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Episode #60
Donna Brighton

Organizational Culture And Change Consulting Growth

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In the consulting world, unfortunately, there are times where people are being put into projects or roles that aren’t necessarily their best fit. That bothered Donna Brighton, founder of Brighton Leadership Group. Donna believes in two things – understanding people and placing them in positions where they can be their absolute best and doing the right thing for clients. Her goal is to help high impact leaders to use their unique skills and perspective to lead in unexpected ways while achieving unprecedented results. They do that by helping leaders get their messages heard, their ideas adopted, and their teams following them to achieve their bold vision. Seeing the importance of leadership to consulting growth, Donna took that opportunity to launch the Brighton Leadership Group to help leaders become the best leaders they can possibly be.

I’m excited to have Donna Brighton joining us. Donna, welcome.

Thank you, Michael.

Donna, for those who aren’t familiar with you and your work, take a moment and explain what you do.

I’m the Founder of Brighton Leadership Group. Our goal is to help mold high impact leaders to use their unique skills and perspective to lead in unexpected ways while achieving unprecedented results. We do that by helping leaders get their messages heard, their ideas adopted, and their teams following them to achieve their bold vision. We love leaders. We want to help them become the best leader they can possibly be through the work that we do.

You didn’t wake up one day and say, “I’m going to help leaders.” How did you get to where you are today? What did your path look like before you became a consultant?

Believe it or not, I have been dreaming of being in business since I was a little girl. I have always been passionate about business. I started in accounting and I thought, “Whoever counts the gold makes the rules or has something to do with the rules.” By getting into accounting, that will help give me a solid business foundation, which it did. I have left over from that time an incredible ability to 10Key. However, I also discovered that accounting and auditing was not what I was meant to do. I would have to say my career is a testament to continuous learning, improvement, and following a path where you’re constantly discovering and learning.

I moved from working at Coopers & Lybrand out of college to doing system implementations, project management. I ran a PeopleSoft practice and from that got into consulting. I led a practice in Pittsburgh, and then was promoted to handling all of the North American operations for a management consulting practice. We went from $500,000 to $36 million in three years. We built this incredible team made up of some of my absolute favorite people. The firm was acquired and decided to dissolve our practice just as we had one practice of the year for the organization. It was during that time when I said, “I don’t think I want to continue on here,” so we decided to part ways.

That’s a pretty extraordinary growth to go from $500,000 to $36 million in three years. What an opportunity to be a part of that. When you look back on that experience, what do you think allowed that level of growth?

It was a heady time in business where there’s a lot going on and an incredible amount of opportunity. It was also with my team focused on bringing in people not only who were incredible at what they did, but were aligned with the culture and who we were. Years later, I still hear from many of the people. That was my favorite job ever. We were such an incredible team of people working together in all the aspects that had to be entrepreneurial, as you can imagine growing that quickly. I also learned some important lessons that I brought into my current practice. For example, in growing at that rate, some of the challenges I experienced was you start managing things like billability and utilization.

CSP 60 | Consulting Growth

In the consulting world, it’s like, “How do we keep everyone busy?” Unfortunately, there were times where that led to people being put into projects or roles that weren’t necessarily their best fit. That bothered me. I believe in two things. I believe in a lot of things, but in consulting, understanding people, placing them in positions where they can be their absolute best and then also doing the right thing for clients. There are a lot of times in consulting that can be an opposition when you’re trying to keep people billable.

You have that experience and the company was acquired, your division was then dissolved. I would imagine that with that track record, you could have gone on to another management consulting firm as opposed to going off and starting your own consulting business. Was there a gap between that job and starting your own consulting business? Did you go to some other firm? Did you go straight to starting your consulting business at that point?

I went and took that opportunity to do some deeper thinking. It was an exciting time, but then also deeply disappointing. I shared with you my passion for leaders and it was through all those years of experience in working with organizations. Growing at this rate, I saw the importance of leadership. I took the opportunity to get my Master’s in Organizational Leadership at that time.

You went back to school and got more education. From there, with that attached to your tool belt, what was your next step?

I briefly worked for another consulting firm and then decided, “It’s time for me to do this myself.” That was in 2004 when I launched the Brighton Leadership Group.

Why did you decide that? At that point, you’d been a part of many firms. You had that experience. What was the turning point? Do you remember what got you thinking, “I’ve had enough of this. It was a great experience. Lessons learned,” but what was the factor that pushed you over the edge to start your own consulting business?

