Look at your calendar and cross out the things that you don’t enjoy doing. You could do ten other things that you enjoy over one thing that you hate. It’s all about choosing the energy. In today’s episode, Michael Zipursky and his guest, Cy Wakeman, talk all about what it’s like to be a consultant and why positive energy is so important. Cy is the President and Founder of Reality-Based Leadership. She is also the New York Times Best Selling Author of several books such as Reality-Based Leadership Workshop and No Ego. Learn when you are overcommitting to something so that you can find some positive energy and even use that energy to grow your business.
I’m very excited to have Cy Wakeman join us. Cy, welcome.
Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
You are a Leadership Consultant, New York Times best-selling author, Keynote Speaker and Drama Researcher, which we are going to talk about. You are the President and Founder of Reality–Based Leadership. You have many very well-known clients like Google, Facebook, Uber, NASA and a long list of others. Your work has been featured in Forbes, Wall Street Journal, New York Times and dozens of other publications. First of all, let’s get right into it because the elephant in the room for many people is what is a drama researcher? Explain that to us.Stop believing everything you think. Click To Tweet
It’s funny because even when I brought it up as a topic of research during my Master’s degree, my professors were like, “What?” I have been able to count how much drama there is in the workplace. We can get our hands around the money, time and innovation lost to using poor mental processes, to being played by our own ego and not understanding how our mind works. I first came out with research many years ago that the average person spends 2.5 hours a day in drama in the workplace, 816 hours a year. They are good people doing great work but suffering unnecessarily.
I’m thinking about all the consultants out there who work in organizations. Oftentimes, those people who you are speaking about get caught up in all kinds of drama and essentially they are not spending their time as productively as they could. What advice would you offer to a consultant who’s trying to push forward with an initiative or help to create change in an organization but they are surrounded with or even dealing with one person who is getting lost in the drama or maybe is not moving forward as productively as they could? Any kind of advice that you have found to be helpful in that situation?
The first thing we all have to do is edit our own stories because we don’t see our own drama. We don’t see the way our ego is playing us. I always tell people, “Stop believing everything you think.” Many women in the consulting field are like, “That person is the problem.” They then collide with other members of their team or other people’s team but the problem is making up and believing a story about that person. The best thing you can do first is to edit your own story. “That person sabotages everything. That person is not yet showing their onboard. We’ve got two projects dumped on us. We have two new projects.” We have to be very clean about editing out our stories and our suffering so that we can see reality for what it is. The solutions are just asking directly for what you need, accepting the answer and planning strategies accordingly. People will spend hours wondering how to get Michael on board, and they won’t just say, “Michael, what do I need to do to get you onboard?” As consultants, so many times, we fuel the drama rather than diffuse the drama.
You gave a few examples thereof the selection of wording in our own minds that we might put out in real life to people. What other encouragement will you offer or examples? If you are to be in that situation yourself where something is “dumped” on you, you are in a bit of a challenging situation, what would you do? What’s the best practice at that exact moment? Is there a process, a series of steps for people to go through to think through it, reframe the situation then move forward more productively?
One of the things I teach people a lot is called edit your own story. If you find yourself stressed, get your story out on paper, unedited, uncensored, freelance, write what you think. This isn’t to share with anybody, it doesn’t have to be professional. All the uncensored things going on in your head, get it on paper then go back and cross out assignments of motive, judgments, assumptions and get down to the most neutral statement of facts. Self-reflection is the ultimate drama diffuser. The first question to apply is, “What do I know for sure?” The second question is, “What could I do next that would help?” Critiquing isn’t one of the options. Venting is the easiest way of avoiding self-reflection. In consulting, we’ve got to help hope make a comeback. The third question I asked a lot is, “If I were great now, what would great look like or if we were great?” Once you get your story edited, as consultants, we can’t manage people, we don’t own the people, we have no power.
We are in the business of managing the energy of people away from why we can’t or why we shouldn’t have to, to how we could. As a consultant, I try and get a clear picture of reality and get rid of my own story through editing it. I look at, “What are multiple positive possibilities here? Let’s lead that brainstorming. People want to give their opinions about why it won’t work.” I want people to give me their expertise on how we could make it work. You are just managing a lot away from collusion, venting and talking about how bad is this one more time. I call that arguing with reality. You can argue with reality all you want but it’s an argument you will lose 100% of the time. As consultants, we can get lost in joining the client in wishing things were different but the value we add is seeing things clearly and then finding that next incremental choice people can make to move their way forward.
