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Leadership Strategy: How To Build A Successful Consulting Business With Dan Pontefract: Podcast #168

Many people in the corporate world who are getting plump salaries and great benefits are comfortable enough to stay the course until they hang up their hats. But some who have put in the hours and paid their dues yearn for something more. Dan Pontefract was one of those, and for him, that something more was starting his own consulting business. Dan is a leadership strategist, keynote speaker, and best-selling author. Previously the Chief Envisioner and Chief Learning Officer at TELUS — a Canadian telecommunications company with revenues of $14 billion and 50,000 global employees – Dan shares with Michael Zipursky how he diversified himself through speaking and writing while at TELUS until he eventually left to build his own consulting business.

Listen to the podcast here:

Leadership Strategy: How To Build A Successful Consulting Business With Dan Pontefract

I’m very excited to have Dan Pontefract joining us. Welcome.

Michael, indeed a pleasure it is. Thank you for the invite and for being here with me.

It’s great to have you. You are a leadership strategist. You’re an author, a keynote speaker, an advisor and also a Founder and CEO of the Pontefract Group. You were in four bestselling books. You’ve spoken at TED events. You’ve been featured in publications like Forbes and Harvard Business Review. You were previously the Chief Envision and Chief Learning Officer at TELUS, one of Canada’s largest telecommunications companies, where you helped increase the company’s employee engagement to record levels. Let’s start off, Dan, for everyone who might be wondering what a chief envision officer is. People may have heard about chief learning officers, but tell us a bit more about what your role was at TELUS.

Specific to the TELUS gigs, I spent a wonderful ten years full-time within the organization having two roles, the chief learning officer role, which most people know that’s you’re helping an organization with its leadership, culture, engagement, learning and all bits and parcels that come in between that particular portfolio. We thought we’d do, at the five-year mark of my tenure, go and help other organizations with culture change, leadership, engagement and flexible work styles. We put together a Troubadour outset. I acted as its chief envisioner to help other organization’s future set the way in which they were operating. That was another wonderful five-year road, which then more or less led me to become who I am now, which is being more of an external guy, helping other organizations right across the world.

Are you still working in TELUS or has that shift completely happened?

When you find ways to diversify yourself out there, you set yourself up for success. Click To Tweet

Another wonderful story I would argue with what TELUS is and I suppose how we work together still. I left full-time on January 1st, 2019, from that aforementioned role. Although the unit that I was running continued, but not with me at the helm, TELUS has employed me ever since now in two capacities. One, to continue running what is called the TELUS MBA Program, which I put together when I was still the chief learning officer. It was a chance for TELUS team members to embark on a two-year MBA through the University of Victoria’s School of Business. It’s for TELUS dedicated to balancing purpose with profit. It’s a wonderful chance for me to still work directly with team members on that. Secondly, I still will be trucked out and work with TELUS clients when they need assistance or what have you with culture, flexible work, particularly in a pandemic amongst other to-be-determined instances when that gets rolled out in front of some of their clients.

For everyone who’s reading who might be in a similar situation where they’re in a corporate role and in leadership, they’ve enjoyed it maybe to a great degree or maybe not so much. If you’ve been working with such a great company, what spurred you to go off and do your own thing? What was going on that made you decide, “I’m going to start my own business?” It’s great to be able to still work with TELUS. The past employer becomes the first client it sounds like. For you, Dan, what was the decision or what spurred you to make that move?

That takes us back to Christmas of 2017, coming back from a family trip from Maui. That last day, you’re looking at the last sunsets because it’s always the night flight coming back from Maui to Vancouver. I reread one of my own books. You’ve got a few hours to kill on a plane and I don’t ever sleep on planes. I reread The Purpose Effect, which was my second book. It sounds like a book plug, but it’s not. That book forces you to consider three types of purpose. What’s your personal purpose? What do you believe? What do you stand for? What gets you up? What’s your mojo? What are your dislikes? There are two other types of purpose. There’s organizational purpose. There’s that place in which you work stand for something greater than itself, than profits, than EBITDA, etc., and TELUS had that in space. I was locked in on their purpose for sure.