I dreamed of business for many years. I demonstrated to myself that I was capable of building a business and decided, “It’s time to do it for myself,” and several things. I mentioned the lessons I learned around billability and utilization, delivering with excellence and doing the right thing for clients. I wanted to be in a position where I could deliver as much value as possible for clients by doing the right thing for them. It isn’t always the highest billable thing. I wanted it to be able to do it in a way that I had control over the way it was delivered. Excellence is a huge value for me.

As you made that transition from working in a management consulting firm to becoming a solo independent consultant, how did you go about getting your first client?

You can be hired to bring in expertise or you can be hired to fill a role that an organization doesn't have a person to fill. Click To Tweet

It was relationships. One of the things that I’ve learned as I’ve grown over the years, even though I started a consulting firm, I’d have to honestly admit I was contracting. It was the relationships that I had where I got contracting assignments. I was fulfilling other people’s projects and acting as arms and legs and doing work. From consulting practices, you’re hired for a lot of different reasons. You can be hired to bring in expertise or you can be hired to fill a role that an organization doesn’t have a person to fill. I define that more as contracting versus true consulting.

How you got started was through contracting. You’re taking all these contracting rules. You had this idea that’s been bubbling up for quite some time about you taking charge, being able to implement your vision, beliefs, and benchmarks to business. When in a contracting role, you don’t have that full freedom or control over a lot of aspects around your business because you’re contracting, not really working as a business owner.

Thinking around your messaging, it’s clear that you work with leaders. You help them to navigate change. In those early days when you started your own consulting business, how did you put your messaging into the marketplace, especially you were contracting? Did you have many different service offerings you thought about, many different messages? Did you see the path of, “I’m going to focus specifically on helping leaders?” Even though you were contracting from day one, you knew that that’s where you were going to go?

CSP 60 | Consulting Growth

It was always a dream. I made that dream a reality by reinvesting. There’s a book by John Kotter called Leading Change and a lot of people read it for change in methodology purposes. There’s a chapter in it that is one of the most profound things that he’s written. He talks about this idea of compounded learning. Have you ever heard of that?

I’ve certainly heard of compounding when it comes to investments. Tell me more about compounded learning.

It’s exactly that principal, Michael. Just as when you invest your money and over time it grows. John Kotter made a case that we should not stop learning after school. By compounding you’re learning, continuously investing in learning and growing, it produces incrementally larger results over time. I would have to attribute a lot of my success to that practice where I’ve invested over 10% of my earnings every year in ongoing education, ways of improving my skills, my business, mentors, coaches, etc.

I’m certainly a big believer of that myself. It reminds me of the Japanese term ‘kaizen’, continuous improvements. That’s probably a consistent trait among all top performers and all who want to achieve more.

As I was investing, I had a mentor, who, in 2010, said to fire all your clients.

What did you do? How did that look? How did you feel about that?

It was pretty radical. I recognized the fact that in order to make a complete change or shift in my business from doing the contracting works to truly doing consulting, I had to do something different. I made that radical change. I remember coming to the end of the year and looking out in forecasting and it was big zeros. There was nothing in the future. I said goodbye to all my clients. I didn’t take any more contracting assignments and I was like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”I took a trip to Italy. In addition to wanting to deliver with excellence and deliver value to clients in a way that I can be responsible for, another thing that was important is living a life that I wanted to live. My husband and I have a life theme. It’s, “Live juicy.”

Does that have to do with wine?

It has to do with wine. It’s also a life mission around squeezing every drop out of life and living it to the most every day. My experience in that past life was there were many times in consulting organizations where you didn’t have that opportunity. Going to Italy was about living juicy and trusting that the opportunities would open up. I got a call the week of Christmas that year. It was an opportunity for complete culture transformation, working with the leadership team at a Fortune 500 company. We were the last of seventeen firms to present to the leadership team our proposal. We won it and started working that January.

We should not stop learning after school. Click To Tweet

That was the start of something pretty revolutionary in a transformation within your business.

It was the groundwork that I had laid through all that learning, the years leading up to that and being prepared. When that opportunity came, we were ready to take it and deliver extraordinary results. It was a complete transformation of the business.

Your business has progressed significantly. You’re seeing a lot of success over the years. One area that speaks to me is how you went from firing all your clients. Looking at a whole bunch of zeros to working, training, and speaking in front of large, well-known organizations is getting in front of these companies, setting up appointments. Many consultants face challenges around getting appointments with ideal clients. Your clients have included companies like Kraft Foods, Lockheed Martin, TD Bank. What is your approach? What have you found to be most effective when it comes to setting up appointments with prospective clients?