That’s powerful, the way you share it in terms of self-judgment or having judgment and looking at it objectively. It’s not just for business. I see that’s so applicable to life and relationships. Instead of looking at what’s negative in the situation, work together or even just work yourself, initially define what’s positive, the difference between being pessimistic and optimistic. That’s a powerful framework. Thanks for sharing that there. I want to take us back a little bit. In 2001, you started your business. Why do you start this business? What propelled you into going out on your own and venturing into the zone of the unknown?
Oftentimes, I have been tempted to rewrite history, become a revisionist. I saw a burning bush and I was called to the fields and none of that happened. It was very accidental. I had a reputation when I worked in healthcare for getting teams to turn around different units quickly and get great results. As my colleagues went off to other places and I went home to tend to my first child, I’ve got calls. They said, “Will you come help with this project?” It was so organic that finally, my accountant said, “You have to put together an LLC or some way to bring in this income.” It was organic and viral. It came from me working with people who needed more good work done and didn’t have the teams in place that they needed in their new positions. That was it. I just picked up the phone.
As you were doing that, how do you get your first few clients? Do they just come as a result of people reaching out to you or when you made the decision intentionally to go out on your own and start building the business? What did you do to get those first few clients in that initial business coming in?
I have been lucky that people reached out to me based on the value I added when I was employed with them. That’s the number one thing. You are not going to go anywhere in consulting unless you can add value. You add value by doing three things. You perform, you stay relevant with the times so that you are on the cutting edge and you do it emotionally inexpensively like you are the no–hassle easy button. It is one phone call, I will come in, we will figure that out for you. People started to call me and then I combined that delivering value with being willing to say yes. I was asked to teach a course at a community college on assertiveness because I started life as a therapist. I was willing to say yes. I didn’t look at it transactionally. I didn’t at, “If I do this, will I get three clients or who’s to list?” I said yes and I trusted that a lot of it would take care of itself. Low and behold, two people in that class worked for Gateway 2000 at the time, loved my teaching, brought me out to do a big contract with women in that workplace.
I see consultants a lot try and figure out, whether to say yes to something, doing the transactional math of it as if I need to be guaranteed that, “If I do this, this will happen.” The universe doesn’t deal that way, in my opinion. The universe deals with, not that you give your work away for free but when you are first starting, you do good work for good people, you maintain good relationships. I never asked for business. If I had advice being into this business for many years now, I didn’t ask for help enough. I didn’t go out and ask for the business as much as I could have.
What would you have done differently? Looking back now, the benefit of hindsight, what steps you should have taken differently than what you did to create more success or to get more business? When you look back now, what do you think to yourself, “I could have done that differently. I wish I would have done that differently?” What stands out to you that were opportunities that you didn’t capture at that time?
I would have crowdsourced. I would have picked people’s brains. Every person I sat next to on the plane, everyone who hired me or didn’t hire me, “How did you decide? How does the world work? How does HR figure that out?” I played blind in so many cases. I probably left so much money on the table and I could have grown differently but I didn’t reach out and use professional associations and ask the experts. I’m an introvert. I would go to conferences, sessions, my room and be like, “I’m done with this.” Even with my clients, it never dawned on me to ask them, “How do you pick a speaker? When you hire other speakers, do you pay X amount for their books?” I would have asked a lot more. I would have relied more on a gig economy instead of employ in people is the second thing I would have done differently. I would have brought in experts as needed and gotten the portfolio put in place of a top team of experts and then let them do their work.
My team tried to learn to do graphic design when we could’ve just hired a graphic designer. The last thing I would tell you was, I would trust my gut more. Everyone I met, instead of picking their brain when I would hire them, whether it be in relationship to them, I always thought they sounded smarter and knew more than I did about my own business. I defaulted a lot to other people making decisions with the sense that maybe I can’t figure out or I don’t know how to do business. I didn’t trust myself enough. It sounds like it’s two opposites. I needed to trust myself more and use experts more.
