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Episode #216
Michelle Ray

The Mindset Of Successful Consulting Leaders

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What is the mindset of successful consulting leaders? The key is to understand the reality in front of you. Michael Zipursky’s guest in this episode is Michelle Ray, the CEO and Founder of Lead Yourself First Enterprises. Michelle talks with Michael about how leadership is about knowing what you need to do in this current environment. To achieve this, self-awareness is critical. When you examine yourself, are you open-minded about how you lead others? Tune in and become a more successful consulting leader!

I am very excited to have Michelle Ray joining us. Michelle, welcome.

Thank you so much, Michael. It’s so great to be with you.

Michelle, you are a keynote speaker, consultant, coach and author. You’ve been running your business, Lead Yourself First Enterprises, for many years. You’ve seen and been through a lot. You’ve worked with some very well-known organizations like McDonald’s, Dell, PNG, PayPal, the FBI even and many others. Your latest book, which we’ll be talking about is Leading In Real Time. That’s about business owners and what successful leadership looks like in the modern area that we are all in.

I’m excited to dive into all that with you but what I’d love to do is to get into some practical applications and strategies for leaders so that we can share this to help consultants run more successful businesses. Let’s go back in time a little bit before we get into some of those practices. I’d love to know how you got started. Before you started your consulting business years ago, what were you doing? What did that lead up to starting the consulting business?

Starting my business came down to one thing. I had an experience when I moved to Canada with a nonprofit organization and I’d worked for that organization in Australia. They’re all over the world. It was amazing to me the contrast between the leadership here and the leadership there, especially in the office where I was working.

My experience in Canada was not as positive as the one I’d had with the leader in Australia because it always comes down to the individual. That was the catalyst for me to leave, begin speaking, training, consulting and coaching because one negative experience made me think about leadership in a very different way and motivated me to help other people not to be that type of leader.

You’ve gone on to work with some very prestigious organizations. Going back to that day in 1995 or so when you decided that this was not the best example of leadership, you were like, “I’d like to try to solve this or help other to be better leaders.” You were doing speaking and all that stuff but take us back to that moment you decided to leave the organization that you were with. What were the first few things that you did to start to establish your consulting business?

The first thing I did was I got some contract work. That kept the bread and butter coming in because we all need that.

Brilliant leaders are open-minded about how they lead others. Click To Tweet

How did you get the contract? Where’d that come from?

My efforts when you startling to some people that might be on this, there was no internet predominantly, certainly not in 1995, so answering ads in the newspaper. There wasn’t even an email back then. That’s how it all started for me. I didn’t have the connections. I knew some people from my workplace but it was very different back then the way that people connected, especially because I was leaving and needed to carve a new path. I wouldn’t necessarily expect those individuals were going to help me.

I had to be out there for myself and there was one opportunity that struck me. It was an organization that was looking for people to do leadership training and other types of training. I jumped at that and it was an incredible opportunity. I spoke all over the world for them, did that for several years, started to make my way and that’s how it began. In that process, I was doing a lot of research already because it was required for the type of workshops and seminars that I was delivering. I had to know what I was talking about to be relevant and credible. It opened my eyes.

If you go back in time to that moment where you saw that ad or the opportunity with that organization, do you feel very confident in yourself at that time? Did you consider yourself to be an expert or was it more a passion and a drive within that pulled and pushed you to reach out to that organization?

I wouldn’t want to have called myself an expert back then but certainly, I could see what they were offering. I could see that because they worked with so many different companies and individuals coming to these workshops, it would be a great way for me to hone my skills in front of an audience, meet leaders, start to network, connect with them, have them express interest in me and what I would eventually be doing. That’s how it all began for me.

It sounds like that experience was like you identified a point of leverage. I don’t know if it was intentional but you latched onto this organization. They already had a network and clients. You just need to do your research, learn the materials and deliver that but you were building your network through their network. It sounds like there are a lot of positives of that engagement or a relationship. Were there any negatives? Maybe there were some reasons that you stopped doing that for those who might be exploring that model and relationship.

