Inquiry First- Part 2: Grounding Your Expertise In The Current State

Jennifer Brown | |

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In this minisode, Jennifer continues the discussion about JBC’s powerful prospective client questionnaire and the thinking behind each question. Discover how to use inquiry to determine the current state of the organization, what resources are available for change, and how asking the right questions can help an organization shape their goals and define success.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • The importance of understanding a client’s timeline and key deliverables (4:30)
  • How to help a client define success (8:00)
  • How to help a client sell an initiative to key stakeholders (10:30)
  • The “contracting process” that will help you develop a collaborative relationship (12:00)
  • How to determine if a goal is achievable (13:30)
  • How to help clients advocate for additional funding (20:00)
  • Why you should review internal documents before writing a proposal (26:00)
  • When to say no to a bid (28:30)
  • Why you should invest in relationships regardless of ROI (29:30)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta, and I am with Jennifer Brown.

Today, we are continuing the conversation about using questions to open the door to your expertise. And, specifically, we’ve been going through a prospective client questionnaire. Jennifer has been peeling back the door a little bit and letting us see some of her process. I want to say, whether you’re a D&I practitioner or not, this will be very valuable to you to be able to see how Jennifer works and how questions can be used in such a powerful way.

First of all, Jennifer, thanks, as always, for bringing me on with you. It’s your show. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s my honor, Doug. I love this. I love doing this with you.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you. Thanks so much. Same here. I want to just make sure, if you are picking up here, I would encourage you as a listener to go back and listen to the last minisode so that you can really get a sense of these questions. We started with quantifying requests and really understanding what the client is looking for. We still have a few more questions we’re going to go through on that. I really do encourage you to go back. It’s going to give you some more context for today’s conversation.

Where we are now is we’re talking about one of the questions here, the next question we were up to was timeline and key deliverables – really getting a sense of what is the date for training, when is the launch date for a new process, and I guess the question of when it needs to be done. It seems a little bit intuitive, I guess, that you would want to know that, but can you say a little bit more about the importance of understanding and asking the client about their timeline and key deliverables?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, sure. There’s barely anything more important than this.

DOUG FORESTA: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right? What’s most important is understanding the cadence of the business or the client, whether you’re an internal person or external trying to position or sell somebody, is to understand the rhythm of the business, the big milestones in their calendar, their fiscal year, the expectation for launch, and what’s behind that.

And whenever we craft a program of any kind that has milestones, we like to really synchronize those with the rhythm of the business, right? So, are there key meetings that you need to wrap your deliverables around or anticipate so that you can generate something and get the approvals and have the people around who approve them so that you can hit your own milestones as a provider or internal consultant? But you also know when the organization is going to be focused and when it’s going to be distracted. And who will it be? What levels of the organization?

You can’t just globalize about one business, you have to think about your key stakeholders, and you go back to your stakeholder map and think about entities like the board, the executive team, the CEO. Is the company about to go through a CEO change? Which happens fairly often. How is that going to change the priority that’s placed on whatever you’re talking about?

Are they about to go through a huge organizational restructure? Are a lot of your stakeholders going to be leaving the organization as a result? In the diversity world, it’s really interesting because we work with a lot of junior and mid-level talent who run a lot of employee resource groups, which are the employee-led diversity networks. Sometimes, unfortunately, layoffs and restructuring can really change the mix of employees that are working on what we’re working on, that are our arms and legs, that are driving our workstreams as an external partner. Just be aware of what’s coming up in the business.

When you ask that kind of question, it shows that you’re really being sensitive to synchronizing with the business’s rhythm and milestones and acknowledging the importance of timing.

Very far from designing something in a box and presenting it and saying, “Here’s what I’m going to do and here’s when,” and all that, that’s all fine, you need to have a plan. But no plan is going to work if it’s counter to the rhythm of the business.

That’s what I say about that, Doug. I was looking at our list. I’m going to keep going down, if that’s okay with you.

DOUG FORESTA: Sure, of course.

JENNIFER BROWN: I would like to ask another question: What would success look like?

