you have so much ahead of you and you’re always thinking of the future. You’re always trying to think of, “What else can I do to get to these people?”
You end up forgetting the 300 people on your mailing list, how you can connect with them personally, and how you can stay top of mind. To me that was another big one. Sometimes we heard from somebody like, “There’s money in your inbox.” When you think about that, you’re like, “There is.” There is an email from a connection that if you would reach out to them again, they might know somebody. There is somebody who asked a question a while ago and maybe there’s an outstanding project that she never got back to, but that shifts your paradigm to what’s in front of you as well so that you don’t forget those things. There was money in your inbox, find it.
You brought up something that I was going to hit on right now. You talk about the pandemic, the uncertainty and chaos. There are a lot of people who look at what’s going on right now as consultants and go, “There isn’t much business to be had. People aren’t buying and so on.” Here you are kicking that to the other side of the field and saying, “We’re growing our business during this time.” For someone who might be a bit frozen, deer in the headlights, not maybe taking as much action as they could be or maybe they’d like to, but they’re telling themselves things like, “People aren’t buying. There’s no point doing this,” or “I’ll do it later. I’m going to wait until things change.” What advice would you offer to them? If you look at what you guys have done, what you’ve observed, what you’ve seen firsthand in the industry. You’ve been able to not only keep the business going, but you’re growing the business month over month, and seeing some great results. What advice would you offer to people or what suggestions would you provide in terms of what you’ve specifically done and seen yourselves?
There are a few things and I’m going to leave some of it to Erin because she was good at driving this at the time that we got to put our foot on the gas and move forward.
You guys are so good talking positive on each other. I love it. You always elevate the other person. It’s one of the things I love. Every time I speak to you guys, I know it’s going to be coming almost every moment. It’s so nice because I think these days, that doesn’t happen enough. People don’t give their partner or someone they’re working with credit, or support them, or put a spotlight on them. I wanted to acknowledge both of you for doing that because it’s not one side, you both do it for each other. Kristen, go ahead.
One, we got a coach. That’s the point where we engaged you in it. There is that moment of like, “Are we going to have the funds to be able to support this? How is this going to work? How are we going to know?” We need to invest in ourselves. Now is the best time of any to do that. Surrounding yourself with people in that same perspective and mindset through the coach, but also another networking of, “No, we’re going to figure this out.” It was helpful in that and adjusting our business model to do that.
In fact, the way we’ve adjusted how we do business because we did flex. First of all, we flexed last fall to do a lot more online, which we didn’t anticipate. We didn’t know when we put it online that we were preparing for a pandemic, but it worked. We’ve even adjusted how we deliver our services throughout that we’ll continue to do as we go forward. That’s not going to change once we stop. It made us be more effective and efficient. Erin, you were a lot of the driving force in how do we speed up and put our foot on the gas as we go through the pandemic.
It felt like when everything was starting to close in almost that it’s easy to get sucked into that weird vacuum. When I thought about the career-changing experiences where you’ve had as a leader, it’s not when things are going well. It’s when things are in crisis. I remember texting Kristen on my way down to a wedding saying like, “Yes, we need to put our foot on the gas pedal, but this is when people need us.” Especially small business owners and companies that have less than 200 employees are in these spaces. We don’t know what we’re going into. They don’t know, we don’t know, but we can offer. What we have to offer is the value of being able to lead through change, which is Kristen’s sweet spot, for sure. Leading through that change and leading through uncertainty, and put together plans for businesses so that they can continue to not just survive but continue to thrive throughout it as well.Imperfect action trumps no action every time. Click To Tweet
It’s easy to be a leader when everything’s going great. It’s when the rubber meets the road and the real test is, how do you respond when things are not going well, when there’s a lot of challenge, a lot of uncertainty and a lot of chaos? This is what we’ve seen consistently across many clients, businesses, our own business and others. When I wrote the Act Now book and interviewing some other experts or the people who are making the greatest progress right now, they’re not sitting back and waiting. They’re taking action. They recognize there are challenges and they’re empathetic to those challenges, but it’s a time to roll up your sleeves and make things happen. You’ve seen that in your business. We’ve seen it in our business. Not only do you survive this time, but you’re growing during this time. You’re going to be setting yourself up for so much more growth and results going forward because the seeds you’re planting now are also going to serve you down the line. That goes for everyone. Everyone has that opportunity, that same ability, but it’s all about taking action. Both of you have done that tremendously well.
You gave a quote to us, “Imperfect action trumps no action every time.” For a while, it felt like we’re going to put this out there and try it. What worked, we continue to leverage. There were some that we don’t know if this is working or not and we ended up getting a client. It was that movement.
I can’t take credit for that quote because I think it comes from Truman. I love that quote. Where can people go? Where should they go to learn more about both of you, the work you’re doing, see what you’re up to, and connect with you? Where should we send people?
The best place to go would be PeopleSparkConsulting.com. We would love to connect with people out there or even through LinkedIn as well.
We have a blog that we are continuing putting content on.
Thank you both so much for coming on here. I’m excited to continue watching the growth, hearing more about it and speaking with you both soon.
About Erin Mies & Kristen Ireland
High energy, accomplished human resources leader and consultant with progressive, diverse experiences in corporate and manufacturing environments. HR business partner with specialist experience, known for quickly building credibility among client groups and driving business results. Passionate about leading teams through coaching, having led teams of direct reports both large and small.
I am a Human Resources Consultant who is excited and passionate about helping businesses achieve their goals through engaging employees minds and hearts.
After getting fed up with human resources that felt more like ‘process for the sake of process’ and disheartened by the continued waste of time, energy and resources, Erin Mies and I started People Spark Consulting. As consultants working with small to mid-size businesses, we work with business leaders to implement HR strategies that truly advance their business goals without wasting time and every on non-value added activities.
If you know your business achieves success through the engagement of your employees and you want to spend time on activities that will truly advance your business, we would love to work with you! Visit our web site and contact us at www.peoplesparkconsulting.com.