There are many reasons why I stopped. It was the time. By that point, I’d have a lot of experience fast forward, 10 or 11 years after that. I felt confident to do so. I certainly didn’t necessarily feel confident when I started but when it was the opportunity to be in front of people, I knew it was my calling and I never looked back.

For anyone who’s wanting to align themselves with another organization to get that experience, you’ve got to take the good with the bad and you do have to maintain that sense of yourself. If the money wasn’t that great, you still look at what you might learn and that’s how I looked at it. Many things about it weren’t easy. The travel was incessant. The hotels weren’t always the greatest, to put it mildly, but I focused on what I could control, which was how I could meet people, work the room and hone my knowledge about leadership. I have met some incredible people as a result.


It sounds like you were what some people describe as a road warrior, where you be out nonstop traveling, hotels, food that isn’t that great, hard to make fitness or health work but you did. You accumulated this amazing experience. You went from where you didn’t feel the highest level of confidence in your skills to developing and honing those skills to get to a place but you became an expert, specialist, someone with a track record of expertise. Was that the launching off and the reason that you decided, “I’ve accumulated all this. I can go and do this myself. Instead of working for somebody, I want to work for myself?” Was there some other reason that you decided to take that leap?

It’s funny you use the word road warrior because that’s a chapter in my first book called Lead Yourself First!, where I break it down, evaluating the risk of making that decision. It was contract work and it gave me that leverage, especially in the lane of leadership. That’s where I found my passion and where I felt extremely comfortable, confident, understood what was going and the issues that people were bringing forth, the struggles that leaders and employees were having. I could see it from both vantage points.

I want to dive into some of these leadership best practices for everyone who’s joining us because we’re all leaders in one form or another. You have many great practices that can help. Before we do that, I want to stick with this idea or timeline of you leaving this organization to start your own thing. How do you go about getting your first few clients? Was it through connections that you had made? Was it maybe at this point you can send emails and not respond to adverts? What did you do to start getting your first few clients?

It was exciting, Michael because I was bold. I put in my events and as a result of that, I started building my client base. I made connections with the contractor. There was a line between how much I could touch those contacts or reach out to them by putting on my events. That’s how it started buying lists. Believe it or not, years ago, it was easier to do. I don’t think I’d want to do that. It’s very hard but that’s how I started doing my own thing, having a little team around me and putting on events in Australia, which was a highly successful experience for me.

At one point, I aligned myself with the Australian Customer Service Association that existed around the time of the Olympics when the Olympics were in Sydney. They sponsored some of my sessions and I went from there. Taking the risk. For anyone in business, consultant or keynote speaker, you have to spend money to make money. You can get a loan. That’s what I did. There were no excuses. I was ready and willing to do what I had to do.

Where did that confidence and belief that you need to make an investment and take on some risks to see greater rewards come from? In many cases, consultants tend to be a little bit more on the conservative side. We tend to want things to be perfect before taking action. Yet, when you break down how you create success, it’s through taking action, not through having everything perfectly planned out. Taking action without having everything planned out pretty much means that you have to take on some risks because you won’t know what works until you go out and do that.

For you, how did you overcome that, especially investing in marketing, whether it’s securing a room, buying a list and doing all that stuff? That isn’t an investment. You don’t know how it will work until you do it. How did you think of that? If you could walk through your decision-making process or filtering process around that because so often consultants hesitate to invest into actual marketing. They try and do everything before they have to invest but oftentimes, investing in marketing is the fastest way to see greater results. What was that experience like for you?

First of all, you never stop marketing. That’s my opinion. I don’t think there’s a day where I can say I’ve arrived. The marketing has evolved but when I think back, you asked me where it came from? The simple answer is it is in my genes. My parents were risk-takers. My father was a risk-taker extraordinaire. My message to your audience would be that I learned early the difference between a calculated risk and an outrageous risk.

Leadership isn't a title. Leadership is a mindset. Click To Tweet

Taking a calculated risk, putting everything into perspective, thinking logically. “Am I going to end up out on the street? Would I take that much of a risk?” We’re not going to stop. There are things that you can do. You can get funding and support. There are so many ways to get funding for a business and make it a case. You can go down those roads too. I didn’t know about those. I don’t know if they existed at that time but I was ready to do it. It’s more about your mindset than anything else. We all know that.