DOUG FORESTA: I really like that one.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, that’s a powerful one. Again, really important to calibrate this. You can’t decide in a vacuum what success would look like for a client or an internal partner. They need to understand and define that for you because if you skip this step and this question, you’re very much at risk of delivering something that is not what they expected. This can lead to a lot of stress. We call this the “misalignment of expectations.” I’m using business jargon now, but it’s true.

At a basic level, get people to describe what success looks like, if they can. What are we doing and thinking and knowing and acting on differently at the end of this process or throughout at key points in this process, right? If it’s a process and not one deliverable at the end. Sometimes these things are easy. Success looks like the delivery of training to 2,000 managers, and it needs to be done by next year in the spring. Sometimes it’s very clear if it’s one shot or a relatively straightforward single solution.

When you get into consulting of any kind, there are all kinds of complexities and all kinds of subjectivity about what success looks like. I think it’s something that you end up meeting in the middle because you as the provider, expert, you can influence what success looks like, too. A lot of times, my clients don’t know what success looks like.

The dance of consulting is helping people shape what is possible, and at the same time while you’re doing that, maintaining in your mind, “What am I good at? What can I deliver? What can my team deliver?” It ends up becoming somewhat of a bespoke answer, which is that if your client or partner doesn’t know where they’re going, you have to help them understand, “Here are the possibilities. Here’s what you might define as success. Here’s how we might get there. How does that sound or feel? Does that feel realistic? Does that feel exciting?”

What success looks like is ultimately what you’re going to be held accountable for. You’re giving them the language to turn around, sell this, and socialize it internally.

A lot of times, we find our partners are new in their role or they haven’t seen what good looks like or they have not been part of a successful initiative on the topic that we’re there to talk about. They really, honestly, don’t know what success looks like.

This is a really important point to pause and assess. Is the person I’m working with able to conceptualize what the work is or are they swimming? They’re in the dark and they need me to supply not only what the roadmap looks like, but the destination. Paint that picture for them and get them excited about that, and then back into what becomes your project plan, action plan, et cetera. And then they have to sell that internally and get people internally excited about it.

You’re really teaching. A lot of consulting is about this joint shaping energy, joint determination, and creation of a plan, a program, or an outcome.

Consulting being what it is, it continues to shape even after that moment of defining what success looks like, it continues to morph and sometimes it looks very different by the end.

I love this process. It reminds me of my favorite book, Flawless Consulting by Peter Block. I read it in my master’s program. He goes through all of these steps. It calls it the contracting process as a consultant. It is that back and forth with the client to discover your mutual skills and your definitions of success, and then shape something that you can both agree to, sign up to, and jointly drive.

When I first read the book I asked, “Wow, people can actually work this way? This is really cool.” I had always thought about sales as, I’m delivering you something, you’re saying yes and signing on the dotted line. It’s way more collaborative than that, in my experience. Everything we do, most of the time, is highly collaborative, jointly created and agreed to, and then the accountability stems from there.

DOUG FORESTA: Just a quick question on that before we move on. We talked last time about the “BHAG” – big, hairy, audacious goals.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

DOUG FORESTA: Do you find, though, that sometimes you have to walk clients back? In six months we will have no bias in our organization. (Laughter.) Those are great goals, but maybe we’re not going to achieve them in that timeline.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, gosh. Yes. In fact, I’m thinking of a situation right now that we’re in the middle of. Yes, indeed.

Especially these days around diversity and inclusion, for our listeners who know this world well, there are a lot of companies right now putting out these giant goals for representation, for example, like gender parity by a certain year at all levels of the company. They have stars in their eyes and they come to us and say, “Help us achieve that.”

Oftentimes, companies being that they are for-profit enterprises, bottom-line driven, and super distracted because they’ve got a lot of other things going on, they don’t adequately resource around that goal. They say they want to, but then one of the implementations they do is they roll out training about, I don’t know, they want gender parity. They roll out training on gender.

The training, though, might not be the quality that we believe it needs to be in order to change the hearts and minds and make people uncomfortable enough to have enough “ah-hah” moments to drive that goal and achieve it.

