Skip Navigation
Episode #144
Melanie Parish

Leadership Consulting: How To Lead Your Clients As A Consultant

Subscribe On

As an organization grows, so does the need for a whole army of leadership positions that need to be filled with capable individuals who can work with independence and initiative. Leadership consulting helps people develop their management and leadership skills and thrive in fast-paced environments. Award-winning coach, speaker, consultant, and author Melanie Parish has been in this business for many years, working with organizations ranging from a Fortune 50 company to IT startups. Joining Michael Zipursky on the show, Melanie walks us through her process of acquiring clients and building relationships with them. She also talks about her latest book, The Experimental Leader, the culmination of a seven-year project built upon her rich consulting experience.

Leadership Consulting: How To Lead Your Clients As A Consultant With Melanie Parish

I have Melanie Parish. Melanie, welcome. 

Michael, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me on.

Melanie, you’re an award-winning coach, speaker, consultant, workshop leader, and author. We’ll talk about your book. Your clients arrange from Fortune 50 companies. You’ve worked with organizations and people in organizations like Microsoft, Netflix, and New Relic, all the way to startups. You specialize in executive coaching, helping leaders to thrive and adapt in fast-paced environments. Before we get into this and look at what you’re doing, I want you to take us back what we talked about, which is that you had a bit of a start in management consulting where you were selling IT consulting into some very large organizations, Fortune 50 organizations. Melanie, take us back to in those days. What exactly were you doing? What was happening there? 

I was already a coach when I did that. It was interesting. I had a client who we were talking about the things that he wanted to do. It became clear that I had some skillsets. My background was in sales and marketing before I went into coaching. It was fun to join that team, as the person who was doing business development. He was a speaker, a consultant, and an author. He could ask higher speaking fees when I would do sales for him. That’s how it started. He started to have inquiries and he would get inquiries, then he would turn those over to me, and I would start to work them through.

It wasn’t bad at a design for one-off engagements for consulting. I wasn’t bad at being able to visualize what you’re going to deliver. We were going into a Fortune 50 company at one point. I remember when we were talking to them, I said, “We thought we might come in small.” They said, “No bigger.” It became clear that in the procurement process, they had a limit on a onetime spend for outside consultants. We didn’t have to go through their procurement office. They wanted us to max out our first engagement.

I think that’s super interesting. I learned a lot through that because what changed for me when I did that, I started a much more collaborative process when pitching someone. It’s like, “What do you want the dollar figure to be?” There’s no magic in putting together a proposal. They know how much they want to spend, and what your hourly rate or your day rate for whatever engagement you’re delivering. There’s no reason to posture and go back and forth. It can be a collaborative process to try to get the numbers to be right.

What have you seen? I’ll play the devil’s advocate here as we explore this together. Let’s say that you’re talking with a buyer and you say, “What’s the number that worked for you?” They say, “It’s $20,000.” Maybe in your mind to provide what they have told you, they need and they want. In your mind, it was $75,000. How would you then do that dance together to arrive at a number that ultimately works for both people? 

The hardest work you’ll ever do with a client is getting to know them – their hopes, dreams and fears. Click To Tweet

I think what they’re signaling when they say $20,000, and you’re thinking $70,000 is your thinking you’re going in as a full engagement. You’re going to have to pitch them. One thing I also find is in the sales process, it’s much faster if you can sell them an assessment or a small bite. Then you actually get paid to pitch them. If they’re seeing $20,000 essentially they’re saying, “We want to pay you $20,000 to do an assessment and then pitch us.” That’s all they’ve told me. It’s not that they’re not willing to pay me $70,000. It’s that they’re only willing to get me there to have a conversation. What that tells me is how much commitment do they have going in out front. They know their own constraints. They’re saying, “It’s easy for me to spend $20,000. I might try to get them to $30,000 or maybe even $50,000, but I wouldn’t try to talk them into $70,000.”

For you being straight about it, being very upfront about, “What’s your budget? What do you have in mind?” What are you able to allocate for this is a question that you’ve found not only have you become comfortable asking, but you’ve found it to be effective for you in the sales process.

