Being in the consulting business is not something to be taken lightly, especially if you’re just starting and wearing all hats in your business. You can easily get bogged down in the daily grind and the incessant call of duty from the back end can negatively affect your personal performance and business growth. Early on in her consulting career, Patty Carl, a former chief HR officer for Silicon Valley startups and Fortune 100 companies, figured out that she has to free herself from the minutiae and start delegating if she wants her budding business to grow. She also figured out a way to leverage the right connections from the start and build an extensive network of mentors and coaches that really helped her shine in her profession. In this interview with Michael Zipursky, she explains how these elements helped her improve her personal performance in consulting ten times than she would have under ordinary circumstances. If you’re just getting aboard the consulting ship, this episode is a great one for you!
I am with Patty Carl. Patty, Welcome.
Thank you so much, Michael. I’m happy to be here.
You’re an Executive Coach and Consultant, a former Chief HR Officer. You worked with clients and organizations like Microsoft, Deloitte, and numerous Silicon Valley startups. You’ve also guest lectured at universities and your insights have been featured in Forbes, Harvard, and many more. I’m excited to have you here, to dive into your story, and to extract as much as we can from you to help everyone here in the community.
I’ve enjoyed reading your show. The narratives of hearing other consultants and their stories are helpful. I’m happy to share mine.
I appreciate that. Your consulting journey is still relatively new. You started Highland Performance Solutions around July of 2019. What surprised you the most in making the transition from corporate to a consultant?
What was interesting is I left my last official head of HR job in June of 2018. I moved abroad and lived in Denmark. These journey stories are important. While I was there, I thought about what do I want to do next? What do I love to do? One author created this term, what’s my second mountain? What do I want to do? What’s my next chapter? There are pieces of that chief HR officer job that I love. It’s the leadership development, the executive coaching, creating HR strategy, and people strategy for companies so that they can continue to develop, retain, and engage their people. It was an easy transition for me to think about how do I take those pieces and hang my own shingle and be able to do the parts of the job that I love.
That part of the story, the narrative, and how you got to where you are is so important. You talked about Denmark. I’m not going to let you off the hook that easily, Patty. I want to know why did you go to Denmark?
That’s a whole show in and of itself. I moved there with my son, who’s a professional athlete when he was a senior in high school. He’s still there, but at some point, they don’t need mom anymore. I can come back to my life in the States. I’m an avid traveler and have a sense of adventure. That served me well also in the consulting space that I’m willing to take risk and I enjoy the growth and the adventure that you have as a consultant that you’re learning every minute when you’re starting a business. That’s an exciting thing to go through that development arc.
What do you not enjoy? What have you found to be tough in making that transition from corporate to consultant?
The hard part for me was you’re leaving a job that has a lot of structure in it. By the time you’re at a senior level, you have large teams who do a lot of things for you. When you’re a single sole proprietor, especially in the beginning if that’s how you start, you’re the chief cook and bottle washer. You’re doing every single thing. For me, I don’t love a lot of the back-office stuff, the scheduling, the billing, setting up all of the systems, and getting the website done. All of those pieces, I don’t love. I want to spend my time doing client-facing work. I could leave the other stuff behind. To find a way to delegate that early on has been enormously helpful in terms of getting the business running in the way I want it to, but also in terms of my own job satisfaction.
You’re making that transition and I do want to come back to how you start to build your business. As you start to work through that process of getting the business up and running, you’re identifying things that you enjoy doing as well as things that you don’t enjoy doing which you just hit on. How did you start to bring in either people that you could delegate stuff too, services, or technology? What was the first thing that you started to delegate? How do you go about doing that?
The first things were the website, scheduling, putting in scheduling systems, and it’s all infrastructure that you need in order to run the business. Early in 2020, I brought someone who could do a lot of that work. She happened to also be a former HR manager. She’s been not only a wonderful business manager but she’s also been a nice thought partner and has been able to take on even some consulting work in terms of, if I have a project that I’m working on, she’s able to do more of that. Since then, I’ve also hired two additional people to do more of that consulting work as well.
Are these people full-time? Are they contractors? How are they structured in the business?
