Good business communication skills are essential for any leader in any organization. For the past 15 years, this has been the specialty of Deborah Riegel, a keynote speaker, author and leadership consultant who has worked with such organizations as Amazon, Kraft and the US Army. Aside from being a top-rated consultant, Deb also teaches leadership communication as an Instructor at the Wharton Business School. Joining Michael Zipursky for a chat, Deb shares how she manages to do consulting, writing and teaching work at the same time while being a mother and wife as well. She also talks about how she uses leverage and social proof to advance her career in consulting and how operating from a place of professional generosity has helped her stand out from the competition. Listen in and learn what a successful consultant like Deb is made of.
I’m with Deb Riegel. Welcome.
I’m glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
It’s great to have you on here. I’m excited for this conversation. You are a keynote speaker, a leadership consultant. Your clients include a lot of well-known names like Amazon, Kraft Heinz and US Army, a whole bunch of others. Your work has been featured in The New York Times, Oprah Magazine, Bloomberg, Harvard Business Review, and many more. You’re also an author and you’ve written books, one with your daughter. I want to ask about that because that’s cool. You also teach at the Wharton Business School and Columbia Business School. You have that going on. At one point, you were working at a consulting firm, Boda Group and you run your own business as well and being an author. I’m wondering with everything that you have going on, teaching, being a professor, working, were you doing all of those things all at one time? It looks like there was some overlap, if not even still overlap.
That’s the beauty of LinkedIn. It makes me look like Beyoncé. I’m kicking butt and taking names all at the same time. A better explanation for it is that I’ve done different things at different times. The longest tenured piece of all of that is that I’ve had my own consulting practice for fifteen years. I have done other projects and been faculty for different business schools and lots of different things across those fifteen years. Having my own practice where I focus on leadership communication, presentation skills, difficult conversations, feedback skills have been for fifteen years.
Have you ever felt a pull? We talked to consultants sometime or clients in our coaching programs who also either have that opportunity to teach at university or they’ve done it. Sometimes there’s a bit of a little element of them wondering like, “Is this the best use of their time?” They’re not typically earning a great deal of money when they’re teaching, but they enjoy doing it. There’s a bit of tension. I wonder what’s been your experience in terms of being a teacher, like working at these universities, but also running your own business and working at other consulting firm. How have you thought about where you spend your time and the pull between those?
I’m always thinking about leverage. For any opportunity that comes in, I think about how can I leverage this for other things? That could be leverage the finances, “This is the right amount of money at the right time for the right project. How is this a name that I want to have on my bio or be associated with so I can leverage it to open other doors? How is this an opportunity for somebody to pay me to learn how to do something better than I can leverage and bring that benefit to other clients?” I’m always playing a long game with it. When it comes to the teaching piece, I’ll share with you a little bit about how I got involved in teaching. I would imagine that many of your readers can probably relate to some of these challenges.
I had never taught at a university. In 2008, most of us can remember that the bottom fell out of our businesses. If we were a solopreneur or had a small business, it was a scary time. Overnight, most of my paying clients went away. I remember saying to my husband Michael, “Am I going to have to get a real job?” One of the most loving and supportive things that he’s ever said to me which is, “Just because you don’t have clients, doesn’t mean you don’t have a real job.” That’s how you know you married the right person. I got a call from a colleague of mine as I was trying to figure out what I was going to do in this totally depleted economy who said, “I have a colleague who has been teaching at the business school at Peking University,” what they call the Harvard of Asia or I would call it the University of Michigan of Asia as a Wolverine.
She has a colleague who’s been teaching with her for all of these years. It’s an executive MBA program. They asked me, do I want to go teach in China? I said, “That’s crazy, but I know somebody crazy enough to consider it. Deb, that’s you.” I had two young kids at that time. My twins were little and I thought, “How can I go to China where I had to go for five weeks?” I realized that this was an economic necessity for my family, for me to go away for a little over a month and have the opportunity to earn in 4 or 5 weeks what I normally would have earned in a quarter.
