How To Leverage Associations & Specialty Groups For High-Value Clients with Dean West: Podcast #313

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Dean West’s journey teaches us that even at 50, making strategic changes and staying committed to restructuring can turn challenges into opportunities. In this episode, we hear Dean’s story and secrets behind leveraging associations and specialty groups to securing high-value clients. Associations, often underrated, can be compared to valuable goldmines for fostering relationships. Dean discusses all about them, dispelling common misconceptions about associations and shedding light on the myriad opportunities they present. Dean also shares how to craft the right content, understand the power of restructuring, and his pivotal point at 50. Tune in now and unlock the doors to high-value clients.

  • In this episode with Dean, you’ll learn how to:
    • The #1 mistake consultants make when launching their practice.
    • Create a business that doesn’t revolve around YOU.
    • Create an engagement period to grow your funnel.
    • Utilize publications to grow your brand.
    • Differentiate yourself from other consultants in the marketplace.
    • Improve your profit margins.
  • Dean’s 4-Step Approach to Land a Speaking Gig
    • What do you want the audience to do after the audience is done listening to me? Be clear on what value you are providing.
    • Demonstrate that you can customize your speech to certain audiences. Show you can speak their language.
    • Can you prove it? Prove that you can do what you’ve promised.
    • What separates you from other speakers? Utilize testimonials and videos to showcase your value.
  • Resources
  • Download your FREE Consulting Blueprint
  • Association Laboratory
  • My Seat at the Bar
  • Connect with Dean on LinkedIn

Joining Michael on the show is Dean West, who’s the Founder and President of Association Laboratory, Inc. He’s renowned for his roles as a speaker and facilitator at National and Global Association Leadership Meetings. He’s also the acclaimed author behind the popular blog From My Seat At The Bar. Dean outlines the challenges many new consultants face when trying to grow their firm. He had to restructure his organization at one point, which took him up to several years to do.

If you’re a consultant and you’re motivated to elevate your business from 6 to 7 figures and want to avoid the same mistakes that Dean made, we have something for you. We’re offering a free consulting blueprint that can be your guide to growing to seven figures. To download it free, all you have to do is visit to secure your free copy.

Let me tell you a little bit more about what you’re going to learn in this episode. The first is the number one mistake consultants make when launching their practice, how to create a business that doesn’t revolve around you, how to create an engagement period to grow your funnel, and how to utilize publications to grow your brand. How do you differentiate yourself from other consultants in the marketplace and how do you improve your profit margins and Dean’s four-step approach to landing a speaking gig, plus so much more? Here to share with you his insight and story is Dean West. Enjoy.

Welcome, Dean.

Thanks for having me. I am excited about it.

I’m looking forward to our conversation. Why don’t we start and have you share concisely what the Association Laboratory does?

Association Laboratory is a consulting firm that serves the trade and professional association industry sector. I joke that our clients range from the American College of Surgeons on one side of the spectrum to the Institute of Makers of Explosives on the other side of the spectrum. We get a whole range of nonprofit organizations, social services, trade groups, and professional societies.

We do three things. One is we provide strategic planning and strategy services. We’re a full-service research company. We do traditional strategy consulting work. Two is we’re the leading source of sector research on the association sector by far. That’s through our looking-forward dashboard. That’s free for people to use who are interested in the nonprofit sector.

Finally, we produce leadership, education, and competency development that ranges from our healthcare CEO conference this February 2023. We’re doing it again to white papers and various other resources that we produce. The idea behind it is we try to help trade-in professional association leaders make better decisions.

Not everybody wakes up and goes, “I’m going to start serving the association market.” Take us back in time a little bit. What were you doing before you got into this? What made you decide that this was the area you wanted to focus on?

I grew up in a small town in Central Iowa. My father was a politician. When I got out of college with my marketing degree, he suggested I become a lobbyist. I’ve never gotten a good answer for him why he thought I would be good at that. I became a lobbyist for the Iowa Medical Society by cold-calling associations in Des Moines.