CSP 60 | Consulting Growth

I’m sure you’ve encountered this with all the consultancy you’ve worked with over the years. No matter how extraordinary you are in delivering value, if you’re not able to market, it doesn’t matter how good you are. You’re 100% correct that identifying, finding clients that want to work with you is the first and most top priority as a consultant. My approach has been primarily speaking. I’ve been doing speaking for many years, which is probably one of the reasons that I was able to make the transition into true consulting from contracting. Having people see and experience you, and then referrals.

What is your speaking strategy? Many people who might be reading this is going, “I’ve done a little bit of speaking,” or, “I’d like to do more speaking,” or, “I’d like to get into it.” Where should they start? If you could guide us through two or three steps that someone should take to start creating more opportunities for speaking engagements.

The first thing is make sure that when you’re delivering, you have a message that’s value-adding. I feel in any interaction with a potential client or a potential buyer, you always want to deliver value. When it comes to speaking, my goal is to always understand the audience and make sure I’m shaping my message accordingly. It’s an intersection, and I’m talking specifically about message here. I’ll share a little bit about who you speak to because audience matters. You need to make sure that the message is something that’s going to be useful and has takeaway.

That’s something I’ve always been passionate about when I speak. What can an organization or the audience members do as a result of what I’ve spoken to them about? Making the message useful is a primary thing. How do you even get speaking opportunities? There are plenty of places that you can pursue speaking opportunities. Probably some of the best ways you can speak are for associations. Many trade and industry associations are looking for speakers. There are more conferences now than there ever have been. If there are lots of conferences, that means there needs to be speakers for them.

Do you reach out directly? Who do you reach out to at the associations? Are you targeting an executive director? Are you targeting someone in a marketing department? Who have you found is the best person to reach out to at an association?

It depends from association to association. I personally have had the honor and privilege of working with the Association Forum, which is one of the premier associations of associations. Through that, I have been able to network with a variety of different association leaders. If you’re getting started in speaking, that was the question. Somebody who’s looking to get started in their speaking career, there’s usually an application process. In every association that has a conference, there’s some type of application process. I would honor the process and follow that. As you do successful presentations, you get known and get opportunities for larger main stage speaking opportunities. You want to start smaller, prove your capability as a speaker and then grow from there.

Make sure your message is something that's going to be useful and has takeaways. Click To Tweet

These are great tips and you also mentioned the importance of relationships. I’m a big believer in relationships and in business. One of my previous company was Kankei in Japanese. Kankei culture, which, in English, means relationship culture. That’s how much we believe in as we named our company after that. What have you found to be effective when you want to create a relationship with someone who is brand new? You have no one that can directly introduce you to them, but you’ve identified them as somebody who is high value. Who can help you to move your business forward, whether it’s some direct introduction to a company, getting on a board or speaking? What approach have you used to reach out to those people? Are you leveraging LinkedIn? Are you picking up the phone and calling them? Are you sending them an email? What approach has worked well for you?

That best approach I found is the warm introduction. Essentially, looking for anybody in that individual’s network or anyone who might know that individual whom I want to be connected with and asking them to introduce me. I had the privilege of sitting with one of the CEOs that I work with. I’ve been going through a process, story branding. Part of that is getting input from people about your story. I was asking him to give me a feedback on the story that we’d come up with. He was interesting because he said, “I don’t believe in consultants. I don’t like them.” He had seen me speak and he said, “I am more than happy to introduce you to anybody that you want to know because I believe in you. I would never accept a message or an email from anyone that I didn’t know or wasn’t introduced to me by someone I know.”

Have you ever been in a situation where you have identified somebody as an ideal client or an ideal referral source? They have some value and therefore you want to build a relationship with them, but you have no warm introduction. Has that ever happened or you stay away from those people and focus on where you do have a potential warm introduction?

CSP 60 | Consulting Growth

My focus has been the latter. Whenever there is an opportunity, I’ve found to invest time and energy. You want to build on strength, what’s working and who you know.

What’s one of the biggest challenges that you’ve encountered during the growth of your consulting business?

Probably the balance of marketing versus delivery.

What have you done to overcome that? That’s a common one, especially for a lot of consultants who don’t feel they have a marketing bone in their body. They feel like experts in their subject matter and don’t frankly like doing marketing. Yet as we know, it’s important. It’s the lifeblood of a business. What has worked for you to balance that?