I find it to be so much more effective to be collaborative with people. Find out what they need. There’s no magic to the numbers. Everybody has a day rate. The same is true in salary negotiations. If you go in and you’re, “I’m going to play hardball. I want this.” People have to react and then they have to be tough or they have to acquiesce. If you can say, “I want this job. How far can you get me closer to this other number? I want to be collaborative. I don’t want you to lose anything in this process, but I’m hoping you can stretch me up to here.”

Let’s talk a little bit about the work that you’re doing with clients. You work with leaders on a daily basis. You obviously are made aware of, and hear about the different challenges that are facing the leaders. What comes up often when you’re talking with your clients as common challenges for leaders? What are maybe a couple of things that you hear over and over again that you likely are on the minds of many other readers?

One of the biggest ones I’m hearing a lot of, especially in tech is clarity of vision of role. There are companies that are putting money into new areas and new positions, and they’re not quite clear on what they want those people to do. They have big pocketbooks, but the vision isn’t always clear. A lot of what I coach on is challenges with people working with people. They’re managing up, managing down, trying to affect the change that people want to have in their companies and their organizations, with the human resources that they work with.

What does that look like? Let’s say you’re starting to work with a new client. How do you onboard them? What’s your process to learn about that client so that when you start the engagement you’re able to hit the ground running or to make the greatest impact and provide the most value? Do your clients fill in an assessment? Walk us through. Let’s say I sign up with you, what would happen next? 

I have a fairly comprehensive questionnaire that I send out, and I always say their work starts that day. Mine starts usually about ten days later. I ask them to go into as much detail. I ask them to send me anything they’ve ever done in their own work, on mission, vision, and values. I don’t ask them to try to create at that point. I spend two hours with an individual client. It’s different if I’m working with a team or group or an organization. I always say that’s the hardest two hours I ever worked with them. It’s getting to know them, getting to understand their hopes, their dreams, and their fears. A lot of times people that come to me, my practice is stable.

CSP 144 | Leadership Consulting


I have one client I’ve had for twenty years. My clients don’t leave me, but when they do, I often will take 1 or 2 new individual clients a year then my practice is full. When they come to me, often they’re new leaders and they’ve been promoted because they were great individual contributors and they get promoted. All of a sudden they’re in leadership and they have no idea what to do. They are suffering from Imposter Syndrome. I read a great episode that you did on that. I enjoyed it. I think that they’re suffering when they come to me. The first thing is to try to figure out how we can alleviate the suffering and have them get on some path where they are trying new things. Experimenting with their leadership, to try to get their feet and to take some of the pressure off.

A lot of the work that you’re doing, it can be viewed as delicate, it’s deep work. You’re not just talking about a brochure or a product. You’re often talking about things that are going on inside the heart, the soul, and the mind. How do you establish rapport with a new client? Are there specific questions that you’ve found that work well? I’m asking from the perspective of the consultant reading to this who would like to get better at establishing rapport quickly with new clients. Is there anything that you’ve learned, any questions or approaches that have worked well for you to establish rapport with new clients? 

The thing that I’ll say is I never take a client if I don’t believe I can love them. I have to be willing to care about them that deeply because it’s hard work to go into someone’s life and hear their biggest challenges all the time.

Before you get to my question and answering it, how do you assess that before you take on a client?

I call it a chemistry session with someone. If they’re thinking about hiring me, I would never start with someone without that session.

How long is that session?

It’s usually 45 minutes to an hour.

Never take a client if you don’t believe you can love them. Click To Tweet

Is it on a one-on-one conversation?

It’s a one-on-one conversation to see if we’re a good fit for each other.

What are you covering there? What kind of questions are you asking in that session?

Mostly I asked them where they are and where they want to go. What’s the thing they’re hoping that coaching will change for them. They want to change to happen, “What is it? Give me the roadmap.” I learn a lot in that conversation. I’ve had people that want to make more money. I’m not a good fit for them. Money’s fine, money’s easy. The money will just flow. All my clients make more money when they work with me, that I can guarantee you. I need 6 months to 1 year, but I pay for myself. There’s no question in my mind about that. They need to be up some bigger than money. I find that out when I find out what they’re dreaming. I want to make sure their values and my values align.

That initial chemistry that is for free? They don’t pay for that.

They don’t pay for it. I only offer them to clients who are very serious about hiring.