CSP Dean West | Associations

I started going to Chicago because if I got to Chicago, a staff member of the American Medical Association could take me and all her friends out for free on her expense account. It finally dawned on me I could get a job in Chicago. I went to work for a consulting firm that ran professional societies. I worked for the American Society of Clinical Oncology. I became an executive director of two different associations and an owner of that firm as part of a buyout by the management team.

What I discovered was despite the fact I had interesting work, I’d always had good bosses. I had an ownership stake at this point in my life. In my young 30s, I was still frustrated by the lack of freedom I felt I had to design the organization. I thought it would be fun to work at an organization that revolved around the people and not vice versa. I felt limited.

I started the company in 1999. We celebrate our 25th anniversary in 2024. I’m excited about that. I wish I had taken more pictures in my young 30s about that startup. My fundamental inspiration was I felt limited by some of the companies I had been working with and for, even ones I enjoyed working with and for, with good bosses and good staff teams. I wanted to create my own vision of culture and the work and give myself more freedom to do what I wanted to do.

That resonates and aligns with a lot of the research that we’ve seen when we’ve done studies at Consulting Success. A common reason for people to venture off and build their own consulting business is what you said. They want more freedom and flexibility. Another common one is to be your own boss, have unlimited income-earning potential, or be able to make a greater impact. Some of those things that you mentioned connect with what we often see. Take us to that time. You decide you’re going to leave the “stability” of a full-time job. You’re working in Chicago. When you decided to go off in 1999 and establish the Association Laboratory, how did you get your first few clients? What did you do to start bringing in business?

It began more organically. When you hear the story of people’s company, their origination stories are the phrase we use. You picture someone working until midnight after work every day, writing business plans, and plotting this all out. The reality is it’s more organic. When I realized I had come up against a wall at my current firm, we didn’t have a good management team. I was part of that team so I was part of the problem. I didn’t have the ability to fix it internally and the competencies to do it. I introduced other organizations.

Other organizations had similar challenges and opportunities. I didn’t see myself doing anything different at the end of the day. Gradually, over time, what became apparent was it was time to try and hang out my own shingle and see if I could make it as a consulting firm. I say it like that because what’s common nowadays is all of us get calls from our friends. I’m a consultant now. What they’re doing is trying to get some gig work before their next full-time job. Your mentality when you say, “I am starting a company,” is different than saying, “I want to make it through the next several months because I hate my job.”

I committed to starting my own firm. Part of that was to take an honest look at myself. One of the things I did at my old firm was I had done business development before. I have worked with boards of directors, provided consulting services, and looked at the operational and legal mechanisms as part of my job. I didn’t feel I was getting into an arena I was unfamiliar with from a company side. I was working in an industry in which I had an existing reputation. I wasn’t a stranger to the work and marketplace.

I always remember the first day at work because I started the company out of my condo in Chicago. On my first day of work, I walked across the street with my newly purchased laptop that I bought when I cashed in my 401(k) and I typed a list in. That list became a list of prospects that we faxed saying, “Association Laboratory is open for business. Give us your money.” It was more fun than that, but that was the announcement of the company.

The thing that frightens people when they start in consulting is where the money comes from. Click To Tweet

What happened when you sent that out? What was the response, if any?

It was a letter announcing it and we followed up with a fax response sheet. If you’re interested in services, fax this back to us. For those of you who are younger reviewing this, you can look up facts on ChatGPT and what it was. I had a response mechanism. That started to generate the initial activity. I did know of a person looking for work whom I had worked with historically. I said, “I am starting this firm. You’ve got this engagement. Do you mind hiring me?” I had a first client.

This is where people sometimes sabotage themselves. I went to my company and said, “I’m leaving. You have clients that I’m responsible for. I will continue to be responsible for them until you can find somebody else.” I worked with my old firm of which I was one of the stockholders. I worked with my own firm for several months.

Was that done still as an employee? You shifted it more to a contractor.

I’m 32 at that time. I would send them an hourly invoice once a month for hours on behalf of the client. It saved them from having to go through these transitions with clients and having to find somebody immediately. They knew who I was. I knew who they were. The thing that frightens people when they start consulting is where the money comes from.