It’s a tricky dance as a consultant because, you’re right, sometimes they underestimate what’s possible, and then sometimes they totally overestimate what’s possible in terms of the time it takes for true and sustainable organizational change.

You do have to walk it back sometimes, Doug, and review what they’ve committed to. Sometimes they’ve committed to things publicly, sometimes they’ve committed to their workforce, and now they have to actually deliver them. What success looks like has already been sold, right? The execution may have already begun. Sometimes you can enter something midstream, which is really complicated. Maybe it’s gone off the rails or lost energy or it hasn’t generated the results that they hoped and they’re bringing you in, so you’re in a recovery mode investigating what didn’t work and asking, “What can we build that will work?” I’ve seen both.

On the other end, we have the lowered expectations of what’s possible. We see a lot of clients want to take one discrete course of action, when really good strategies, D&I or not, have to do with a lot of different stakeholders and connecting change into a lot of different parts of the organization so that it can live on, and making sure that things are lined up from the leadership on down, top down, bottom up, that all the key players are involved in a strategy way and not just in a check-the-box kind of way.

More often than not, I’d say we come in and the expectations aren’t high enough, and there also isn’t enough budget allocated. You’re not surprised to hear me say that.

DOUG FORESTA: Let’s talk about that budget piece because that’s actually the next question. Again, I think people can get a sense of why you’d want to discuss budget, but say more about that. What are you looking for? What are you thinking about when you’re asking a client about whether budget has been allocated and how?

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s funny, if I could ask one question first, it would be this. Money indicates the importance of something. When we come in, it’s a signal to us as an external partner that something is well funded, meaning it’s important. It’s going to be an investment for them.

If we don’t see a lot allocated, we always want to know, when is the fiscal year? Is there an opportunity for more to be allocated in the following year, for example? So, that could be another good sign that you want to be looking for.

This gets into how we price our work, which is a whole different minisode, Doug. We may want to think about doing that.

DOUG FORESTA: Absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: I get that question a lot from the people I mentor. You want to speak about the funding of something and making sure that your expertise is going to be paid for adequately and that their expectations are aligned with you.

Sometimes, we’ll have a client come to us and say, “We’re so excited, we can’t wait to work with you, and we have $2500 for training for all of our executive team and we want three sessions.” We have to have those moments saying, “We’re on board with what you’re trying to accomplish, and literally I cannot feed my team with that. I’m so supportive of what you’re trying to do, you’re doing all the right things, and we are not the provider for you.”

That’s why I love this question as the first question, but honestly you can’t get away with asking this question first.

DOUG FORESTA: I know. In a way, it’s a qualifying question, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, it is. It’s incredibly important. Then, what happens is if you don’t know the answer to, “What have you allocated for this?” then you cannot craft a solution that’s realistic. You go down this road, you’re saying, “You could do this, you could do that, and you should stage it this way.” We immediately put our expert hat on to say, “Here’s the best way you can do this.” We lay that out, we put in all of our thinking, and then you have the conversation at the end and they say, “Oh, we have like $5,000.”

DOUG FORESTA: Well, before you go in, you have to know what resources you have.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s it.

DOUG FORESTA: It’s like saying, “Hey, let’s go on a camping trip.” You say, “Okay, I’ll bring the food. What do you have?”

JENNIFER BROWN: I have one water bottle.

DOUG FORESTA: I’ve got a Clif Bar and a water bottle. (Laughter.) Okay, maybe we shouldn’t go on that three-week trip.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s so true. Yet, I want to say whenever it’s a new effort of any kind in a company, it’s not going to be well resourced, right? Resources build over time. One of the things that I want our clients to always be thinking of is strategically gathering budget and putting in a budget for the following year and really planning for the work that needs to happen and planning for the best-case scenario so that you can achieve success. You don’t want to scrimp and cut corners or, as we call it in the diversity world, “tin-cupping.” That’s a depressing saying, but oftentimes for our initiatives, somebody’s going around and “tin-cupping” for money internally in order to get them paid for. Imagine talking about an IT initiative that way or a compliance exercise.