Walk us through so that we have the mechanics and logistics of how you started running these events. You chose like, “Here’s a facility, hotel room conference room or someplace that I can pull this.”

It was a little more than that because remember, I already had years of experience watching this other company. They had reached one million people, had a massive marketing list, watching their process and how they did it to then take some of those best practices.

If you choose those best practices, what do you do?

I’ve found a great list company, had a great support team and met people already who I knew would be the ideal individuals to support me as contractors themselves. They were the ones that helped me to get it going. Even the very first one, I didn’t have a website yet. My first website was in 2001. I still managed to do all of that without a website but I had an email address and a great marketing piece. I already knew someone who’s based in Vancouver who excelled at design, marketing and brochures. That was all part of the process. There were people that I connected with, learned how to connect with them, knew instinctively that they were the right people for me and that’s how I did those events at that time.

Was this a free event or a paid event?

It’s a paid event.

What was the ticket price to attend?


It varied. There were what I called mates’ rates for all my Aussie friends watching. I had group discounts. It was somewhere around $179 a person for the one-day program back then. They got coffee and tea. It was wonderful. I was grossing somewhere around $120,000 for the third one that I did. I was pretty happy with that. I thought that was pretty good.

How many people would you have had in that event to generate six figures in revenue from it?

There were three different cities. Sydney and Melbourne were the biggest off the top of my head. I had about a couple of hundred people in each city and then I did it in Brisbane as well. It was a little bit of a smaller audience back then but it all worked. It was from those people that I started to build core clients with a very deliberate intention in my marketing so that I knew that I wanted to go and work with them one-on-one. That was in my marketing and then I started building on that client base. There’s one individual that attended that event that I worked with at least six times in-house with his people consulting, speaking and workshops. Even to this day, I still do business with that person.

Do you go into this to generate revenue through the ticket sale of them attending? What was the real goal to have a certain number of people from each event become longer-term higher-value clients?

It would be a little bit of both for sure. I wanted it to be a success financially but I also knew that it was an opportunity based on who was there and who I was connecting with to stop building those long-term relationships. That was one path that I took.

How many emails did you send to get people to come? Oftentimes you hear, follow up is so important, frequency, consistency, where you were sending 1, 2, 3, 10 emails. How many emails or what time leading up to each event?

As we know, we’ve got regulations on how you can do something like that. I did not bombard people with email. I had a massive list. I did mailings too. When you mail out to people, you’re going to get a very low return but if you’ve got enough of them out there, then you’ll generate enough business to get those people to attend. In a nutshell, it’s a numbers game.

Let’s flip for one moment and zoom forward to now. Looking at your sales, marketing, how you approach generating leads and conversations with new clients, what’s working best for you?

Let people know that you care and keep them informed about what is going on in your organization. Click To Tweet

This won’t be a surprise for many people but for me, the referral side is important. I talked about marketing but at the same time, your best marketing is you. In my case, if I’m on a stage, I know that that’s a rehearsal for the next event or opportunity. That has worked incredibly well for me. I get people contacting me that have seen me years ago.

For all of us, with our client base, being the best that you can be and asking for those referrals as well is important, in addition to all of the other efforts because you have to have a presence. To be very honest, I found 2020 so hard that it affected me psychologically to the point where I wasn’t necessarily doing those things, Michael.

The one thing that I did was I wrote a book. That was my anchor, what kept me grounded and kept me going. For all of us, we dealt with that year in different ways. Some people thrived, caved and others found it all very hard. I found it incredibly difficult but that was the one thing that I decided to do and keep going. I had a definite goal, date and time where I wanted the book to be finished and I met that objective.

That’s a perfect segue into the book and for us to spend some time talking about leadership. Your new book is called Leading In Real Time: How to Drive Success In a Radically Changing World. You mentioned writing the book and that process a little bit. I wonder if we could extract some of the principles from the book and start with a question around the most common mistakes that you see leaders making. Maybe even before that just to hear your perspective on this because very often, when they hear the word leader, they think that you can only be a leader if you have a sizable team.

How do you think about leadership? The principles that we’re going to talk about are some of these best practices. When does this apply? Do they apply if you are a solo consultant and you have some contractors? Does it apply only if you have 5, 10 or more people? How do you think about the mindset of leadership?