They’re contractors for now and that’s something I’ll evaluate over to see what does the workload look like. What kind of work do I have? In some ways, as a consultant, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, having more fungible resources can be helpful because you never know what’s coming. That’s one of the hardest things to forecast is when you have a referral business, it’s feast or famine. You don’t know when the jobs are coming in. You might suddenly have a lot of work and you need to farm it out. That might be a contract for a little while, and then you might get another big project. Having not only folks that I contract with but also a network of other consultants like they’re in my stable and I’m in their stable. In case A) the work is not necessarily in our wheelhouse and we can refer among the group or B) it’s too large for a small consulting firm to do. We have to bring in partners. That’s been transformative too.When you have a referral business, it’s often either a feast or a famine. Click To Tweet
Why did you make the decision to start bringing on contractors? You talked with that first person that helped you with the website, the scheduling systems, and that whole side of it. A lot of consultants face a challenge where in their minds, they know that they’re doing a lot more than they should be doing, but they don’t want to spend money to bring people on. They say, “It will take me longer to try and train someone and teach them. I can do it myself. I don’t want to spend that money.” For you, what was the tipping point to go out and make that decision to start adding team members?
That’s an important question because it depends on a number of factors. I brought someone on earlier than someone else might. That was because it felt like in order to grow, I had to make an investment that was a bit more front-loaded. You could take the stance of, “I’m not going to add people until I can afford it.” On the other hand, if you don’t do it, you’re constraining your own growth. It’s the balance. My experience being the head of HR, I know what I’m good at and conversely, I know what I’m not good at. In my former executive life, I always had someone on my team who was my complete compliment, who could do and love to do everything I didn’t love to do. That always worked well. Early on, I made that investment to grow and the way that I needed to staff that role is to have someone who was a compliment.
Why did you do that? A lot of people would be in that same place. They get what you’re saying, front-loading as opposed to just waiting. Isn’t it safer to wait? Is that in your DNA or did you cultivate that from past experience in terms of being comfortable taking a little bit more risk early on? Essentially, you’re making an investment. I know that nowadays you make some investments into companies and so forth, but where does that come from? Any thoughts as to why you felt comfortable at the early stage to make that investment?
It’s a combination of a couple of things. One is it’s a bit in my DNA. I have a higher tolerance than some. Being in companies that were all in different stages of growth, there were always conversations around how do you invest for growth? Having those conversations over the course of my career working with leadership teams to place the right bets, having had that experience got me more comfortable than someone who had not had those set of experiences.
It’s an important conversation. It’s either you make that investment earlier on and you’re setting yourself up, then you take a bit of a knock early, but then you’re going to be in a better position as opposed to waiting and you can see how things pan out, but then if a big project comes up or all of a sudden things are going well, you’ve scrambled to try to find those resources, and you’re at capacity. That’s great that you’re sharing that. You made the transition from corporate head of HR to being a consultant. How do you get your first clients? Where did that first client or two come from?
I did a couple of things. One is I connected with some of the consultants that I had hired. I was always on the other side of the table. I had a good network of consultants that I could reach out to. I can’t say enough about their generosity and they didn’t have to be because ostensibly, I could compete with them. They were unbelievably generous and helping me think about what my offerings were, where I wanted to play and how to go about that. Connecting with them was helpful and getting some of that adjunct work with them.
When you say adjunct work, do you mean that they had opportunities and they then brought you into them as a sub-consultant?
Yes, and that was helpful. As you’re starting something new, you have to dip the toe in and go and figure it out as you’re going along. That was a nice opportunity to get started as I was ramping up my own referral network, which ended up being less difficult than I had anticipated because my buyers are a lot of my former colleagues. In smaller companies, they might be CEO or CFO, but in larger companies, they’re chief HR officers and those are my people. I found that there’s less business development to do for me and more connections. In these businesses, connection is currency. Being able to reach out to people that were in my network and tell them, “This is what I’m doing. Remind me.”
How long did you wait to do that? From the time that you launched the business, when did you start letting people know, not the consultants that you spoke with, but people who would be buyers? How many months, weeks, days, years went by until you started to contact people?
The first thing I did that was surprisingly effective that I hadn’t anticipated was I simply changed my LinkedIn profile. When that notifies your network, and I have a lot of connections because I’ve recruited and I’ve been in large companies, everyone connects. I have a pretty sizable network. When I did that, there was suddenly all this interest and, “I might have something for you. Can we get on the phone and talk about something that I’m working on?” Sometimes those are free conversations. There are consultative conversations that sometimes lead to something and sometimes they don’t or they don’t lead to something right now, but later they do. That was a bigger event than I thought in terms of my network.