It was an economic decision that had hard consequences of being away from my family. I ended up doing it for a number of years until it was no longer an economic necessity, but that gave me the opportunity to teach at Wharton Business School, Columbia Business School and for Duke Corporate Ed. That one hard decision led to other opportunities. Those opportunities are not the greatest paying opportunities I’ve ever had, but I’m learning. I’m in an environment with young people and they also are great door openers to say that you have had the opportunity to teach for Wharton or teach for Columbia or Duke.
You used the word that I love which is leverage. How do you use the credentials or the experience of teaching at these schools as leverage to land new clients or to build the business or to build a brand? You can put it onto your LinkedIn and website. Beyond those basic steps, is there anything else that you’ve done that you’ve found helps you from a leverage perspective?
I want to be careful around the leverage. I am comfortable putting it on my LinkedIn profile, having those names associated with my bio. I also never want to misrepresent myself. I am not a professor, even though at the business school in China, they called me doctor, which I pretended. We can live with that. Why embarrass somebody in their own country? I’m careful. I don’t have a PhD. I’m not a professor. I’m an instructor as opposed to on the faculty of. I want to be careful about my language, so I don’t blow it for me and for other people who might be in a similar boat.
I can tell you that I found that once I was able to add having served as an instructor for the Wharton MBA program, when I would reach out to people on LinkedIn, they would be much more likely to accept my invitation than somebody who was associated with a consulting firm. Not that there’s anything wrong with having your own business or being in a consulting firm, but it was an external seal of approval. This is something that also might be interesting to your readers as well, it also reminds me a little bit of publishing a book.For every opportunity that comes, think about how you can leverage it to open other doors. Click To Tweet
My first book that I published called Oy Vey! Isn’t a Strategy: 25 Solutions for Personal and Professional Success was a traditionally published book. I wrote a book proposal, a publisher bought it, and I published it. My ego needed that external stamp of approval. After that, every other book that I’ve written thus far, I have self-published or published with an independent publishing company. Those are the things to think about as well. As my coach and colleague Dorie Clark would call it, how does social proof help you? You have to have the chops.
Let’s talk about writing because you do a lot of writing Harvard Business Review, Inc. Magazine, Psychology Today, I’m sure a whole bunch of others. First of all, how do you make time for writing when you’re busy working with clients, teaching at universities and you have family, twins, a wonderful husband? A lot of consultants struggle with that. They’re busy delivering on client projects. The first thing that suffers in their marketing is the time spent on developing their authority, putting themselves out there. How do you think about that? How do you make it work?
The same set of mind games that I play to get myself to exercise is a similar set of mind games that I play with myself when it comes to writing. I hate it. I would rather do almost anything else. I can find almost anything else to do other than exercise or write. I know that it is vitally important for my health, mental health, physical health, and the health of my business when it comes to writing. For me, the worst-case scenario would be for my editor in Harvard Business Review or somebody else to reach out to me and say, “Can you write about this?” I go, “No,” and I wind up doing it.
The way that I come up with ideas is either something that has happened in my personal life that I realized has a business impact and impact for my clients, or it is a theme that keeps coming up in my coaching sessions over and over again or when I’m facilitating a workshop, this may literally be the flip chart. Remember the days of flip charts before we were all virtual? This is the list that we are creating on the flip chart. Sixteen ways to motivate somebody who doesn’t want to be motivated. That flip chart that we generated as a group becomes my article. I don’t work hard to find topics. I let the topics come to me. As an example, I moved from New York to Raleigh, North Carolina. My husband and I are happy here.
Our dog will not walk. She’ll walk to the end of our driveway and back. As our trainer pointed out, when I called her and said, “Help, I can’t get our dog to walk,” she says, “Will she walk with the two of you? You and your husband?” I said, “Yes, that’s weird. Why?” She said, “She’s a pack animal. She wants to be with her pack. She’s in a new place. She scared.” All of a sudden, I realized how many of us are experiencing that now that we’re missing our pack? We’re no longer going into an office. We’re not seeing our friends and family. We are missing our pack. In the back of my mind, that’s an article coming up. The idea came to me from my dog and I don’t mean that in like the Son of Sam, David Berkowitz way, like my dog is talking to me, but my dog is talking to me.