DOUG FORESTA: There would be no tip cup.

JENNIFER BROWN: No, there’s no tin-cupping. It’s been frustrating. I know anyone that’s in my world listening to this knows this, although this is really changing, thank goodness, otherwise I wouldn’t be in business any more. That scarcity mentality and that shoestring approach to D&I as a “nice-to-have” versus a “need-to-have” is changing. This is true for any initiative. If you feel that you’re a nice-to-have or you’re being viewed as a nice-to-have, it’s going to impact your ability to enter the room in a powerful way, have the authority that you need in order to create sustainable change, and be respected as the expert and all of those things that you want to be.

This is hard advice, but for those of us who are internal and we have a new job in this space and we’re so excited, it’s my dream job, maybe I’m leading inclusiveness for the company and they’ve never had somebody leading that. Oh, by the way, you have no budget and you have no team. Good luck.

That is not an unusual scenario. Part of what we have to be really good at is actually pitching for funding. “We,” meaning all of us. That’s for me on the outside, too. Even coaching a client, “Here’s how much you should be asking for, and here’s what doing that well will cost. Here’s how you need to be thinking about any provider, not just me, but to work with a great partner that has any scale to serve you.”

We are a team, and we’re a more expensive resource to partner with because we tend to look at things holistically.

DOUG FORESTA: This is not a one-off training.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. But there are plenty of sole providers, many of whom listen to this podcast, who can come in for less, can work on one discrete thing, and are very happy to do a series of one-offs. One-offs aren’t bad. You’ve got to start somewhere, right?

There is this knowledge I wish our clients and partners would have to ask, “What’s the right partner for the right time for the right budget?”

DOUG FORESTA: That goes to the question you about competitive bids.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

DOUG FORESTA: That segues into that. You want to know from the client whether this is a competitive bid, is that right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. We always want to know what has happened before and who is in the mix and what else are you considering? Either competitive to us, but also maybe complementary to us. Sometimes there are already legacy partners in the mix, and you must know who those are. You must know what they’re doing, you must know how they’re perceived and how their work product has been received.

When you’re a partner, there’s a reputation that you need to get your hands around. How are partners viewed in general here? How are they welcomed? Are they successful? Is the organization open to external expertise and what kind? I’m always interested in how that partner entered the organization and what has worked and what hasn’t worked well. You must know that.

You might be a totally different partner. Maybe a big management consultancy is already in my client. Maybe they have a long working relationship. I want to know who is working on what, for how many years, and if what has made them successful, if they’ve been successful. Similarly, if they haven’t been successful, maybe it’s something in the past and they’re no longer there. That’s incredibly important to know, too. What did they do that didn’t jive with the organizational culture? You want to get underneath that because you want to know how to position yourself differently, obviously. Stay away from the pitfalls that impacted their working relationship to the point where they are no longer there.

Also, you want to know what do I need to overcome in terms of assumptions about companies like mine? In the D&I world, what am I going to need to overcome that didn’t work in the past because of another supplier? Now, I have to redo the perception of our work and I need to position it and brand it, market it, or socialize it differently. I’ve got to draw a contrast between us and the work ahead and what’s gone before that didn’t go well.

This is really important. I always ask to see the documents. This leads to the next question, Doug. Hey, client, would you be willing to sign an NDA and share your historical documents with us? I want to see what has been delivered. What are the artifacts of programs that have been run in the past, whether internal or from an external partner? I want to look at those. I want to look at how things are positioned. I want to see how professional it looked.

In my world, we can talk about D&I in a million different ways. If I see that maybe a previous program talked in a very old-school way or a very simplistic, “101” way, and we’re going to come in and do the 301, I’m going to know that so that I can position not only the difference, but think about what the organization is ready for. Are they ready for 301? What have they gone through in the past and how do I get them there?

It’s always constantly connecting and calibrating to the current state and the past. That’s important. You ignore that at your peril. Then you just come in, guns blazing, you’re in love with your own solution, which most people are, and you think it’s going to be successful. It can really bite you if you go forward without looking back first and without requesting the lay of the land.