When you get on those calls, are you providing any feedback, guidance, recommendations, or is it just asking questions, listening to them, and then deciding together if it makes sense to take the next step?

CSP 144 | Leadership Consulting


They would feel I’m providing value. I am asking very strategic questions to find out what I want to know. I think the questions are very carefully calibrated for that to feel they’re getting value while I do that.

You have the chemistry session. If the chemistry is there, you move to the next step, which is that they become a client. Any specific questions that you ask, approaches, or things that you do to build rapport quickly to get that person feeling comfortable with you so a project and engagement starts off on the right foot?

There are two things that I noticed when clients first come to me. One is sometimes they have a lot of negative voices running in their head. I have to figure out how to quiet those so that we can coach. Sometimes that takes years. I’ve had clients that it takes two years to still the voices so that we can get going on the work. That’s deep work to try to disengage those voices.

How do you identify if someone has voices going on in their own?

They tell you. I had somebody say to me, “I’m nothing. What I did was nothing.” It’s like you hear the language, they say it out loud. Those voices aren’t helpful. I have to fight them to get them to be successful people. I want to quiet those voices. The other thing that I want to do is slow down the way that they process information. When we’re talking, you’re nodding, you’re looking, and you’re taking a pause before you talk. Often when people start to tell their stories the first time, it’s like a reel that they’ve run a million times in their head. I have to get them where they’re thinking new thoughts because they have to learn.

When you’re working with these organizations, you’re working with leaders within companies. That might be a company as big as Microsoft down to do a startup. When someone decides to engage your help and to work with you, is that typically done on their own dime or the organization’s paying for these leaders to have the coaching and the support? 

It goes both ways. Sometimes it starts one way and then switches to another. I prefer people to pay me individually. I have the credit card on file and they pay on time. I have to jack my rates if I’m going to charge somebody in Microsoft because they’re going to make me go through a procurement process and all of that. It’s so much easier if they get reimbursed for coaching. I’ll charge a premium if I’m working with a company, as opposed to an individual, because it takes more accounting time.

Getting a client to stick around costs less than acquiring a new one. Click To Tweet

Let’s get into the marketing side and client acquisition. You mentioned you’re at a stage where your business is almost always full. You might have any in a year’s twelve-month period, 1 to 2 spots that when they’re filled up, you close the doors again. How did you get to that place? That’s the place that a lot of people want to be in, that’s what everyone’s after. What did you do to fill the flood gates with opportunities and with people that you can serve and add value to? 

There are a couple of things that I’ve done that I think they have an impact positive. Every now and then I try to ask my clients, what I do that has them stick around, and they’re not always clear either. There are a couple of things, one is my clients don’t leave. I don’t have very many client acquisition challenges. I don’t have to replace them all the time. The reason I think they stay, is I tend to focus on what keeps them interested. I have deep relationships with them. They text me, I text them right back. I try to be with them on their journey. I try to be available.

How do you do that? One thing you mentioned, and I don’t want people to gloss over this because I’m guessing some people are reading this and going, “That’s great, Melanie. Your clients stick around a long time.” How do you get your clients? I want to know how to get new clients. The focus from with people is so often about new clients, but what the gold nugget that you shared is you don’t need tons of new clients because you have your existing clients to stick around for a long time. That’s the best business because there’s a lower cost to acquire. You don’t need as many clients. What do you think adds to that dynamic where you’re able to keep your clients for so long? What are you intentionally doing? What kind of systems have you put into place that allows you to do that? 

There are a few things that I think I do. One is I’m always investing in my own professional development. I’m always bringing new things that I’m the go-to person in their organization for.

Can you give an example of that? What would that be?

I did Seth Godin’s altMBA.

I’m familiar with that program, and Seth’s an amazing guy. You learn a bunch of stuff. What do you do with that? Give an example of something that you learned at the altMBA that you took and delivered or impart to your clients. 

CSP 144 | Leadership Consulting


For me, I finished my book. It was huge for me. That was the big takeaway. I found my little workbook that was my ship at journal.

What’d you do with the book? How does that help you to keep a client around?