Understanding what makes you, you. What is your unique ability in Dan Sullivan language or what are your strengths? Everybody’s got something that they’re good at. You can repurpose or reframe what you’re thinking about. For example, do you love to write? Do you love to have conversations? There are ways of taking all those skills and translating those into a marketing output. I’m not an expert at marketing per se, except that I know that it matters. Content marketing is critical so that people understand who you are, what you’re thinking, your approach. The more that you’re able to leverage your uniqueness, your approach to things and share that with the world, that’s what makes a huge difference.

It’s not about that there’s only one way of doing something because speaking works well for Donna, doesn’t mean that you need to be speaking. You might be better at writing, do video or podcasts, working through your own referral channels or doing online advertising. Whatever it is that works for you and allows you to build a pipeline that you need to sustain and achieve your goals is totally fine. There is no one best way.

Donna, as you’ve been working on to build your business and it continues to grow and what I’ve seen the types of companies that you’ve been working with, what types of systems and processes are you using that had allowed your business to continue to grow and to have the enjoyment of life and as you call it the juicy life? How have you managed growth? What specific systems or processes have you found most valuable, effective, and helpful?

There are two things that have been transformative over the last few years. The first is I’ve moved from random acts of learning to being much more intentional. I’d love to learn as I shared. I feel that it’s essential to learn, but sometimes you can see, “This is a great book. Somebody recommended that book,” and you can end up with many books on your bookstand and so many courses that you’re taking. You’re not applying what you’re learning. Is what you’re learning truly useful and beneficial in growing in the ways that you need to grow? Over the last couple years, moving from random acts of learning to intentional learning, I said, “What are the skills, abilities or areas that I need to focus on to grow?” That’s different for everybody and it evolves over time.

Move from random acts of learning to being much more intentional. Click To Tweet

What that enabled me to do is build my own learning curriculum and to get specific about what I was and wasn’t going to invest my time and attention in. After all, that’s a limited resource. If I’m not investing in things that are helping me grow the skills or grow my business, then is it worthwhile? These are the things that I want to focus on. For example, speaking is something that I’ve done for a long time, but I wanted to improve my skills there. I took classes, read books, worked with a coach to prepare a TED Talk. I haven’t delivered it yet, but I’m getting there. That was a specific focus for me and enabled me to target my learning.

I look at it more in terms of selective learning or selective focus. More than ever before, we’re surrounded by so much noise. There are so many different things that are vying for our attention. I’ve found myself and others that I know are starting to tune out more from things like social media. Not that there’s not value there, there certainly can be but less interest in that. Unsubscribing from a lot of newsletters and the way I look at that is if I’m not getting clear value from whatever that newsletter is, I’ll unsubscribe. There’s so much that we could take in and a lot of it is valuable. If it’s not directed and directly connected to what we value most and what our goals are, we end up then being knowledgeable but not having any time to implement that knowledge. If we’re not implementing, we’re not going to get the results and the progress that we desire.

Another thing I’ve observed is that you can start learning from whoever the top names are, but are all those top names the experts? By being intentional, you can do some research and learn from the best.

I resonate to what you’re saying because so often, people will look at others around them in the ecosystem or in the marketplace and say, “This person is successful. If I follow what they’re doing, that means that I will be successful, too.” That’s not always the case. You can certainly learn from others, but you have to think about what is right for you. For some people, their goal might be about sales or about overall revenue. For others, it’s more about a lifestyle. For others, it’s about using certain tools or certain models, and because it’s working for others doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you but getting very clear on what it is that matters most to you. Being intentional around who you select, that you learn from or where you go to get your information allows to put it all together in a way that speaks to you specifically.

That’s been one of the things that have been transformative for me.

How do you manage your interactions with clients? If you manage your marketing or your media, what specific tools are you using, or do you like to run your business?

I’m an old-fashioned person. I love paper and then transfer that into technology. I use a storyboarding process. If you looked in my office, you would see four large boards with cards pinned all over them. That enables me to visualize everything that’s going on at a glance. I’m somewhat old-fashioned that way in my approach. We use Salesforce to manage clients’ relationships, MailChimp for mailing, and I love OneNote in terms of managing lots of information and having access to it everywhere.

Leveraging your uniqueness and your approach to things and sharing that with the world is what makes a huge difference. Click To Tweet

For me, I have everything in a Google Calendar online. That way, I can access it from my phone, laptop, and desktop. At the same time, every single day before I leave the office, I have my next day planned out in a list on a piece of paper. When I come into the office, I know exactly what I need to be doing. I’ve reviewed it even before I got to the office on my phone in the morning. I check them off. Right now, I have our podcast here. Afterwards, I’m going to put a line through and that’s done. Move on to the next priority in the day. I also believe that there’s still value in using paper, not having everything only in the digital world.