The more money you have, the more time you have. The more time you have to get a client, the more time you have to correct mistakes. I started with cashflow. I had engagements with my previous firm. It was negotiated out with them. It was good for them and me. I had a new client. For the first six months, I wasn’t suddenly burning through savings and credit. I’m putting things on credit cards, things like your mortgage.

You talk about making your previous employer almost your first client. We’ve seen in our studies that about 50% of all consultants, their first client is a previous employer. It may not be the most recent one, but it’s a previous employer, which reinforces what you’re saying about the importance of making sure that you value relationships and take care of them because you never know where those opportunities would come from.

The other thing that I want to point out to you that you mentioned is you talk about the mindset that you had, which was not to try and land a gig or do work. You were thinking, it sounds like, from early on being intentional in building a consulting business or a firm. This is a big difference between the mindset of a consultant/contractor, the person who’s thinking about delivering and thinking that doing work is enough, and somebody who’s thinking, “I need to run a business. Therefore, I need to think about business development. I need to send letters out, do faxes, and do follow-ups or whatever it is to tap my network.”

CSP Dean West | Associations

I’m getting the sense that, in addition to being conscious of managing your cashflow and finding ways to reduce risk when you’re looking to launch the business, you’re also intentional and proactive on the business development front and making sure that the work was going to be there or there were more chances for it to be. Does that sound accurate?

The more subtle nuance behind this is you make different decisions when you start a company than if you’re biding time for your next job. When I first started the firm, that was subtle. One is it is the Association Laboratory. It’s not Dean West Consulting. If I tie it to my name, it becomes harder to separate it. What if I want to sell the company? That works for some of the big consulting firms that are named after Deloitte and some others. That’s the age of the answering machine.

I had a woman leave the answering machine message. It wasn’t always Dean’s voice. I always speak in the we, not the I. We are going to do this. What it does is, in your mind, help you understand you have this separate entity that you are responsible for sustaining and growing, but the entity also has responsibilities to you.

I joke with my friends that Association Laboratory as an entity is designed to give me lucrative, interesting work. That’s the job of the company. If it’s not doing that, I, as Dean West, the person, I’m not obligated to keep doing it. I reassessed when I turned 50 whether I wanted to keep running the Association Laboratory. I’m not obligated to keep doing it for the entirety of my life. If it’s not doing its job, why should I keep doing it?

I want to make a little note of that and come back to it because you brought up something that is on the minds of people, depending on where they’re at in the chapters of their book of life. We’re going to jump around a little bit here because there’s a lot of ground I want to cover. Take us from the past to the present time on the marketing business development side of things. What has that evolved to? What are you finding at your company is working best to generate leads, build your pipeline, and create conversations? What does that look like now?

When you look at a lot of professional services firms, their size is dictated by the number of principles. If you and I, Michael, start a company, you and I have our combined networks. If we do it by ourselves, it’s us. From a marketing standpoint, one of my first goals was to generate leads for businesses that don’t involve Dean shaking someone’s hand. We do that through a content and education strategy. Two is how do we create a price premium for our services? The sector research, in particular, does that for us.

When you think of our white papers that we produce, and we talk about our sector research, what that does is cast a wide funnel across our sector of people that Dean has never met. We have a diverse product portfolio strategy. We work in a wide variety of areas. We have retainer agreements with healthcare societies. We’ve worked on emerging leader programs. We worked in DEI in the DEI space because multiple channels across a wide funnel increase your revenue.

I want to hit on that marketing business development point. What I’m hearing you say is it sounds like the main thrust and focus is content, which can include data studies, creation of content, and intellectual property that’s not associated necessarily with you or your name but more with the company. The focus is to put that out there so it can “sell without selling.”

The focus is to put content out there so that it can essentially “sell without selling.” Click To Tweet

We’re building our brand strength in the marketplace. We’re using technical platforms to give as broad a reach as possible. That has evolved into a revenue stream.