A lot of people will resonate with that because they likely are in the same situation or at least have felt that. I don’t know if you still consider yourself to be an introvert. For anybody who might be hesitating to go out and asking for more help, creating more conversations or for people who would resonate with that, what advice would you give them? To somebody who feels like, “I gave my talk and I want to go back to my hotel room. I don’t want to go, introduce myself and do the whole business card thing,” what advice would you offer to them knowing the way that they feel inside? What could help them to step out of their skin or to expose themselves to new opportunities?
I’m still an introvert, targeted strategies because I would do this all-or-nothing thing. I’m like, “I have to have dinner with everyone, every night, in every city that I travel to.” It was either/or for me. Instead, I needed to pay more attention and be intentional. Mel Robbins was like, “I love your books. I want to connect with you.” The first time she said that I didn’t even follow up on it. When awesome people who I admired said, “I want to help you.” I started to believe them and take them up on it. I didn’t meet with everybody but I listened and watched closely the people that were doing things well and the people that made those offers and invitations. The second technique I use, it’s like almost the Cliffs Notes version. I have somebody on my team who’s super extroverted and I turned him loose. I’m like, “Go figure out how they do that.” He then gives me the Cliffs Notes. In our one-on-one, he’s like, “Here are the cool things I found out,” or he will curate for me. He listens to twenty podcasts a week and he will send me the one podcast that he’s like, “You will love this.”Accept work that feels energy-building, not energy-depleting. Click To Tweet
Use other people. I have a good friend and if she tries a restaurant or makeup, she’s very particular. Instead of me figuring out what to do, I will ask her, “What are your three favorite restaurants right now?” I go there. You can find people that will curate for you and put you in that direction. There are times where people will say, “You have been so successful. It’s so weird. I always waited for you to reach out and ask me for something and you never did.” That’s where I over–functioned. I wasn’t vulnerable enough to say, “I would love to pick your brain on this.” People love to teach you and mentor you.
What was going on in your mind at those times? Did you feel like, “I could reach out to this person but I won’t or I shouldn’t because of X?” What was the story going on in your mind that you think held you back from reaching out to engage with more people, to ask for more help, to get assistance or whatever it might be if you take us back into your mind at that time?
To be honest, in the beginning, I grew up in a very small town in the middle of the United States. I didn’t even know that was a possibility or an option. I grew up like, “Figure it out. Work hard. Help others.” I thought my role was more about helping others and mentoring others. Instead of being both a mentor and an intern, I focused on giving back. One, in the beginning, I didn’t even realize it. Two, I underestimated what could happen. I already pre–answered my question. I’m like, “I will reach out to them. They are going to tell me to do this stuff. I’m already in that doing, I will read one more book on it.” I didn’t get the life hacks that people had or the introduction to the experts. I would think about reaching out, and then I would already assume I knew how it would end like I could predict the future and it took all the mystery out of it. It left no room for that symbiotic cool thing that happens. There’s a level of it for me now that I’m much older where I was a little scared of success. Some things were convenient not to solve because I could stay a little bit of a victim of it.
Can you give an example of that? When you say a victim of success, what’s one thing that you felt that way about?
Growing up in high school and college, I was the bridesmaid, not the bride. I was always the guy’s best friend but never their date. As I’ve got to be a speaker, I’m like, “Speaking gross. When they want you, you don’t need them. When you want them, they don’t want you.” I predetermined when I would think about contacting a speaking pro that they weren’t going to pick me up and I wasn’t at that level yet. When I finally do a friend‘s, he said, “Reach out. These speaking pros want to talk to you.” I finally reached out, they were flabbergasted that they had never heard of me. They had the book of business I had and that I had never reached out to. It was more like I’m playing small or a bit of sabotage where it became an excuse, I could tell that story all the time about like, “That sucks. You guys get all these gigs and speaker pros will talk to you but they won’t talk to me yet, I had never reached out.” It was like a convenient shtick. I picked up a gig that it could be a little victimy with. We have to watch out for that. We all hold onto some problems that we are scared of solving.