Each week, I write Tuesday’s Tremendous Tip. I’m writing on the topic of distractions. One of our most valuable resources is attention. Those little digital devices have become such a drain on people’s time and attention. I feel using things like a paper planner and notebooks to organize life and thinking enables focus and thinking versus, “Let me jump over to this app. Let me check that. I’m here. What is the temperature outside?” It’s easy to allow that monkey brain to get the best of us instead of staying focused on what we need to get accomplished.

In my book, The Elite Consulting Mind, I wrote a chapter that talked about this topic of technology. I believe that many consultants are taking less action as a result of technology. You can try and find tools or technology to help you to shortcut and to be more efficient. Oftentimes, people spend so much time learning how to use these things. They’re then spending less time implementing or taking an action that could be more direct, let’s say picking up the phone, sending an email or going to a conference and meeting someone. They’re trying to master this technology. The challenge with technology is it’s always changing. People finally figure how to use it, but then all of a sudden something else will come up with a better feature or a sexier user interface and now you’re jumping off to that.

There’s a lot of time that can be wasted. I would encourage everyone reading this that you look at your habits, look at where you’re spending your time, look at the tools that you’re using. Ask yourself honestly and transparently, “Are you making the progress that you want?” or, “Are you spending more time playing with tools and technology?”Maybe you’re attempting wholeheartedly to make them work, but is there a more direct path to getting what you want and to making the progress that you want? Technology isn’t always the answer.

We were talking about the old-fashioned use of paper and writing things down. There’s neuroscience that proves that you activate the reticular activation system in your brain when you write with your handwriting instead of typing, when you’re physically printing things out and physically writing in script or whatever you do, which is why I have these boards that I’ve written on cards that have everything I’m working on. It does something in your brain that helps you focus on those goals.

CSP 60 | Consulting Growth

I’ve heard this before, and regular readers of the podcast will probably have heard me say this. In copywriting, all the best copywriters that I know of sharpened their swords and saws and got good at their craft by finding ads that were working well, written by well-known advertisers. They would write them all by hand over and over again. I haven’t heard the neuroscience part before, but that act of writing is what allowed them to think more about it actively. It was going on in their mind. That was a characteristic or a practice of the best of the best. Donna, this has been a lot of fun. I want to thank you for coming on here and sharing with our audience.

You had asked about something, a process or a system. I wanted to share this with your readers because this is something that has been implemented over the last two years in my business that has massively shifted it. If it can benefit anybody, I’d love for them to know about it. It’s Dan Sullivan’s 25-Year Life Approach. Have you heard of this?

Yes, we’ve actively talked about it with some of our higher-level clients in in-person meetings. Happy for you to share it, so everyone else can benefit from it too.

What was significant for me is I believe in planning. I’ve always been challenged when January comes to look out at the end of twelve months and realistically think about what’s going to happen in October, November, and December. It’s so far away. I found year after year is having unrealistic goals. I’d get to the end of the year and then it would be time to evaluate. The 25-Year Life Plan for me has been a game changer, because in our business we’ve been able to say every single quarter here’s what the goals are. Dan Sullivan has a series of four questions where by going through them, you’re activating a more positive dimension of your brain. You’re going through and you’re thinking about what were my best achievements? What are the areas of focus and progress making me the most confident? New things giving me a sense of excitement going forward? You answer all of them.

You think, “What could be five things you could do that would multiply your business during the next 90 days?” 90 days is a far different period of time than an entire year. What it’s done in my business is it’s enabled me every 90 days to say, “I was on point here and that’s exactly what I needed to do,” or, “I was completely out of my mind and unrealistic in imagining I can get this accomplished.”I’ve found over time I’ve been fine tuning what I’m able to accomplish and being able to make significant strategic changes every 90 days that are shaping my business in a far more positive and strategic fashion. A huge game changer.

I hope that everyone will benefit from that. The audience should be giving some thought on Dan Sullivan’s impacts with his message and you’re another person to share that. Donna, thank you so much for coming on here. I want to make sure that everyone reading has an opportunity to learn more about you and your work. Where’s the best place for them to go to do so?

My website is For anybody who works with leaders who are dealing with lots of changes, most of them are, I’d love for you to download the Change Leader’s Toolkit. It is a free toolkit that we make available to leaders and all those who work with leaders in helping them be more successful at the changes that they need to make on a regular basis.

Donna, thanks so much for coming on.

Thank you. Have a spectacular day.

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