That’s a great breakdown of how you come up with content. It’s relevant and valuable for everyone to apply. How do you make the time? Do you approach it? Do you have for example Tuesday at 8:00 AM, writing time or do you fit into the schedule or is there any recommendation that you find there at?
I write in the cracks of my day. I do better when I have inspiration. That article that my dog has written for me is something that at some point, there will be a crack in my day when I don’t have other writing projects and I will bang it out. I like it. For example, I sent a pitch to my editor at HBR. She said, “Yes, our team loves it, write it.” I know that I can’t let that lie fallow for a month. That’s going to undermine my credibility, but other publications I get to publish whenever I come up with an idea. That could take me a week or a month or two months. Having external accountability is helpful for me. I am not going to let my editor at HBR down. Doing it without accountability means I wait until I’m watching a boring episode of something and go, “Let me take my laptop out and see what I can bang out.”
How has writing helped your business? What has been the financial impact? Not necessarily in dollars attribution, but more in terms of, have you seen a tangible improvement and growth in the business that you can trace back to the writing that you’ve done?
I don’t know that I can confirm it with data. However, these are my operating assumptions around how writing has helped my business. First of all, a company wants me to do a series of workshops around leadership communication, and I’m sending in a proposal, I believe that me sending in links to all of the articles that I’ve written on this topic in Harvard Business Review, Inc., Psychology Today, is going to give me the edge over somebody with a similar proposal who does not have content and social proof. That’s number one. I can’t prove it, but I believe it. The belief of it, the mindset makes me more eager to write proposals. I’m sure everybody on this show hates writing proposals. I go like, “I want to show you what I’m made of.” That’s number one.
Number two is I repurpose my content a tremendous amount. Many of the publications I write for, I own the copyright. For example, many years ago, a company called Udemy for Business reached out to me and said, “We are starting a new series of micro-learning, like little bites and bits. We’d like you to launch our first course. It’s going to be a communications course, 52 topics, one a week.” I went, “That content already exists because I’ve been writing for a long time.”
I was able to take contents that I had produced for free and turn it into a marketable, saleable product and now every month, I get a check from Udemy for something that I wrote for free, but now I’m repurposing. That helps as well. Even though I’ve written a number of books where I’ve often repurposed content, I got an email from a company that says, “Let’s talk about a book proposal.” That’s based on the writing that I have done. Having the content, have an external seal of approval, social proof, having so much content that I can make available for free and also for sale and a book coming out is helpful.
What else has had a big impact on the growth of your business from a marketing or lead generation perspective? You mentioned LinkedIn in terms of maybe connecting with people, but I don’t know if you have a strategy around that. What are you doing aside from teaching at universities, writing for different publications, writing books? Is there anything else that you’re doing that you find has helped the business to grow?Operate from a place of almost unbridled professional generosity. Click To Tweet
It’s funny that you use the word strategy. Back to my original book, Oy Vey! Isn’t a Strategy, I guess the subtitle should be like, “I don’t have a better one.” I wouldn’t say that I have a lot of strategies. My approach is to run experiments. Every single thing that I’ve ever done in work and in life, I have had the mindset of this is an experiment, sometimes experiments succeed, and sometimes they don’t and you learn something incredibly helpful. I’m constantly running experiments and I hold that mindset. Among the most helpful things that I have done for my business is operate from a place of almost unbridled professional generosity. Here’s what I mean by it. Early on in my career, I had somebody who didn’t want me to come into the consulting space and had said some version of, “I don’t think you have what it takes.”
I was like, “What?” My husband said, “I think your competition.” As soon as that happened, I said, “I am going to be as generous as I can possibly afford to be with anybody, especially people who want to start as consultants. In particular, especially women who want to come into the consulting space.” Which means that when people say, “Would you be willing to share with me the secrets of what you did?” I say, “Absolutely. Let me tell you what I did that I would do again and that I would never do again, but maybe it would work for you. I am happy to talk to anybody about my path.”