When you say technical platforms, can you explain what that means for those who aren’t familiar with them?

You can publish yourself on LinkedIn for effectively nothing. We put together a list of several thousand potential prospects in our sector that we talk with once a month. In order to be successful, you have to identify and reach a substantial market. Those are right out of an MBA.

How are you doing that? When you say that you have this list of high-value ideal clients and you’re in touch with them once a month, is that an email? Is it picking up the phone?

It’s a passive email newsletter. I make it simple. It’s not particularly sales-oriented. It’s more of a resource. Nobody has the time to talk to us once a week. We don’t waste their time, but we consistently produce it in the first week of each month. It’s cleverly called our education update. That will have links to that month’s educational opportunities. There are some fees we charge. You have special notifications of some particular thing. If I’m speaking at an event and if it’s relevant to them, we might put some of that. There’ll be a tip, but it’s one page. It’s not big and not complex. My blog, From My Seat of the Bar, is the most popular thing we do on that front.

If you are a prospect, what we’re trying to do is create a minimal relationship with you and educate you about the breadth of our activities. With the industry sector research, you can access it for free but you have to register. That puts your name on our list. That creates a relationship with you. If you’re on the list, we can talk to you.

If you’re uncertain about how much money to give us, you come to one of our webinars for $40. The financial barriers to entry to have a relationship are low at that stage. You get more experience with us. Number one, our face-to-face events at $600 to $700. Maybe you pay a couple of thousand to come to have me speak, then it’s consulting. Our engagement period is wide and free to narrow and expensive. At the top end, how do we get you engaged with us as quickly, easily, and with as low a cost as possible so we can talk to you and try to walk you down that funnel into the more substantial numbers into consulting?

Another way to say that, hopefully, this will be helpful for some, but you’re casting the top of the funnel. The goal is to build the audience. It’s still trying to attract people who are relevant and could be ideal clients, but it takes very little of your time. It’s one to many in terms of creating a newsletter, content, whatever it might be. That brings a lot of people in.

CSP Dean West | Associations

Over time, there are different opportunities for people to engage with you at different levels from free to tens of dollars, hundreds of dollars, thousands of dollars, all the way down to the highest value and highest price or fee, which would be the actual consulting engagements. You’ll have far fewer people down there, but there’s a lot of opportunity for people to build a relationship with you or get to know you without necessarily having to invest a lot of money upfront.

Our key to this is in our content. Publishing stuff on LinkedIn, for example, you’re one of a billion people. Because of sector research, we can talk to our market in a much more evidence-based way. We have sector research no one else has. Ranging from my speeches to informing our webinars the whole bit. If you are on a board of directors, you could come to our sector research. You could register for free. There’s some value to that. You don’t have to check in all the time. You can access and customize that data to your sector. You can customize it to state, province, or global. You can customize it by industry. Download it and use it for free. You’re on our list.

I was talking to a bunch of clients about the value of leveraging data in their business. I’m happy to hear you share that because you’re right. What’s going to cut through the noise? How are you going to stand out if you’re one of many? It doesn’t matter now. For anyone who’s joining us, whether you’re running $100,000 a year, a $10 million a year consulting business, or anywhere in between, there’s an opportunity for you if you’re not already using and leveraging data to do more with it. That will differentiate you from everybody else who’s sharing the same things over and over again.

I’ll go back to the start. When I first hung my shingle out by myself as a consultant, everybody with a laptop in my sector was a theoretical competitor. How do you separate yourself? As my company grew and we became better and more sophisticated, our competitors became better and more sophisticated. I don’t compete with a person with a laptop anymore. I compete with established firms who also have good people, proven processes, and good track records. Some are friends of mine. They’re all good. Regardless of your size, how do you differentiate yourself in the market relative to the people you compete with?

When I hang my shingle out, I’m not competing with good firms at the top end of my sector. No one expects me to. I’m less expensive. I’m competing with somebody with a laptop. As we got better, our competitors got better. The sector research for us is we call it research-driven and peer-informed content. It’s not deemed writing a thing or one of our strategists writing a thing. It comes out of the sector research. The sector research allows us to differentiate ourselves on the consulting side. You hire us as consultants. We know what the rest of the sector is doing and nobody else does.