Roll purpose, do you feel valued? Are you able to contribute value? You feel that your mojo, that’s your personal purpose, is in alignment with your role purpose. I was realizing that I had crossed the ten-year mark at TELUS and I had my father living in England on my shoulder as the devil might be in some of those cartoons whispering into my ear like, “Don’t you think it’s time to put on your big boy pants? Don’t you think it’s time?” As I’m rereading the book, I’m thinking to myself, “I cannot die at some point in my life as we all do. Live a life of regret or be in a bed waiting to pass away of regret thinking I’ve never given it a shot.” I was in disarray a bit personally with my own personal purpose, but although I love TELUS and I love my role, it was now out of sync.

How long would you say you were thinking about that? The idea of entrepreneurship, starting your own business, how many years prior did that seed get planted in your mind?

CSP 168 | Consulting Business

 

I suppose it started when I started writing books and started doing external keynotes, which was in 2012. I was fortunate to continue to be at TELUS. I wrote a book called Flat Army, then The Purpose Effect, then Open to Think, about a better way of thinking. These books were all under “The TELUS dime,” written at night, etc. I kept thinking, “I’ve started my own business because I’m writing so you’re getting paid royalties from books. It’s not a lot but enough to say, “You’re in business.” It was when I started that TELUS Transformation office role, that function of working with external clients more so than ever realized to me that, “I can be in that consultative mindset. I can be in the consulting business.” Not only can I deliver keynotes and workshops, but people want to tap into my brain for some of the wares and experience that I have to help them. As much as I love doing what I was doing for TELUS, I thought to myself, “Maybe there’s a win-win here. Maybe there’s a way in which I could help TELUS, but that could help me personally.” I then launched myself into the Pontefract Group as we launched on January 1st, 2019.

Why did you even start writing books? There are a lot of people in the corporate world who are getting a nice salary. They’ve got their benefits. They’re comfortable. The last thing on their mind is to create more work for themselves by writing even articles or speaking. There are many people who have taken that same path that you have, but I’m interested in your perspective. What was the drive, the excitement or the desire for you to start creating your own intellectual property and content even when you were in a “stable corporate job?”

Three answers, the first of which is simple. It keeps me married out of Denise’s hair is a good thing. More seriously on points 2 and 3. Two, I have stuff to say. My brain is moving all the time. I was fortunate to be asked to write for Forbes. I had done a couple of pieces in HBR. I’ve been speaking a lot. It made sense to me that I began the journey of getting some of my thoughts out there, not just in articles but in thicker tombs.

Why did you start speaking? Where did that come from? Again, a lot of people are in the corporate role, they would be comfortable doing what they’re doing. They’re focused on their team and the business, but you went external. Did that come from the CEO of the company saying, “Dan, we need you to go out, build our brand and to be more visible at conferences,” or was that a decision that you arrive at yourself? Where was that drive for you to get out?

I came from being a senior director at SAP with its education services function. I’m doing all funky things. When I joined TELUS in the year of 2008 looking back at the SAP experience, I was dabbling in some public speaking, but not a force to be reckoned with. I consciously made a decision when I joined TELUS in December of ‘08 to become way more public in both speaking and writing.

Taking care of your clients is not about money; it's about serving. If you can serve, then the money will come. Click To Tweet

Why?

It took 3 to 4 years to continue pushing myself, making myself be known, both for the writing and for the speaking. That lent itself to a book publisher wildly seeing me from an audience on stage and saying, “Maybe you should write a book, Dan.” It was conscious. To get to point three, which relates to this question of speaking. I didn’t think about this at the time in terms of how Dorie Clark puts it in Entrepreneurial You and Dorie being a good pal of mine, but it’s to diversify yourself. When you find ways of both diversifying yourself out there publicly, speaking, writing, some other things you might be able to do, you set yourself up for the success and the potentiality of you maybe doing something different than what your role is.

My playbook, which was in 2008, I’m going to be public because you don’t know. I’m going to write books. That’s part of diversifying. The speaking is diversifying. The role I created next at TELUS with TTO, the TELUS Transformation Office was another diversification strategy, which allowed me to then, to your point, have an anchor client when I left, but to have all these different tentacles out there in the world to be asked to do some business with. Knock on wood, so far so good.

Will you say that the steps you’ve taken to diversify, even though it was a lot more work for you and some people might say, “That’s a lot of work. Why do you spend all that time?” has created a lot more stability for you now as you look back at what you’ve established?