You mentioned that you were very open to taking on work at the college you went to and did a talk there where you see a lot of people trying to calculate like, “Is it worthwhile for my time? How much money will I make?” Being very transactional as opposed to more relationship–focused. How has that mindset or the way that you look at saying yes or no to work shifted as your business was developed? With many people, in the early days, you take whatever you can get. It might not make you as much money but it’s not like people are knocking on your door right at the beginning for many people. How has that changed now? How do you filter through opportunities? I’m asking because a lot of people, as they start to receive a lot more interest in demand in their services and their business, they do have to be a little bit more selective in what they say yes to and no to. I’m interested in how you think about that.
I learned this part too late. As I tried to raise kids, I traveled a ton and over-functioned and was successful. People kept saying, “Raise your rates until you get the book of business you want.” I was scared to do that. I was a single mom at the time supporting young kids. It got to the point where I was not living a balanced healthy life. Over time I have had to look at it, not try and figure out what’s the most lucrative business but stay within my core. A lot of people ask me for Science projects and I’m like, “I could do that,” but it’s so much work and it never pays off. People are chronically disappointed because I’m not the expert in that. Know what your core is and don’t frame much from your core. Instead of going wide, go deep.
I will only accept work that feels energy building, not depleting, that I can do joyfully and peacefully. Now, I only want on my calendar what I can do peacefully. I used to, “If there was a free moment on my calendar that sellable time sells it,” that’s changed for me a lot in what I say yes or no to. I pay a lot of attention. Martha Beck talks about shackles on, shackles off, try that work on for size and then see if it feels imprisoning, freeing or liberating. I have paid a lot more attention to less intellectual decisions about finances and transactions. Now I can do that had been years in the business and a lot more about heart and the centered stuff. I can do it in a way that is legacy, impactful and not just turning through the numbers.
When you say one of the filters for your criteria is like, “Does it bring me peace or do I feel peaceful when I’m doing that work?” What does that look like? Is it a feeling that you look at the work and imagine what it would be like to go through that engagement or is there something else going on? I’m trying to understand how do you filter that criteria?
The feeling is more, “Does it bring me energy and excitement and do I feel more alive?” The peaceful piece is, “Can I do it peacefully?” What I mean by that is when I look at me starting to get irritated or starting to not meditate twice a day or not be dedicated to healthy practices and I look at my schedule, I’m like, “I am over–committing. I can’t do that schedule peacefully.” It doesn’t matter how full it is because if I have twenty cool things on my calendar and I love every one of them, I can do it with a lot of peace and love in my life. It’s more than when I start to be irritable, I start to ignore daily dedications that it’s probably not that I consider each and everything is more of a noticing over time, and then adjusting and balancing that way.
How much of this would you say has come from experimenting? Like being open to trying different things over time and taking on a piece of work and we are like, “It was great money but I was pretty miserable,” versus taking something on and like, “This is the perfect client, great fit. Here are the criteria of that project or client. I want to do more of that.” Is that how you’ve got to where you are or is there some other way that you have arrived at these decision-making criteria and selection criteria, what you take on and what you don’t?
One of the things I would tell people they have to get involved in is self-reflection in the day and contemplation, looking for the red thread. When was a good year of my business? When was a bad year? Most of us put our heads down and we do the work. We don’t pull back and contemplate and self-reflect. Danielle LaPorte talks not about studying goals but about identifying core desired feelings, how you want to feel in life, and then participating or not participating at work based on, “Does that bring me closer or farther apart?” You can’t do that without a lot of contemplation. We like to boil things down in my team to the essence of something like, “What was that lesson to learned after some contemplation?” We do a lot of this talking over a beer at night with my team members.Venting is the ego's way of avoiding self-reflection. Click To Tweet
Once we learn it, we put it into a one-liner. The next key is you need that mastermind group that will remind you of crap you have already learned. It’s like, “Cy, why are you back out there relearning that? Why are you researching the book of life out there?” An example is, there are a couple of clients that we worked with that it was tough work. We earned our money. We called it ice glaze over and we have left the land of simplicity. We worked for these people and tinkered all the time. Whatever we deliver, they won three more edits, nothing is ever good enough and we were mind–boggled. We boiled that down in to watch out for ice glazing over returned to the land of simplicity. That is code now when I will start to scope a project with somebody, they want more calls, want to explain to me deeper about their life and they want to tell me how special they are. I have people in my life who go, “Cy, why have you left the land of simplicity?” It’s those things because we contemplated, boiled it down, we have mantras in life.