It all ties together. That’s the nature of the pieces of the puzzle. It’s all designed to generate leads for businesses across the spectrum of price. Somebody in our staff doesn’t have to shake a hand and build our brand strength to the extent that we can get a price premium on our core services. Our core strategic planning service is almost twice as expensive now as several years ago for effectively the same service.

I want to ask you more about associations. Associations are a big opportunity for consultants if they’re strategic and proactive with them. You’re somebody who’s lived and breathed that ecosystem for many years. For a consultant who wants to write for an association publication, newsletter, blog, or speak in front of an association because the members of that association are their ideal clients, let’s go through a few questions that might be relevant to them. Number one, who should they target? Let’s say they’ve found an association they believe their ideal clients are part of. Who should they be reaching out to in that association to try and find those speaking or writing opportunities?

Generally speaking, it will be through an education or meetings person like the chief staff person responsible for education or the chief staff person who responds to meetings. There’s more variation in that. Not to get nerdy about it, but the association will have a mechanism that’s generally easy to identify off the website responsible for program development.

As we get better, our competitors get better. Click To Tweet

You wouldn’t suggest going after the executive director or somebody at a higher level.

That’s the challenge. Sometimes, it would be the executive director, and others would not. It’ll vary. The staff will be cooperative in telling you who you talk to. If you call up and say, “I speak at conventions. Who should I speak to?” They’ll know who to send you to and will generally be cooperative. There are some groups where associations aggregate themselves.

The largest in the world based out of DC is called the American Society of Association Executives. They hold an annual convention every August. For those of you who are more interested in speaking and facilitating who have an agent, ASAE often works with speaker agencies to showcase speakers at that event and others. We’re working with the National Speaker Association. We go to ASAE, and we are active ASAE throughout the year because that’s an organization that aggregates our market most effectively.

Can you say or share what ASAE stands for?

It’s the American Society of Association Executives.

For those that aren’t in the US, look for something that may be equivalent in your own country.

Outside of the US, the association industry is far less developed. Outside of the US, the biggest center is Brussels because of the EU. There are agencies in South America and Africa. They’re smaller. I’ve spoken at the Indian Association Congress and the Dubai Association Congress. They are a tiny fraction of the size of the United States.

These are groups of people inside of all the different associations. If you wanted to speak to somebody from the construction association at the ASAE to meet with other people in the associations, that’s the central point.

CSP Dean West | Associations

There are also state groups. There’s an Iowa Society of Association Executives around Ontario. There are also some specialty groups. The National Association of Manufacturers has a leadership group. The Chamber of Commerce has what they call the Committee of 100. There are other smaller entities that you can access more locally. If you know somebody who works for an association, you can ask them. They’ll tell you. They’ll say, “Go to the Georgia Society of Association Executives.” It’s not that difficult to identify with little online research.

My experience has been there are plenty of associations and opportunities out there for people who are looking for them. Let’s take a step forward and assume that somebody who’s joining us now is thinking, “I could do more with associations that I’m not doing right now. I want to write, speak, and get in front of my ideal clients through these associations. In your experience, Dean, what should somebody say if they want to reach out to land a speaking or a writing opportunity? Is there anything that you’ve found helpful in terms of the right language? At the same time, is there anything they should be avoiding and not saying?

Associations are small businesses. A big association will have a $25 million to $50 million budget. The pyramid of the industry is tiny at the top and huge at the bottom. What that means is you’re dealing with small businesses. They don’t have a lot of time and extra resources to navigate you. One is they want to know what their audience is going to get out of you.

One of the questions I ask when people come to me up speaking is, what do you want the audience to be able to do once they’re done listening to me? Do you want to be motivated and excited? Do you want them to support some new initiative? Two, you have to demonstrate that you can customize what you’re talking about to their audience. When you’re speaking to an audience of several hundred surgeons, you say something different than we speak to an audience of several hundred commercial mining executives. How will the things you talk about resonate with this audience?