If you put the hard work in upfront, the diversification plan, and if you’re doing it by still having a paycheck, not ignoring your kids, your wife or your health, then at least my example, without sounding un-Canadian and thus pretentious, it can work. I didn’t think of what type of success I’d have back in 2008, but to be able to be asked to do four TEDs, to be asked to write at HBR and Forbes, to be asked to write a book, which turned into four, I looked back and said, “I’m proud of what I’ve done.” If I look at revenues, by example, because I know a lot of people reading this will say, “What’s the revenue base?” Without knowing the actual figure, I’m making more in 2019 than I did in 2018 with a full-time paycheck at TELUS. Even in a pandemic year in 2020, I’m making more than I did in 2019. Something is working and again, knock on wood, that I continued not to be overly arrogant, but to take care of your clients. It’s not about money. It’s about serving. If I can serve, then the money comes.

CSP 168 | Consulting Business

 

What I’m hearing you say, not to put words in your mouth, but developing your intellectual property content has been the forefront of driving this business. Would you say that’s accurate?

That’s completely accurate.

For those who are reading going, “Dan, I get it. I know I need to put myself out there more. I know I have value that I can contribute. I can serve and I can make a difference,” but they haven’t leaned in. They haven’t started to write articles, post videos, create white papers, do webinars or written a book. They’ve been thinking about content creation for quite some time. They know the value of it. They can see that all around them. The proof is there, but they haven’t started. What would you say to someone in that position right now that might not be putting in the work? Any advice, best practices and thoughts for them?

Twofolds, get off your ass. Nothing comes through without hard work. Secondly, stop comparing yourself to Seth Godin, Simon Sinek, Susan Cain, and some of the giants that have indeed done this already and they’re making kazillions of dollars. Your metric is not the celebrities. You will find your niche once you put the power, the time and the effort into it. Step one, get off your ass and step two is stop comparing.

What would you say as you look back on the last couple of years or so of running your own business has been most difficult for you?

Nothing comes through without hard work. Click To Tweet

Thankfully, I’m an egregiously optimistic, open people person. Although that’s a bunch of words, all discombobulated together there, I do miss leading people and I miss teams. I am part of a bunch of consulting projects. You are part of a team, but it’s different. For many years, I was leading teams, organizations. I had a team. I would do performance reviews. I would coach. I love it. I do miss the natural innate leadership tendency that I have, which is to lead people and to do it with affection, compassion and love. I missed that. Although the books, the writing and the speaking, I’ll speak, write and purport to that. That’s the biggest thing that I do miss, Michael.

You mentioned that your revenue is up in 2020, even given the pandemic, the uncertainty, all the challenges that we’re all facing. You’re not alone. We’ve seen that in our business. We’ve seen that in many of our clients’ businesses that we work with as well. A lot of people are concerned about, or at least it’s top of mind for them, how can they deliver value to their clients when they can’t meet them in person, or at least that’s a lot more challenging to do? You’re giving keynotes virtually. You’re working with clients virtually. What have you found? Are there any best practices then or anything, tactics, and tips that you would offer to people so they could still provide great value and that feeling that they might be able to have when they’re working with a client in person but now virtually?

There are a few things that I’ve been able to grapple with. It’s not as though in 2008, I had pandemic on my dance card or bingo card for 2020, nor did I have it on January 1st, 2019, when I went solo. Let’s say when the world fell off a cliff in mid-March of 2020, there was a bit of a reset that we all had to do. Even for me, right away, I had ten face-to-face gigs cancel in the month of March that were booked until the end of June. I say canceled, I mean done, we’re not going forward. We don’t want virtual because no one wanted to do virtual back in mid-March. As things progressed, one of the first things I did was I read something called Speak Aid.

I thought about my youth. I thought about Live Aid that occurred in Philadelphia and London. I said, “Why don’t we do that for speakers who are “out of work” right now?” Even though I have consulting gigs and other things going on, I’m always thinking empathically about these speakers. We ran a five-day, eight speakers a day, one-hour speaking slots to raise money for Red Cross and Red Crescent Society. We raised $35,000, but it was a chance for me to give back for free to a bunch of people who could join in and listen in on these great speakers from around the world.