In addition, anytime somebody calls me and is looking for me as a resource for something related to presentation or communication skills, I almost always ask them, “Are there other experts or resources you’re looking for because I don’t have a huge network, but I have a well-curated network. I would be more than happy to connect you to anybody in my network who I think would be a good fit for you.” I’m constantly making connections and it is my honor and pleasure to do that.
I want to know how to grow your business, though.
People think of me, “Deb, you were so helpful and generous.” As soon as somebody reached out to me and said, “Do you know a keynote speaker for this? I thought of how kind you were to me and I wanted to repay the favor.” I believe, worst-case scenario, I’m putting good karma into the world. Best case scenario, it is coming back to me a thousandfold. I’m willing to settle for the worst-case scenario, which is putting good karma into the world.
Given what’s going on in the world, it’s an interesting time. How have you changed your business or what shifts have you made due to the pandemic, due to what’s going on with COVID?
From March 2020 to November 2020, I was traveling 60% to 70% of the time. That’s a clearest shift that has happened. I was on a plane or a train almost every week. I have not gone anywhere since March 2020, other than moving from New York to Raleigh, but I did that no in our car. Taking all of my programs, whether it is training or coaching or leadership development program, taking everything virtual, has been the single biggest shift. In olden times, this would not be considered work footwear, but this is my go-to work footwear now and I promise not to take off any more clothes in our interview. The single biggest thing has been going virtual. The second biggest shift that I made was one of the books that I wrote. I write a book with my daughter, Sophie, who’s a sophomore at Duke University.
We wrote a book in 2019 called Overcoming Overthinking: 36 Ways to Tame Anxiety for Work, School and Life. In 2019, it was a topic we were both interested in. We were touched by anxiety professionally. It felt like an important topic. In 2020, it has become the topic, helping people deal with anxiety, stress, overwhelm, prevent burnout, all of those things. We put together a series of mental health webinars to how to help yourself, how to talk to your colleagues about it, how to talk to kids and teens about anxiety. It became a brand-new offering, some of which we do together, an intergenerational approach, some of which we each do independently, but having a brand-new offering that is meeting a market need in an urgent way is one of the other ways in which we’ve shifted.
In talking about that, it looks like your daughter wrote a book on that subject was before that?
She wrote a book called Don’t Tell Me to Relax!: One Teen’s Journey to Survive Anxiety and How You Can Too.
There’s a lot of anxiety. A lot of people don’t know what to do. There are many concerns and uncertainty. Based on all the best practices, all the training that you give and the work that you’ve done, is there a step or a recommendation that you would offer that you think would touch the majority of people who might be feeling some anxiety or some fear of the unknowns? Is there anything that’s a go-to step that you would look at or suggest that people think about to help them in case they might feeling a bit of anxiety right now, or a bit of uncertainty or fear that might be holding them back from doing the things they know that they should be doing?
Number one is, welcome. To those of us who have had chronic lifelong anxiety, welcome, come on in. We’re kind and welcoming. I would also say that there has never been a better and more open time for people to talk about this. We all know that there’s often stigma related to mental health and mental illness. The stigma is falling fast, which I think is one of the few benefits of this time that we’re in. Help is readily and easily available. One of the things that comes from the world of emotional intelligence is the idea that emotions are data. Emotions are not something to be ignored, not something to be pushed down, but if you are feeling sad, overwhelmed, terrified, whatever it is, there’s information there. Go and get it.Emotions are data. Click To Tweet
Don’t ignore the source of data, get it and find at least one person to talk to. I often cite the guideline from NAMI, which is the National Alliance on Mental Illness that says, “If you are going to share with somebody that you’re struggling, who should you be looking for?” They cite two criteria. The first is that you want somebody who you trust. That you interpersonally trust and trust to maintain your confidence. The second is it should be somebody who is emotionally intelligent, who recognizes that emotions serve a purpose. Things like, “This too shall pass. You think you have it bad, other people have it worse,” are not helpful strategies in somebody who will empathize, be there and strategize with you if that’s what you want.
One of the cites you listed, it has a comment from your thought. One of the things you learned was that asking for and accepting help is a sign of strength, not of weakness. You said for someone in a helping profession, it took you maybe longer than you would have like to reach that conclusion yourself. Can you speak a little bit about where that mindset comes from or what that experience or that learning means to you and how you think others could maybe benefit from also identifying that?