We do that with an NDA. We even do it before we sign a proposal. Oftentimes, we will request those documents in order to create a proposal. We need to know what success looks like and what we’re actually offering, bidding on, and pricing. That needs to be informed by what’s gone in the past, what’s worked well, and what hasn’t worked well. I prefer to never write a proposal in the dark.

DOUG FORESTA: I was going to say, I imagine that allows you to write a richer, more realistic proposal.

JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly. You’re looking at the landmines ahead of time. I’ll close by saying you select your clients, too. I know for the employees on this podcast, you can say, “Well, I don’t get to select what I work on. I’m an employee.” And that’s the blessing and the curse of getting a paycheck every two weeks. I have to do this, I have a limited number of choices I can make, I can’t say no. I have to do it.

When you’re on the consulting side, you can say no, actually. And if you’re sufficiently concerned after all that we’ve talked about – you’ve calibrated, you’ve thought about the organizational culture, you’ve thought about what success looks like, you’ve thought about what you know how to do and whether it matches what they need. You may, at that point, say, “I don’t think we can be successful,” or, “I think you’ve set your goal too high, and we can’t help you meet it. We don’t want to set ourselves up for failure, and we want to give you some feedback on your goals. We want you to be successful, too, whether you’re working with us or not, and here’s what we hear in your strategy and the way you’re crafting this problem or scoping this or setting expectations that aren’t realistic.”

Remember, whether you end up getting a bid or not, working with a client or not, you’re educating all the time. In a great sales process, as we were talking about in an earlier minisode, your value starts the very second you start the sales process. Even your question-asking will help guide people in their thinking and maybe even change and shift what they think success looks like. That’s a great legacy that we leave that doesn’t necessarily always get attached to, “Now I’m going to write you a check for the rest of your expertise.”

You never know. Sometimes I have people call us that I had conversations with when they were at a different company, and then they go to a new company, they call me again, and we have a very different conversation because they’re now in a different setting.

DOUG FORESTA: Different story. Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, totally. Things change on the client side, too. These are relationships that you should be investing in all the time, whether or not there’s an ROI for you. You never know, people remember conversations. They remember going down a road with you. They remember that you know your stuff. They remember that you were very thorough. They remember you were very audience focused, and not so much peddling your own wares, but really dedicated to helping somebody think through what’s in front of them.

That’s what really good consultants know how to do. It could be an hour, it could be a year-long working relationship. I think we are always adding value. I know I get smarter every time I have these conversations on our side, too. It’s really fun work. I prefer it so much to saying, “Here is my menu of services and products and your only job is to choose A, B, or C, and sign on the dotted line.”

DOUG FORESTA: Right. One from column A, one from column B, and one from column C.

JENNIFER BROWN: Totally. Prix fixe.

DOUG FORESTA: To be continued, Jennifer. This has been amazing. You don’t even have to be a D&I practitioner. If you’re a consultant of any kind, you’re going to get a lot out of this.

Next time, we’ll continue the conversation talking about climate and really understanding the climate of the organization. That will be our next one. Stay tuned.

As always, thank you so much, Jennifer, for sharing your expertise and being willing to allow us to take a peek behind the curtain. I know a lot of people are interested in how you do what you do.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. I love talking about this. It’s a hard one, and I feel like nobody taught me because it’s not really in any books, and Peter Block’s book is really old, but it’s a classic. I’m hoping there are some more books out on consulting that I just haven’t discovered. I’d love to hear what those go-to resources are from our listeners.

This is the good stuff. This is a whole arena of work that I felt like I didn’t know about. Once I discovered it, I thought, “Well, that I can be good at. I think I can do that.” I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s given me a little boost. I love to ask questions, it’s one of my favorite things. It’s an intuitive fit for a lot of us who are innately curious about others and are, I would say, “low ego” about our solutions and really about generating outcomes for ourselves, but especially for others, which is what drives us at JBC.

Thanks for the opportunity, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you. Thanks, Jennifer. To be continued. Looking forward to the next one.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.

DOUG FORESTA: Thanks, everyone.