What did you change in your profile?
What did you change? Did you say consultant as opposed to the head of HR? It’s your experience section and your title of your LinkedIn profile is what changed.
In my summary, suddenly they could see that I was doing consulting and executive coaching. I began reaching out to people individually to say, “I’m doing this. Let me know if I can be of help.” I also began writing and publishing. That was helpful too in terms of not necessarily that you get a lot of brand-new business from that initially but what you get is you’re building proof points in terms of your expertise with your current network and they see what you’re doing.When you start something new, you have to dip your toe in and figure it out as you go along. Click To Tweet
Before we talk about the publications, I want to ask you about that because you’ve done a great job with it. How long then was it before you start to send an email, if you did, to all the different heads of HR that were colleagues, but now potential clients? From the time that you left or launched the consulting business, how long do you say it before you let people know directly through an email or phone call or text message?
I would say probably within the first two months. If you think about your network as concentric circles, it was primarily my closest network that I alerted. I did not send personal messages beyond that close network.
At any point then or now, have you started to reach out to new prospective clients that you don’t know directly, but people you believe you could help?
Yes. A lot of times they’re connections of connections. The publications piece has helped that because I might send someone that there seems would be a good fit there, and I’ll send them an article that is germane to the work that I might want to do for them and say, “Hello, check out my new article.”
What would you say to them? If it’s someone you know in your network or it’s a past colleague, that’s an easy, “How are you doing? It’s been a while,” type of conversation. For someone that you don’t know, maybe you have some connection in common or maybe you don’t, you have this piece of content you’ve created, what are you saying in that first email? I want to make it as tangible as possible for people. Give us an example of what might that wording sound like when you send that email to people.
If we do have some connections that might be in common, I will mention that. There’s already some credibility. I simply say, “I wanted to share my latest article with you. This is the work I do. Let’s connect for a virtual coffee.” That’s trying to get the next action, forwarding that action, and what’s next. Sometimes you get responses and sometimes you don’t.
You’ve talked about publications and how that may not necessarily have led to direct business. You don’t publish an article, then receive a ton of leads right away in every case. I’m sure sometimes you do, but not always. Let’s talk about a place like Harvard Business Review, a well-recognized publication known for being quite selective. Did you know somebody that wrote for them or work there? How did you get into a publication like that?
One is I hired a coach to help me think about my brand strategy. How do I want to be positioned in the marketplace? What’s unique about me? I knew that I wanted to write and to leverage writing and have that be a part and parcel of my career. I read a book by Dorie Clark who is fantastic. She wrote a book about having this portfolio career and having different elements within your business that A) either recurring revenue or B) things that you enjoy. If there’s an intersection of those two things, fantastic. I knew that writing was something I wanted to do, whether it was a revenue generator or not, but I wanted to leverage it for my business.
Is that because that’s also a strength of yours? Did you recognize that, “I’m good at writing. I enjoy it and I can get it done,” or not?
It’s something that I love, although to quote Gloria Steinem, “Sometimes I don’t love writing. I love having written.” Sometimes it’s laborious, but I enjoy the process. I felt like it was a strength that I could bring to the table. Most people would agree that if you’ve seen someone who has written for credible publications or has written a book, it conditions you in a different way than you haven’t. I encourage people to do that. Back to your question, I started writing different articles and sending them. You have to ladder your way up to the more prestigious publications. You have to have that proof and that credibility that you already write well and been published so that you can continue to make your way up that publication ladder.
You start off with smaller-scale blogs, local papers, industry association, or things of that nature. From there, you’re moving up to something like an HBR.
The other thing that I did was become a Forbes Coaches Council member, and to cut my teeth a bit on contributing to their expert panels and writing for them. That helped me start to find my voice and helped me figure out what I cared to write about, what seemed to resonate with audiences, and then I could begin to start with those lower-level publications and begin to work my way up. I don’t want to say lower level, but there’s a lower barrier to entry, and then work my way up to something like an HBR Ascend. I co-wrote an article with my coach. She invited me to do that, which was fantastic, and that was picked up by Harvard Business Review. That’s how I started getting into Harvard Business Review. There are different ways to do that. Reaching out to people can be difficult, but some of it is you have to keep at it. You also have to test out your material to see what resonates, because something that I think is super interesting may not be that interesting to a broad audience. I’m always a bit surprised about what people connect to or don’t.