First of all, leadership isn’t a title. Leadership is a mindset. Yes, people have their position and perceived credibility based on that title but it is far more than that. To me, it doesn’t matter. I’m a small business but I have to look and ask myself, “Am I the leader of myself so that when I do have contractors and I work with a number of them, am I am being the best that I can be?”

When you asked me about the biggest mistakes and what I feel leaders are doing that they need to do differently, there are so many ways of looking at it but relevancy is a big one. I believe that the number one mistake in terms of the context of my book, which is about real-time leadership, is understanding what is right in front of you. As a consultant, what is right in front of you? Do we understand the realities of now, not the realities of years ago? We need to adapt and understand what it is.

Understanding that leadership is about you knowing what you need to do in this current environment, which is now. Leadership is very much present moment-based. We used to think about leadership in terms of a long-term strategy, looking out at the horizon, planning out vision. It’s not that those things aren’t important but the things that demand our attention now are what I believe is what is going to determine whether or not we can be successful as leaders.


Can you offer an example or illustration of that principle or concept of relevancy and how you’ve seen that play out or a mistake you’ve seen somebody making without naming names? How you’d fix that? What’s a mistake in a real-world situation? What’s the best practice to resolve that?

The first is it’s all about self-awareness. Three key principles will come through in my book, being ready, responsive and relevant. First of all, one of the biggest mistakes that I see is that people are not ready to accept new realities. In terms of our self-awareness, we all know this is a fact. We see it in the news all the time. Our own biases are getting in the way of us being effective. In terms of the new workforce, as well as customers, they are savvier than any other time in history. There’s a chapter in my book that’s called voices rising. It’s all about the fact that our customers, clients and teams have a voice that they are willing to use.

If you are going to be effective as a real-time leader, we need to get in sync with our teams and clients. That means taking a hard look at ourselves. “Where am I biased? Am I able to suspend judgment? Am I able to acknowledge others, their views and opinions of the world, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them? Do I come across as being open?” This isn’t necessarily rocket science but it is what’s going to make you successful as a real-time leader. That, to me, is the start of it all.

What would be one example? One of the first stories that I tell is about a young woman that I met, who was a powerhouse, brilliant achiever, leader in the financial services sector, who was experiencing challenges in terms of how people perceived her as a successful young woman. All these roadblocks were being placed in her way.

She was confident and knew how to manage those roadblocks but what her leadership didn’t necessarily realize was that if they didn’t change their ways, they were risking the potential of losing an individual who was going to walk out the door with a multimillion-dollar portfolio. I knew about this person so I could use that example in my work with other organizations to help them to understand the need to keep their minds open. Brilliant leaders get this intuitively and they are very open-minded about how they lead others.

For me, one example that I’m constantly working on is it’s often easy for me to look at someone else and find fault in what they’re doing or be critical. Oftentimes, when I have that mindset, I’m not doing it because I think they’re wrong and I’m right. It’s because I want improvement for them, for me and if it’s a team member for the company. One thing that I’ve found that’s helpful is I try and catch myself to say, “If I’m trying to find fault or looking at what’s wrong with someone and being critical, then first I should be critical of myself. What are my biases? What do I think about this situation? How would they think about what I’m thinking?”

By looking at it both ways, I find it interesting when I can catch myself filter through. All of a sudden, I can have a different conversation, send a different email or approach things differently. It’s such important stuff, this mindset of being a leader and leadership. You’re right. Every interaction that you have, whether it’s with a contractor, team member, client or anybody, you have such an opportunity to create better results.

Time and time again, we hear in organizations that people are the number one most powerful asset for achieving anything. How we manage those relationships and how we lead and demonstrate is so critical, yet very often, it’s the one thing that people don’t spend as much time on. They’re thinking only about sales, marketing, content or other things out there, yet leadership, how you lead yourself and your team are powerful.