We had 3,000 people show up on a daily basis for these things. My point being is if you can strategize at least to the point in which you’re able to, what could you offer pro bono and then provide a new network or an additional network, some goodness that is helping them for a specific need that you have in terms of your expertise? That does go a long way. The second example was I created two portals. One was a flexible work portal for leaders like remote leadership. Another was, “If you’re a remote employee, all of a sudden, what do you do?” These two free portals, which had about fifteen videos each and job aids, got downloaded thousands of times.

CSP 168 | Consulting Business

 

Some of that turned into, “I bought your book. Thanks for the flexible work. Could we hire you for a workshop because I saw your portal? Could you do a keynote for us or we’re thinking about a culture assessment based on your portal I saw about flex work or remote leadership? We think you might know what you’re doing.” A little bit of the loss leader stuff is important anytime, but in a pandemic, I was specific to think about what I might offer for the clients. I’ll give you one last example.

I published a book called Lead.Care.Win.: How to Become a Leader Who Matters, which came out at the end of September 2020. I knew that what I wanted to do was also release a complete online learning program for leadership development based on these nine lessons found in the book. Between April and August of 2020, I was inquiring with people to see if they want to be part of a beta so that they can help test the program as I was developing it. Building up a base and building up people, we’re providing feedback, but then maybe stir up some interest when the program goes live, which incidentally on November the 13th. Pro bono thinking of ways in which to provide loss leader expertise is a smart action for any consultant to take.

You mentioned those two leadership programs that you put together, one for leaders, one for the employee, who’s dealing with remote work. That’s a great concept. A lot of people have thought about how to productize their own knowledge and package it, which is what you’ve done there. You mentioned that you got several 1,000 downloads. Tell us a little bit more about how did you do that? What do you do from a marketing perspective or to get the word out around these programs? There are a lot of books, a lot of courses out there that no one ever sees because they have been marketed or communicated effectively. Take us through the best practices and what you’ve learned that worked well for those.

I believe one of the outages that support me and fuels me through a lifestyle, both working for an organization and being on my own as a company of one, as Paul Jarvis describes it, is my network is my net worth. I truly believe in tending to curating, nurturing, watering, adding fuel and oxygen to your network at all times. It’s not a project for an hour on Fridays. It’s a constant, “How am I checking with the network? Who else might I be connected to? How might I introduce somebody? Am I sending artwork, which I do from local artists here on Vancouver Island where I live to people I might have met or who hired me?” It’s a complete necessity, but I find it a joy to tend to that network. Otherwise, it’s not your net worth.

How do you do that? From a technological management perspective, are you using a CRM? Are you using a spreadsheet? Do you have an assistant? Take us through how you stay on top of that whole process. For someone like yourself who’s met a lot of people, given lots of talks, I’m guessing you’re not talking about just ten people. There are probably maybe hundreds of people or at least a core group. How do you manage that?

Don't compare yourself to the giants like Seth Godin or Simon Sinek. You'll find your niche once you put the power, time and effort into it. Click To Tweet

First of all, I would hope that I have a relatively smart brain to remember things but that’s not always the case. Two things, one is I use Evernote and tend to make notes about people that I’ve met or things to remember them by, whether it’s their kids, their job, something that they’ve said before. Evernote is my place, my compendium of anecdotes. A few years ago, before I left TELUS, I started with LinkedIn Navigator. What a way in which to also provide some notes, contexts, see who’s connected to whom and to again, tend to it from a perspective of not, “Who’s in my network?” Although that helps but, “Who’s connected to whom and how might you provide or offer up additional freebies?”

Back to diversifying your portfolio is things that you do at least in my case, as much as, Lead. Care. Win., the book came out, off of my publisher, I bought another 2,000 copies of the book. I’ve now sent out 1,000 of those copies across the world based on connections that are direct or often 40% of those 1,000 books are people that have never met me before. In the letter, when I sent it out to the contact, I make reference to someone within the network or some organizational tidbit that I’ve picked up on, or maybe they’ve written something or whatever that I’ve taken note of them. I say, “I want to recognize this or that, or this person, organization or what you wrote. I wanted to give you a copy of Lead. Care. Win. as a way in which to say thanks for what you’re doing in society.” Again, there’s a freebie, it cost me $10 to ship the book. That’s an act of network building. I play the long game. You’d never know when that comes back in the boomerang.