Even from a marketing perspective, oftentimes people are asking themselves like, “What do I need to do now? What’s the new thing that I need to do?” When oftentimes right underneath their noses, there’s something that has been working well for them. They were trying to look for something to add. When you look at most successes, they don’t necessarily come from adding new things, it’s most often about subtraction and getting people on what’s working best. I think that’s a great point.
It’s so much about pulling away. People are looking to be fancy and clever and I’m like, “Do not get fancy and clever in consulting.” There’s the Law of Diminishing Returns and it hits the big time. Get clear standards. The more you can simplify things that are plug-and-play that people will use on, the better off it is. We call it instinct or opposite. My instinct tends to get fancy. That’s another one of our mantras. We are like, “No. Opposite.” Counterintuitive, do less, not more.
In that same frame, as your business has been built up, it started off being you, demand increased over the years, you’ve got busier. I’m interested in your experience with demand and capacity. How have you gone about building your team? Can you walk us through the first hire that you made? Who was that person? What did you do next? How does the business look? Take us through how you have dealt with capacity and demand at different times in your business.
When I started hiring extra pair of hands and they weren’t strategic to deal with increased capacity, it never worked out well. I was hiring out of need and fear rather than strategy. My first hire was assistant after an assistant to help me with lower-level work. What I needed to hire was a branding organization that helped me name myself. I needed to raise my rates, take less work and hire branding the same money, hire not that assistant. As I started to understand that I needed a personal assistant as well but I needed to not hire base out of I have too much work. I needed to manage my work for the capacity I had, then intentionally build out what my next capacity would be rather than letting the world and my inability to say no, determine where my business went. It was very counterintuitive.
I want to clarify that for everyone and myself. Are you saying the first step that you took aside from hiring a bunch of assistants that didn’t necessarily work out, wasn’t about raising your rates or looking out, “Instead of finding ways to increase my capacity, let’s just first deal with the capacity that I currently have and maximize it, fewer clients but the higher value per client.” Was that the one?
Yes, because otherwise if you are scaling a lower profit, you are scaling utility work. This was so counterintuitive to me. The difference between selling an order taking, don’t just scale more than answering the phone. There’s a reason you are too busy. You are not maximizing your own value. Raise your value and scale that.
We do this with a lot of our coaching clients where we look at and say, “You can’t scale inefficiency or complexity doesn’t scale.” Before you just try and go add more, people often say, “I need more leads.” It’s like, “Do you need more leads? Let’s look at the pipeline. How are things going? Are you winning business? At what price point? All these different things you can maximize and improve first before you go off, try, add and build more.” That was stage one for you?
Yes. I have made a lot of attempts at this. This was not a straight path. It’s to make sure that you are going to build something you want to run because I don’t like running large teams. I have had experience after experience where if you are scaling something that’s a low margin, you are not going to make that much more profit and you are going to have a lot more hassle of running a big team as a small team. What I started to do then is look at, “If I were a true business, what would I put together? Your hires aren’t necessarily more of me but they were more of how to take what is me in personal goodwill and build it into a brand.” We worked with Gary Vaynerchuk to take me, digitize and commercialize on that and build a brand and how to do it smartly instead of hiring all these crews to produce stuff like document what I’m already doing.
I’ve got social media. We focused on some process people. Once I had my material to appoint that I could bring people in, I started to handpick people that lived at the philosophy, loved it and wanted to be out with clients and want to do some of my same stuff. I first hired in as if I were CEO the staff I would need if it were a business, then I worked to replicate myself. When I could hand some of that notebook that says, “Here’s our program,” I hired curriculum design before I hired a person to train.You can argue with reality all you want, but it's an argument you'll lose 100% of the time. Click To Tweet
What I wanted to clarify with you is like what were those first few hires when you brought people on? What was their role? Was somebody going out and drumming up more sales or somebody developing as you said more curriculum? Just paint the picture for us of what were a few of those key first hires that you put in place.