The challenge a lot of consultants face is they get so busy delivering on client projects that they then feel they don’t have time to do marketing or create content. How have you approached that? How do you make sure that you’re still able to create content, do marketing, or nurture your referral base even though you might be very busy delivering on client projects?
That is the challenge. It’s the capacity management that every consultant struggles with. For me, it’s having that fungible staff to be able to pull forward. If they have the flexibility to flex up and down, all the better because that allows the work to be flexed up and down. A practice that I took from my former life is every single thing that I’m doing, I try to look at it through the lens of, “Is this something that I personally need to do? Can this be delegated? Can someone else do this and maybe even do it better than I’m doing it?” I’m trying to get very surgical about where do I add value and where must it be absolutely me versus some other resource. That’s been helpful.
Writing is a big part of the business and what you’re doing. Do you have a specific day or time every week, a recurring note in your calendar, blocked off for that time? Do you approach it when an idea strikes you, you then make time to do it? How do you think about productivity in terms of content creation and balancing that with client delivery?Connections are the currency of the consulting business. Click To Tweet
Number one, I work a lot. Number two, and I’m trying to remember who gave me this idea but I thought it was a fantastic idea, is the idea of “maker’s time,” time where you’re creating. That’s different than production, which is the work. It’s different than business operations management. Those things will always take precedent unless you’re intentional about having that creating time. I block that on my calendar.
I remember Paul Graham from Y Combinator back in the day, he was talking about the maker’s time or maker’s schedule. As you think about where your business is, with everything that you have going on, what are you most looking forward to? What is exciting you and what are the big opportunities that you see?
I’m writing a book with my husband. That’s personally fulfilling and exciting.
Is that a business-related book?
Yes. That’s an exciting thing to do.
Is your husband in the business with you as well?
No, he’s a CEO of a tech company. Both of us have been business executives, but I also have a therapist background. We come at things a little bit differently. I’m the psychology piece as well as the business piece. He comes at it certainly from that chief executive perspective. We’re writing about this intersection. I’ve not been through this process before, but I’m hoping that it will come out within a year or so. I’ll have to put a lot of maker time on the calendar to get it done. The other thing that’s exciting for me is the variety of work I’m getting to do that continues to come my way.
I can at any given time be doing HR consulting, executive coaching, doing leadership development, and running a program for a company who has emerging leaders. It’s fun to be able to do a variety of things. Some people specialize, that’s fine too. It’s what works for you. I personally have a Myers-Briggs that will tell you I have brought in varied interests. To alleviate or to avoid boredom, I have to have a lot of things going on. That sort of portfolio career idea works for me. That’s how I’m thinking about the future.
That’s interesting in terms of the portfolio and working all different kinds of projects. Was that from the beginning when you first launched the business? Has that come as a result of you connecting with more people, seeing more opportunities, and learning what you like and what you don’t like? Was it like that even from day one?
I’m fascinated when consultants talk about this because some say, “From the beginning, this is what I’m doing. This is my specialty. Maybe that works well.” Because I have these varied interests, I wanted to keep things a little bit open in the beginning and see what did I gravitate toward. I’ve had a long career of doing a lot of the same thing. What would be most interesting to me? How could I be open and curious about that as opportunity surfaced? I’ve continued to have that openness and curiosity. If something is interesting to me, then I do it. If it isn’t, then I don’t. It frustrates the people who work with me around branding. I’m all things leadership and it’s not easy to tie up with a bow, but it works for me.
When you made that transition from corporate to a consultant, were you in a position where you didn’t feel rushed you had to produce income right away and you had a bit more time to see where things would go? Was that part of it for you as well?
Yeah, absolutely. You want the business to be solvent, but I also had a nest egg that I could rely on as I figured it out. It’s a different situation if you have to put food on the table. You have a different lens. I had the luxury and the grace to figure out what I wanted to do.
I want to thank you so much for coming on here and sharing with us a bit of your journey and story, but I also want to make sure that people can learn more about you, the upcoming book, and everything that you have going on. What’s the best place for them to go?
HighlandPerformanceSolutions.com is my website. They can look me up on LinkedIn but I usually post my latest articles and things like that on my website. They’re welcome to see me there.
Patty, thank you so much.
Michael. Thank you so much for the time. This was fun.