My clients, they’ve previewed chapters. They got advanced copies in their hands. They have been a part of this process. Some of them are featured in my book, and I got permission from them. I had a client, I had a newsletter go out. She runs a multimillion-dollar international company. She sent me a text that said, “Your logo is too big on my newsletter.” She is on me. She is going to make sure I am as successful as I possibly can be. She feels included in the process as I’m doing all this stuff. I had another client who said, “Reading your book was spooky because it’s just like talking to you for a long time.” They feel me, and they feel they’ve been a part of the process. Sharing excitement about what I’m up to makes me an interesting person. That makes my clients stick around.

Do you share challenges with them, vulnerabilities? I’m wondering how much of your client’s sticking around comes from the fact that you essentially have weaved your web into theirs. There’s that connection. They feel like they are deeply connected to you. I’m asking because I think what a lot of people do is they don’t bring their clients into any of that. They only want to show their clients the end product. For example, take your book. They don’t want to tell anyone about the book or show inside. There might be errors there. They’re so concerned about all the things that could go wrong or the vulnerabilities that they only want to blast it out there when something has worked or it’s completed. I’m wondering, do you feel that by bringing people into the process, even in the murky middle that’s what’s adding to strengthen the relationship?

I will say, I try to stay slightly more professional than your best friend. I’m the best friend, but I don’t want to fart in public. It’s like a little shinier version, but not like one that’s so polished that I have no foibles.

They can relate to you, but they also turn to you because you are one of their best friends. You’re someone that they can trust. That trust comes because it sounds you’ve open up everything that you have going on.

There’s a coaching skill though that’s called Self-Management and I adhere to it religiously. When I’m talking to them, they’ve paid me for my time to talk about them. When they say, “How are you?” I’m great. I’m always great. They need me to be great. I might say, “I have this challenge, but I’m still great. I’m coping with it.” I’m not bringing my broken self to them. I’m bringing wholeness and vulnerability, but I am managing. I am using the skill of Self-Management to have a real relationship that has a vulnerability where I’m still a professional.

As a consultant, try to be a slightly more professional version of your client’s best friend. Click To Tweet

Let’s get back to the marketing side. Your focus is on maintaining clients. You do a great job obviously, and that’s why they stick around. In addition to everything else that you mentioned, but it wasn’t always that. You have to start someplace. You have to get your clients. Take us back to the early days or that period where you didn’t have a full book of business. What were you doing? What got you into these initial organizations that then led to the next round of business?

Interestingly, the biggest jump in my business was when I did two coaching certifications. One through CTI, which is individuals. I did an organization in Relationship Systems Certification. They required me to go out and get clients for my work, and for my certification so that I could get the hours, and the checkmark. That probably pushed me into organizations. It made me start to see opportunities to say, “I see this thing. I think I can help you,” in a different way.

Walk us through that because it sounds like you knew already a bunch of people in organizations. You said, “Can I help you?” To a lot of people, that would be extremely scary unless they have those relationships already. Specifically, what did you do? You have to go and get a certain number of hours to get your certification. Who did you approach? What did you say? 

One of the largest team coaching engagements I ever had was through my church. They had an issue. We did a large group work with 60 people in the room. At the same time, working on culture and helping them to be in a better relationship with each other. I can say this and talk about them because it’s what we won the Prism Award for doing that work. I was on the church board, at the time I resigned from the board. I resigned from the church in order to be an external provider so that I didn’t have skin in the game. I brought in somebody else to co-lead with me in order to do it. It wasn’t a huge engagement. You think churches don’t have money, and they come up with a full fee. We did good work. It’s the work in my career that I’m most proud of, the most interesting work I’ve done in a large group setting.

Beyond that, as you start moving into working with other organizations. How do you get those initial clients? 

I tried a bunch of different things. I tried going to an HR conference and having a booth there. I got a client, but the cost of the client acquisition was higher than it was too high. It wasn’t also a great client. It seems to be through word of mouth, and then I get an individual client then they have a team and they say, “Could you do some work with our team?” I work with a healthcare team in the town that I live in. I coached one of their leaders. I started that way. I started to do some retreats for their admin team. I did a 360 with their executive team. I’m coaching another leader on their executive team and I’ll probably do another round of 360s with their executive team. Then they had an HR problem. I worked with another team. It’s that one client turns into more work.