Leadership is very much present moment-based. The things that demand our attention now are what is going to determine whether or not we can be successful as leaders. Click To Tweet

We should never underestimate the power of our influence. Let me give you another principle and strategy. This is so important. We are in an age of parody, transparency and collaboration. We cannot do this on our own as much as we like to think that we can. Even if we’re solopreneurs, we still need that support and network on how you put yourself out there. Many of us are high achievers. We want to be successful. We have this tendency to want to control. This is one of the other key areas that people need to watch out for.

We need to lead this way. In other words, what I’m doing is I’ve got my hands parallel. This is the leadership that people are craving. If we can understand and realize that that is the ideal way to build that connection and have success, it can radically change the way that you’re leading and cause a radical change in your organization.

We also need to know that as leaders, when we’ve been leading a certain way for a long period and you suddenly change your pattern of interacting with other people, you’re probably going to get a reaction. That’s why humility is so important and to be able to say to people, “I’m looking at myself and what I can do differently.” It’s no surprise but that is very attractive to people. The more we do those things, the more we can be successful in real-time.

Let’s talk about the environment that so many of us are in, which is working remotely or with team members, where you’re not sitting beside each other. How does leadership different in this age that we are in where you can’t necessarily be face-to-face, just through a screen face to face? Any best practices around that? Anything you’ve seen like common mistakes that people make because we are so often virtual? What are the best practices for leading in this remote environment?

There was a little article I wrote. It was in The Globe and Mail. The first thing is understanding that there are no barriers here. It might look like there is a physical one but you’re seeing right into someone’s life and they’re seeing into your life. The coal for transparency is critical when it comes to being a virtual team leader. It’s also incumbent on us as leaders to realize that people have their own life and challenges happening. They’re working from home more than ever before. They want to stay home.

We have to ask ourselves, “If we’re going to lead remotely, are we ready and willing to be flexible? Are we also cognizant of the fact that micromanaging can be even more apparent in this setting remotely, virtually than it can be one way when we’re face-to-face?” People are constantly feeling they’ve got to be in meetings and have their computers on all the time. It is different in that way. It’s being more aware of people’s time constraints and what other priorities they have going on in their life.

I can’t say this enough about a critical component of being a successful remote leader, even though I said to communicate. We still need to let people know what’s going on but we have to do it in a way that isn’t so intrusive that it permeates every aspect of what they’re doing every minute of the day. Not to confuse those two things, we need to make sure that we are letting people know that we are there, we care and we keep them informed about what is going on in our organizations.

I have three questions, Michelle, before we wrap up. The first is if you look at your day, week and the habits that you consistently use go through that you feel lead to your highest level of performance, success and progress that you make, what are 1 or 2 things that you do every single day that are essential for you to be the best that you can be?


The first thing is that I do whatever I can to make appointments with myself. I prioritize my work and put it on the calendar. I block those times and do whatever is humanly possible with very rare exceptions to deviate from those times. That would be the first thing. The second is to know how to delegate, do the things that I know are where my brilliance is and let other people do this. I’m like many people reading. I’m an independent person, a small business but there are people that I know who can do a multitude of things for me that I should not be wasting my time on. That allows me to be working on my business, not just in my business.

The second question is, what is the best book that you have read or listened to? It could be fiction or nonfiction.

The best non-fiction book is I Love It Here by Clint Pulver. The name has escaped me but it’s a Quebec author for fiction. Her first name is Louise and the last name has gone out of my head, which is crazy.

If people are interested, otherwise search Louise, Quebec, fiction and maybe something will pop up.

Michael, I was going to say one more thing because you asked me for three things that I do. The third thing, every single day without question, rain, hail, snow. I go outside, walk and do my best to walk for at least an hour a day. No fail. It has to happen.

I’m a big believer in that. I go for a run every morning. It doesn’t matter whether it’s raining or snowing. I need to do to get my day going and get the blood flowing. I get it that right space. Lastly, most importantly, Michelle, where can people go to learn more about you, your work and your book? What’s the one place that you’d recommend that point people towards?

At the moment, I would say That’s where people will find my contact information. You’ll see that I’m constantly evolving. In the next years, I’m going to have a very strong presence with on-demand offerings because they are growing in popularity. I love speaking, consulting and connecting with people. I would love to hear from your readers.

Michelle, thank you so much for coming on.

It’s been such a pleasure, Michael. Thank you.

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