The first thing that I think about is our reciprocity bias. We have a bias to do to others. Similar to my professional generosity, it comes back to me, if not directly then indirectly. When you ask somebody for help, it is most often the case that they are honored that you would think of them and you would come to them, especially if you are somebody who considers yourself a self-directed, self-motivated, successful, or any of those things. Somebody who I admire is coming to me for help as well. I often think about it from the perspective of, I know how to do what I know how to do well. I’m an expert in my subject areas. I am as a relative expert in parenting my children. I don’t know that I haven’t mastered, but I don’t know anybody who does it better than my husband and I do.
In order for me to be an expert in the things that matter most, I can’t be an expert in everything. If I am going to release the fact that I want to be an expert in these areas because they’re the most important, it means a whole rest of the universe or places that I’m not an expert in and solving my own mental health problems is not an area that I’m an expert in. I’m lucky that there are people in the world who have chosen to make that their pool of expertise.
Are there certain things that you tried in your mind like, “I’ll figure this out myself. I don’t want to ask someone. I don’t want to ask for help because it might demonstrate or show that I’m not necessarily an expert yet in that area?” Is there any example of where you’ve done that in your own business and where you did reach out to get help, it benefited you?
One of the most surprising ways in which I get business is through my personal Facebook page. I don’t have a business Facebook page, or if I do, I haven’t posted anything on them in years. I might have them and I don’t know about them. On my personal Facebook page, I am honest and open about the things I’m struggling with in my work and life. I have three anxiety disorders. I’m constantly struggling to keep my weight manageable.
I worry about my kids at college. I have other things that I worry about that I’m challenged by that I don’t have solved and I put it all out there. People don’t see me as, “She’s is a problem or has a problem.” They go, “She’s relatable. She’s like us.” That draws people to me. I get plenty of public messages and even more private messages of people saying, “Thank you for sharing your struggles with us. It makes us feel not alone and it demonstrates bravery. Could you help me with this problem?” Then I get hired.
I released a video that was called The Power of Vulnerability and how being more vulnerable, being more open for a lot of people. I remember back in the day, in early years of building my first consulting business, I wanted to always look like professional and not say the wrong things and give that professional image. I would never share anything that I thought, maybe it was a bit of insecurity or vulnerability. When I learned from over the years of interviewing many people like yourself and going through different experiences myself is that when you do open yourself up and you share some of those things that maybe aren’t your strengths or more open and vulnerable, that people are attracted to you. It’s exactly like you shared. It’s an important message for people to take in and hopefully, embrace.
I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of wonderful feedback, but more importantly, my stories have served as an invitation to others to share their stories with me and then hopefully, the world. If I can put more stories of people living real lives out there, that strikes me as doing good in the world.
Deb, I want to thank you for coming on here. Before wrapping up, I want to make sure that people can learn more about you and your work. Where’s the best place for them to go?
The best place for them to go is DeborahGraysonRiegel.com and LinkedIn. All of my articles that I wrote, I post them on LinkedIn. That’s a great way to be in touch with me.
Thanks for coming on.
It’s my pleasure. Thanks, Michael.
- Deb Riegel
- Oy Vey! Isn’t a Strategy: 25 Solutions for Personal and Professional Success
- Overcoming Overthinking: 36 Ways to Tame Anxiety for Work, School and Life
- Don’t Tell Me to Relax!: One Teen’s Journey to Survive Anxiety and How You Can Too
- The Power of Vulnerability – YouTube video
About Deborah Riegel
Deborah Grayson Riegel is a keynote speaker and consultant who teaches leadership communication for Wharton Business School and Columbia Business School. She is a regular contributor for Harvard Business Review, Inc., Psychology Today, Forbes, and Fast Company. The author of “Overcoming Overthinking: 36 Ways to Tame Anxiety for Work, School, and Life,” she consults and speaks for clients including Amazon, BlackRock, KraftHeinz, and The United States Army. Her work has been featured in worldwide media, including Bloomberg Businessweek, Oprah Magazine,and The New York Times.