Are you looking for those opportunities to add more value and provide additional services to your clients, or are your clients typically to say to you, “Melanie, can you help us with this or help us with that?” 

CSP 144 | Leadership Consulting


If I can see a way that I can provide value, then I will. If I believe they need the value I can offer, I will push hard. I’ll be like, “We need to do this.” I’ve said to clients, “I need to be on a plane to your next retreat. Here’s the list of what we need to cover.” If I’m in the business of the CEO, it’s easy to do that when I see a need. I never do it if there’s not a need for me. I never try to snooker them or try to get the money. I don’t go after the money. I go after how do I help the people.

You have a new book, The Experimental Leader. Tell us about the book and why he wrote it. 

I’ve been writing this book for seven years, the longest I’ve done anything. I’m super excited about it. It is the culmination of a set of tools and ways that I work with my clients. Because I wrote it over such a long period of time, it was clear to me what I needed to include. It’s 130 pages long. It’s about the time that you would need to do on an airplane ride, but it’s meaty material. I wanted to have a way to share the things that I do one-on-one with my clients with a larger audience. People ask me what I do. I want it to be able to share it with them. I think leadership is so hard. It’s such worthy work.

People are trying so hard and they’re flummox. They don’t know what to do. I want them to succeed. I wrote this book. I didn’t put it out in hardback. I put it out in paperback. I want to see copies that are thumbed and people write in the margins that they try to apply the things. I’m finding as I pass it out to clients. They read about 4 or 5 chapters then they set it down for a minute because they have to absorb and start to try to integrate the learning and then they’re going to pick it up again. I’m going to introduce a companion course that will go along with it. It will be somebody who could do it in 6 months to 1 year.

Are you self-publishing this?

No. It’s through Page Two. They’re out of Vancouver. They’re a great little Canadian publisher. It’s being released in the USA and Canada.

There’s a question that’s on my mind here. You have a business that is already quite booked up. You’ve written your book, seven years in the making to spread the message even further. How do you think about scaling and growth, and leverage in your business? You’re at capacity, but it seems by putting out the book and you probably have some desire for greater impact and greater growth. Talk to us a little bit about, have you ever thought about bringing on additional coaches, consultants, doing train the trainer models or licensing? What are your thoughts from a business perspective around what you’re doing? 

I am excited about The Experimental Leader material. It’s one of the reasons I’m doing online courses because I want to be able to take people through step-by-step. I want them to have me for lots of time without me having to provide it. I do have to offer coaching and to bring on some other coaches to offer coaching for that program. I think it’s a natural fit. It will be fun for the coaches. I have access to lots of amazing coaches that aren’t good at sales. They don’t know how to bring in business. That seems like a real natural place to go with that material.

Leadership is hard but worthy work. Click To Tweet

Is there any reason that you’ve held off to this point? Is there a sign that you considered? I’m asking because science people are thinking about doing things, but then maybe they start and they realize they didn’t have the right ingredient or maybe they hold off too long. Any perspective that you have about why you’re now thinking about this, as opposed to years ago. 

I had a fairly decent sized coaching company. It got hit hard by the recession. I had one client that was in manufacturing. Their tagline was, “We own the slab.” It was early manufacturing and their business stopped overnight. I was vulnerable because if you have a large coaching company, you have three clients. If they all get hit hard, your businesses challenged quickly. I also found that I’m a great coach and I didn’t love the administration side. I’m ten years longer into my career. I do love the delivery. I love the client work. Anything I do will need to keep me doing the work I love.

Melanie, where can people find out more about you and your book? 

My book is on Indigo, and it’s on Amazon. You can look it up there The Experimental Leader: Be a New Kind of Boss to Cultivate an Organization of Innovators. You can also come to my website. If you sign up to get my emails and communication, there’s a great article and that’s Three Things You Can Stop Doing Today to Be a Better Boss Tomorrow.

That’s Melanie, I want to thank you for coming on here and sharing with us. 

It was so interesting to talk with you about all of the ways to think in new ways. I enjoyed it.

Thanks so much.

Important Links:

Stay Connected

Love the show? Subscribe, rate, review, and share!

Join the Consulting Success Community today:

Leave a Comment, Join the Conversation!