Their leadership challenges would be different if you talk about leadership. If you talk to dental hygienists, who are predominantly women, and you want to motivate them or inspire them, you’d say something different than a bunch of commercial mining marketing execs under predominantly men. A) What do you want them to do when they’re done? B) What is it you’re saying that will resonate with them? C) Can you prove it? D) Is there anything that separates you from all the other people who can answer those questions?

These are things like a video of people applauding you and how wonderful you are and testimonials, things that show you’re not an amateur. Everyone else’s good will do that same thing. What differentiates you? When I speak, everything starts with our sector research because I know nobody else has it. That becomes my differentiator.

From a cultural standpoint, I’m a smart ass. I’m clear on that. I’m not a serious academic speaker. They know that the tone, topic, and things of that nature will fit that. There are groups that don’t want that. They want a serious academic speaker. Understanding where you fit in the niche of all these other folks becomes critical. Otherwise, you don’t know what to say or why you have to be able to answer that question.

Those four points are important. Those will be helpful for people. I want to rewind from where you’re now. You mentioned something about when you turned 50 several years ago. You’ve been in this business since 1999. You started to think about, “Should I continue on in this business?” I want to highlight this a little bit or spend a bit of time on it because it’s such an important area to consider. I’d want to hear about your experiences. What were you thinking? What were you going through at that time?

The pyramid of the industry is really tiny at the top and really huge at the bottom. Click To Tweet

There’s this mythology of the entrepreneur that we all are deeply passionate about, fill in the blank industry or profession. We all work 90-hour weeks. It’s all we can do to say hi to our spouses or kids because we’re deeply passionate about it all the time. After several years, it also becomes work. You love going on vacation and leaving it all behind. If I had any advice, go on vacation and leave it all behind.

When I was turning 50, I was frustrated. It’s one thing to struggle when you first start. It’s another thing to have the ups and downs in any normal business. There’s a recession, war, and all the stuff that impacts us. When I turned 50, I had a great deal of public respect and public-facing acknowledgment that we were good and we’d gotten an award. We were also going broke. I was frustrated that I was working hard to have such a poor company, not in terms of the quality of our work on our client, but it seemed like we were working hard to be broke.

I don’t mean to interrupt, but I want to make sure that I understand or if you could fill us in for myself and others. Take us to that time. Was it five people?

I have about a half dozen folks. The year we had our highest revenue was also the year I lost the most money.

What was going on there? Take us behind the scenes. How is it that you had half a dozen people and you’re billing whatever you’re billing? Whatever you can share would be great. What was going on to cause you to be in that cashflow situation?

We’re under $1 million in billings. Our revenue keeps going up. We’re growing. At the end of every year, we have less money. We’re taking on debt to cover that cashflow. As the owner, I have looked at myself as two responsibilities. One of my responsibilities is to protect everyone else from risk. They’re getting paid. It’s up to me. I’m the one who takes the ownership risk. You don’t burden your staff with it. It is one of my philosophies.

The second for me is I’m the safety net. If everything is going wrong, I’m the one who saves it all. I’m the one who gets blamed if anything goes wrong. I’m protecting my staff from that financial situation, but I know it as an owner, and it’s getting more frustrating. I came to this conclusion at the time. Our cost structure was too high. It didn’t matter how much more money we made if our cost structure was wrong.

When you say cost structure, do you mean there were hard expenses that were much higher, but you weren’t charging enough and the margins weren’t strong enough?

Don’t burden your staff with the ownership risk. Click To Tweet

We almost charge more. The trouble is our clients get a say in that. If it was a matter of raising prices, I’d have raised prices but our clients argue that with us. One of our people was twice as expensive and worked half as many hours as one of my current staff. I always use $100 an hour because I can do the math with my marketing degree, but picture $1,000 hours a year at $100 an hour is $100,000. Two thousand hours a year heavy full-time and 1,800 days full-time. With that same $100,000, I cut my cost by half. I gained that capacity. My people were expensive and were working few hours because I was heavily contractor-based. I went through a complete business model shift.