Some are gig and some are employees. Social media marketing, graphic design, a lot of those were gig people from websites. A heavy marketing, heavy curriculum designer that could help us with our certification programs, an expert in online and virtual training. I needed technology, marketing and branding. I didn’t need more people out speaking. I thought what I need was more people out speaking or researching. We only have seven people. We benchmark against all these other huge organizations. The revenue that we produce with seven people most people are using 15 to 16 people to produce because most entrepreneurs don’t set up systems. I talked to people like, “Do you have a brand guidelines book? If you came to work for me, we would hand you the book. Here are the colors. We use nature scenes. We use this and that.” We think when we go small to small business, we can’t do those main functions. That’s the exact thing we should replicate from big business.
More systems, processes, SOPs, essentially standardizing what you are doing so that as you bring new people on or even for those existing people, there’s able to make everything more and more efficient.
Let’s say, you would describe my brand as Navy Blue. The first couple of people that I hire, if I don’t look at systems will falsely reflect me and they will be similar because I will hire people just like me. I will go, “My brand is Navy Blue.” The next level of hires, I bring their stuff with no systems to support them and it’s like turquoise blue. I’m like, how did we lose our message?” Instead of using people to scale, I first went to systems. I’m not endorsing any software a couple before this, but then we went to HubSpot so that we don’t have individuals decide how to move our deals through a process. HubSpot writes you and tells you what you are going to do. People are like, “I could add more value.” I’m like, “If you did the five tasks on HubSpot.” We want you to get fancy and clever with other things and other systems.
I don’t want to leave everybody hanging. You talked before about a shift that you made from lower profit–producing offerings to overtime changing, to things that produce higher revenue or higher profit. Could you give an example of what you did? If you look back, whether it was 5 or 10 years ago, something that you did initially and you thought was good at that time but when your eyes open, you saw a greater opportunity, you made some changes and it allowed you to generate more revenue and more profit. What’s the comparison between those two?
There are a couple of examples. Speaking and being on big stages is a high profit, plus if you have systems in place then you can do all the full tail of sales down to training and certification. I would get lost. If the phone rang in Sweeney Consulting, I would spend hours on a consulting gig where I was an extra pair of hands for somebody. If I had spent that same time on curating bigger stages, the ultimate revenue of that would be far greater and my reach will be far greater. It feels so counterintuitive because it’s not about being busy, it’s about doing the right things. I would be like, “I only have three gigs this week. I’m only working three hours this week.” My team would go, “Yes. Our plan is working.” It’s things like that.
I had to pay a lot of attention to scalability out of my Goodwill like, “If Cy wasn’t present, would we earn money? To the point where we even tracked in our metrics, Cy revenue, non–Cy revenue.” I bonus my team on growing non-Cy revenue. We started to look at how I could be immortal. If I died tomorrow, no one would even notice. How could I, through virtual training, courses, certification and licensure? We already worked my way out of a job because we feel so valuable when we are the brainiac expert. When you go to strategically sell your business, there’s no value there. You get to die proudly that you were a brain. That’s so counterintuitive for people, my plans working when no one asks for me. If you called my business and you didn’t ask for me, it kills my ego but my plan is working. I answered the phone by accident. People are like, “Is Alex there?” I’m like, “Do you know who you are talking to?” It’s like, “Alex, there’s a call for you.” That’s counterintuitive.
There are so much there that we could dive into, this whole idea of how to increase the value of your company and the thought of selling. I want to respect the time that we have here, Cy. Thank you so much for coming on. Where’s the best place for people to go to learn more about you and your work? I know you’ve got a bunch of books but where’s the home base that you would want to direct people to if there’s one place?Make sure that you're going to build something you want to run. Click To Tweet
We live on social media, it’s, @CyWakeman and you will get connected then to all of our other apps. We have an amazing newsletter. We’ve gotten out of social media and the algorithms that don’t get us to our people. We are back to newsletters now. If you go to RealityBasedLeadership.com, we will flash you a newsletter, sign up. We don’t sell your stuff but you will get great content. Go sign up for the newsletter.
Cy, thank you so much for coming on.
You bet. Thank you for having me.
- Cy Wakeman
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