Walk us through how you’re doing that part of it. You’re talking about here 2,000 copies. I’m guessing that you’re sending more than one copy to each person. How did you get their addresses? Do you buy a list?

You do your slew thing. I’ve never bought any list. I don’t believe in that. I believe in doing the hard work. Once I get it then I’m tracking on an Excel spreadsheet. That’s it like the way in which to then send out mail forms through word. This is not rocket science stuff and you go from there.

Are you doing that yourself? Do you have an assistant help you with that?

CSP 168 | Consulting Business

 

Go interview Paul. That’s all I am. I’m a company of one.

Shipping as well, are you doing that yourself or that’s going to the mailing house?

There’s the one thing that comes into play. I so happen to have Denise and I are raising goats as we call them. They are also known as children. They are 17, 15 and 13. Sometimes they get roped into the stuffing of envelopes with books and shipping them out. I may have some family support, not like, they’re my consigliere or we’re in the mob, but they are family.

One thing you mentioned right now that resonates is you’re talking about $10 a book, 2,000 copies, $20,000 or so. You’re investing into your business. A lot of consultants are by nature quite conservative. They focus more on how they can save money with their marketing or what they’re doing instead of how they can maybe spend more to create more impact. Where does that thought process come for you? Are you naturally inclined to go, “If I put out $20,000, it’s going to generate more,” or is that something that you’ve learned over time and you’ve seen work for you firsthand?

It’s a little bit of these times we did on, Michael. What feels good, what makes sense to tend to that network and how might that result in a keynote, a workshop, a consulting engagement, executive coaching or whatever. Again, the theory seems to be playing out. I’ve had a relatively long runway as well. Planning for this took time. The first book was in 2013, the second book in 2016, continue to talk, continue to write, the third book in 2018, then make a decision, leave. It’s 2019, go through 2019, write another book, do a bunch more talks, do much more consulting gigs. The fourth book comes out in 2020, pandemic hits.

Curate, nurture, water, and add fuel and oxygen to your network at all times. Click To Tweet

Now I’m diversifying with the online learning program, giving that out and making sure that it gets in the hands of executives, CHROs, CEOs, etc., around the world. It sounds manipulative, but it’s specific to how I believe the network is jogged so that they remember, “Dan, the leadership guy or it’s the Dan that I saw a speaker. It’s the Dan who wrote that book or the Dan from the Forbes article. It’s Dan from the HBR. It’s Dan from that coaching exercise. Dan gave me the piece of wood that art.” It has to be circular for you to require your head to invest in meaning to answer your question. If you are not investing, then you’re not going to be tending to that network, is my opinion.

You’re looking at the lifetime value of a client and it’s not always the revenue. You’re investing into those relationships and when you do that, good things tend to happen.

You said it there to interject investing in those relationships. Relationships come at different stages and ages. I’ll give you an example. I got an inquiry from a chief human resources officer in Toronto. She, in this case, emailed me and said, “Dan, I saw you speak in 2015. I was taken aback by that because you’re talking about purpose.” This is two books in, not four so 2015 and said like, “We’re having some difficulties in this pandemic. We think it’s a good time to exhibit the inclination to go and define what our purpose might be. Could you come to help? Could you start with a talk and then maybe see where it goes from there?” That’s what’s been booked, a talk to discuss what purpose is. What more likely will be is a consulting engagement to then discuss, define, and help them as an organization figure out their purpose. There’s a five-year runway from this lovely woman who reached out to me.

2020 has been a year of a lot of new things or first time for all of us, but if you look back over the year so far, Dan, what’s one thing that has been new for you that you’ve done, that you’re very excited about and that looking back, maybe you feel like, “I can’t believe that I haven’t done this before?” You’re excited to continue using that or benefiting from it going forward.

First of all, I’ve always been a proponent given what we did at TELUS was shift about 70% of the organization to be a remote worker from home, a hotel or whatever. It was fantastic to help drive that at least. What I’ve seen since the onset of the pandemic is although the deer in headlights was March through May, June 2020, all of a sudden, organizations and executives started to wake up a little bit and say, “A) this pandemic thing doesn’t seem to be going away anytime fast and B) maybe we can do some of these things virtually.” The things at least I am referring to are keynotes and workshops. A lot where I love being on and excel at is working with people. You’d think, “Dan, don’t you miss audiences and live face-to-face people?”