The other problem we had was creating a cohesive culture. People were working hard in fragments, but we couldn’t put people together well because everybody worked hard. They’re all friends of mine still. I don’t have a complaint about the people, but the structure was unsustainable. When we were smaller, it didn’t seem as bad. As you got bigger, instead of losing $1,000, it was $50,000. Instead of $50,000, it was $100,000. All of a sudden, the numbers got big in a couple of years because we started growing heavily about 2010. We doubled in size in the last several years.

As we got bigger, the losses got bigger. We had to restructure. The restructuring took me several years because we had to phase out people in the workforce. We had to identify and develop new people. Here is a quick example. The first person we hired as a full-time person was the same amount of hard money or cash as a contractor working a third as much. I get all that capacity for the same amount of money.

We became much more profitable and financially sustainable, which allowed us to invest in the sector research and some of the education and take some risks that we didn’t have the money for before on the education side. That all helped us. When I turned 50, that was one of my frustrations. I had a good network. I had a bunch of public-facing stuff. I was speaking all over the world. I was doing all this stuff. I knew I could get a job. At 50, I’m like, “If I’m going to do something different, now is the time.”

I called a bunch of my friends who I respected and said, “Should I keep doing this? What else might I do?” I would go through the problems I had with the company. I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t unhappy with my company and my performance. When I knew it was my performance that was holding the company back and my unwillingness to fundamentally restructure, that’s what was driving me nuts. I could get out or fundamentally restructure. That’s when I began the restructuring of the company.

It took 4 or 5 years to go from start to finish in that restructuring, which sounds like a long time. I’m wondering. When you said you recognized it was your underperformance or it was about you and not about the company, did you feel a difference when you started the restructuring? Did you only feel it when the restructuring was done? How quickly, from the time that you were aware of what was going on, it was you and not the company? Did you start to feel a difference in the day-to-day running of the business?

I knew it was going to be better immediately, but the daily work was worse because you’re still stuck with your old company and you’re investing in the new side. We were hiring younger staff that required more development. One of our conclusions was we had to create consultants because the people we were bringing in off the street didn’t know how to do it.

We now have a six-domain professional development track for a new consultant. Everything from how to do email to critical and strategic thinking. We have to create consultants who understand how to do it because the core of people in our sector don’t know how even though a lot of them do consulting. I had those people starting while I was still working with people under a structure that was less cost-effective. The people are all good. It’s not a criticism of folks. You’re caught in between.

Risk is the other person’s money. Fear is your own money. Click To Tweet

When I recognized it, it was about several years later. We had two new people and some that were working well together. The staff was working. You could go to one of our client games and say, “Somebody has to do this thing. They went off and did it. All of a sudden, there were clients I’d never spoken to. People were calling me and saying, “Your staff person did a great job.” I used to have to be part of all those clients to keep told it all together. Suddenly, I’m not part of it.

People are key in a business. As founders, we often can get in our own way.

You’re unwilling to tear it down. It’s one thing to read in the Wall Street Journal about how Citibank is restructuring. When it’s your own little tiny firm and it’s your life, you have to talk to your spouse about it and decide if you’re going to put more of your own money into it. It’s a lot more personal. My quote is, “Risk is the other person’s money. Fear is your own money.” They teach in business class about managing risk and assessing risk. When it’s your house on the line, or your kid’s going to college, it’s not risk. It’s fear. Should you put enough money to buy another house into your company that is not performing at that point in time? That’s the mentality behind it. It’ll work for the most part.

Is there one thing looking back now on what you’ve gone through in terms of that transition, knowing what you know now that you would’ve done differently, even about the transition itself, or a lesson you feel could have made a difference?

I don’t know what I would’ve done differently. The variable out of this is, how much money do you have? Because of our financial performance, we didn’t have a lot of money. Money gives you time. We could only progress at the speed of new business. As clients came in and as we put money in the bank, we could invest in the shifts.