I do. I’m an extrovert. The first person I hug is going to get a weird kiss as well for me. I don’t care about the HR violation anymore. What I’ve recognized in my own self was that you have to innovate and make sure that in the keynote and the workshops, whether they’re 30 minutes or three hours, to be completely immersed in how to make it interactive and different. For me, it was like, “If you did a keynote, be on stage. If you’re on stage in what is now my souped-up home office studio, how could I do that differently?” I played around with it. It took me about a month. I did a couple of trials with some clients for free and then figured out that I needed three cameras, a wall-mounted screen, using poll everywhere to embed into the PowerPoint slides so people could participate in online polling and surveying right there. I created a situation in which every 5, 10 minutes, there’s something that’s different or engaging in this room that makes it feel completely like you’re in the room itself. That’s the key there for me.

Are you using any technology like Prezi? Are there any tools that you’re using to help with that polling or the interaction that people should take a look at?

My savior is Poll Everywhere. PollEv.com or Poll Everywhere, if anyone wants to check that out. I’m not an ambassador. I don’t get paid by them. What I find is that they’re interactive polling, surveying, quizzes, word clouding, you can embed right into keynote or to a PowerPoint. It doesn’t work on Google Slides but nonetheless. I have three laptops on the go as well so that I can have this three-camera setup. One camera points to a wall-mounted screen. The Mac that I have on, that one airplays the slides through Apple TV. I stand beside the screen, embed the Poll Ev slides into that PowerPoint.

The audience engages. I can talk to how the audience is engaging through the surveying through what horse race is winning and the multiple choice or the word clouding or the pictures and who’s liking where they’re at, etc. It works fantastically. Many “thought leaders” and authors go to their homes, flip up their Mac, use the native camera that’s built in, and it’s a Zoom webinar. That’s not going to engage the audience. You’ve got to differentiate. You’ve got to think about your clients as well.

You’ve thought a lot about that with that tech setup. We’ll need to look into it as well. I appreciate that. Dan, thanks for coming on here. I want to make sure that people can learn more about you, your work and your books. Where’s the best place for them to go?

The easiest is the microsite that gets it to everything for the new book. It’s LeadCareWin.com. You’ll be able to learn about the book, but also me and everything else that I’m able to do.

Dan, thanks for coming on here.

Michael, thank you. For what you’re doing to help prop up and support consultants around this planet, good for you. This is great discourse. You clearly know what you’re doing, but great conversations to poke a little deeper into some of the things that I’m doing. I appreciate that.

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About Dan Pontefract

CSP 168 | Consulting Business

Leadership strategist, author, keynote speaker and trusted advisor. Best-sellers include LEAD. CARE. WIN. How To Become a Leader Who Matters, OPEN TO THINK, THE PURPOSE EFFECT & FLAT ARMY. Founder of the Pontefract Group, building bridges between life & work. Full potential is possible.

Extended bio:

Including the four books mentioned above, I have presented at four different TED events and also write for Forbes, & Harvard Business Review. I’m also an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, Gustavson School of Business, and garnered more than 20 industry awards over my career.

My third book, OPEN TO THINK, won the 2019 getAbstract International Book of the Year and the Axiom Business Book silver medal for leadership in 2019. (Pretty stoked, to say the least.)

I help organizations and leaders become better versions of themselves. In addition to keynotes and workshops, I provide consultative services through the Pontefract Group that assess and recommend how to become more collaborative, productive, engaged and purpose-driven. That can also include organizational design, modelling, coaching and change management.

Previously as Chief Envisioner and Chief Learning Officer at TELUS—a Canadian telecommunications company with revenues of $14 billion and 50,000 global employees—I launched the Transformation Office, the TELUS MBA, and the TELUS Leadership Philosophy, all award-winning initiatives that dramatically helped to increase the company’s employee engagement to record levels of nearly 90%. Prior to TELUS, I held senior roles at SAP, Business Objects and BCIT.

My wife, Denise, and I have three children (aka goats) and live in Victoria, Canada. Come visit.

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