It takes time to develop someone. We brought in another strategist. The last two strategists we hired are more senior. They’re a little bit more immediately ready than the first couple. That’s not a criticism of any of them. It’s a time issue. When I look for at our staff or at our client retention, it dipped. At the same time, things were getting better financially. It dipped because we went from a client base where I had to touch every client to getting spread thin with a more junior staff team and good work, but not great work.

Our retention went down. Now our retention is back up. About 30% of our business is from existing clients. You can see that dip where we got spread thin across the client base in ways we couldn’t serve them as well as we wanted in any meaningful way. We did what we promised. We did good work but not the exceptional work that gets repeat business and that cost us financially. I don’t think we’ve gotten out of it until the last several years.

Dean, I want to thank you for being open and sharing some of the journey and lessons learned along the way. As I hear you sharing your story with me, this is one of the things that I appreciate the most about business, which is it doesn’t matter how hard the situation is because you’re always going to be in a hard situation at one point or another in business.

At the end of the day, what you’re doing has to be a platform for your own success. Click To Tweet

The beautiful thing about business is if our mindset allows us not to hunker down and hide but rather face the facts and be open to dealing with it, we can always find ways to rebound or build back up. A beautiful opportunity that we all have is to know that if we’re in control, open to it, and accept that challenge, we can go from being in a tough situation like you were in at that time to turning things around because you were aware.

The fact that you reached out to a bunch of different people that you know and respect and asked them for their feedback is fantastic because a lot of people wouldn’t even take that step. They wouldn’t be open to that potential criticism or feedback because they wouldn’t want to share the tough time that they were in. Doing that helps to get some clarity in your mind around, “The problem is in the company is me and how I’m thinking or operating.”

I’m thinking about these things because it is our 25th anniversary in 2024. I never envisioned it going 25 years. That was alien to me. For those reading this, when you start your own company of whatever size, whether you start it, buy it, or inherit it, one of the jobs of the company as an entity is to be a platform for your own success however you define it. Maybe it’s financial security, an opportunity to pass on a legacy to your kids or to travel. You have to look openly and honestly at your own organization and say, “Is it acting as a platform the way you want it to act for you and your team?”

I tell that to my own team. This company is a platform for what you want out of it. Do you want to speak at conferences? Those needs come on. When I spoke at a conference in Dubai, I remember we were at the speaker table and everyone was talking about, like, “How you got here?” I go, “I started out my career in this little tiny town in Central Iowa. I come right down a 1,300 Central Iowa. I don’t come from money or any big fancy thing. I’m going to be speaking in Dubai at the World Congress in Dubai in 2021.”

The result of that is because of the platform my consulting business gave me. Think of the platform the company can give you and what you want to accomplish for you as a person and your family. If it’s not doing that, you’re not obligated to keep doing it. Give it to somebody else, shut it down, or go to work at Starbucks. You’re not forced to keep doing it because you started it. At the end of the day, it’s got to be a platform for your own success. That’s the measure of your success when you’re running it.

Dean, I want to thank you again so much for coming on. For those who want to learn more about you and your work, and you also talked about some of the research, data, and all that you have, where’s the one place that we should direct people to learn all about all that?

My most popular thing is my corporate blog, which is called From My Seat at the Bar. It’s because a lot of us sit by ourselves at a hotel bar, jot down on napkins, read, and do all sorts of things. It is an irreverent, arguably sometimes offensive take on the association sector and leadership. You can find it at and look for From My Seat at the Bar. Topics include everything from how my wife called me fat to what deer hunting taught me about consulting. It’s by far the most widely read thing I do.

Dean, thanks again so much for coming on.

It’s my pleasure. Have a great time.

There you have it for this episode between Michael and Dean. If you enjoy this episode, then be sure to hit that subscribe button. If you want to help support the Consulting Success Show, you can do so by sharing this episode with a friend or colleague. If you want to work directly with the Consulting Success Team to receive personalized coaching and support to optimize and grow your consulting firm, visit to apply. That’s the end of the line for us this week. We’ll be back with another episode. Until next time.


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