The Initial Consult

“We need to [insert the what] in six months.” Raise revenue? Get people aligned and working together? Grow the organization? Hire the perfect new leader? Cultivate a new partner?

Whatever “the what” is, you’ve really thought about it. You may have lost sleep over it, fought with your board over it. Your conclusions may be infused with history and culture. A lot is going on here.

On our first conversation, I am looking through the tiniest window. You say you need “X,” and in the next breath you might say, “Can you do that?”

So far, I do not believe or disbelieve anything you say. But it is not, is not, is not about all the smart stuff I know. It is about you.

So, I listen – no, not the kind of listening where you talk and I sit there like a bump on a log and repeat back what you said. No.

I ask juicy questions. Then, maybe you go quiet for a second or two, listening in before you begin to respond. Or maybe you don’t miss a beat, and you are off to the races – sharing away. Either way, when you respond, I give you my full attention.

I respond to you. If you tell me about a really tough situation, I will surely tell you that indeed you are not imagining it. It is tough. What you are experiencing is not your fault! Because it isn’t. (Hard to hear, I know. It’s so much easier when there is a clear culprit.)

I ask more questions, such as “What have you already tried?” You are smart. You are resourceful. You are probably calling me after a few hundred times around the block. You have learned lessons and crossed some things off your list. You know your organization best. You have unique insight that no expert has about what will work and what won’t.

As you share, here is what I listen for:

  • What do you care about?
  • What is really making your situation hard right now?
  • What is awesome about you?
  • What do you really want?
  • What might it take to create that?

Don’t get me wrong, I love to talk. I can’t think of anything I enjoy more than swapping stories, frustrations, hopes, dreams and ideas with nonprofit leaders. I share stories of organizations that have faced the exact or similar circumstances as you. I get excited about something you’re dreaming up and offer some tips. By the time we’ve gotten off the call, there is a very good chance, even if we’ve decided not to work with one another, we will be friends.

Honestly, my goal is to open up the conversation. Instead of you calling me with a solution you would like me to implement, or a problem you would like me to solve, we come together to explore what success would look like. When we wrap up, I ask you to send me an email that tells me what success would look like 6 months, 18 months and 3 years from now.

My goal is to combine our brilliance to create something that doesn’t just solve that problem, but changes how you think and work for the long term.

Intrigued? I would be delighted to talk with you.


Andrea John-Smith helps organizations succeed with a purpose and a plan. Her mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we want and deserve. A strategic planning geek, she has guided scores of organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out case studies here.

Copyright May 2017

The Listening Difference

To blather on smartly is human; to listen is humane.

When people think of hiring a consultant, they imagine paying for a smart person to get instant answers. Consultants are not cheap, so what could be wrong with that?

When I was a “baby consultant,” I thought of myself as an answer vending machine — insert quarter, out pops smart answer. My clients saw me that way too. Meetings were exhausting. I’d get questions in rapid succession. My smart answers, charts and graphs didn’t actually help anyone.

Now, fourteen years later (an adolescent consultant), I have learned that being helpful means supporting people to find their own answers.

Case in point: You and your teenager are driving to a soccer tournament 45 minutes from home when, for some reason, this normally inscrutable human starts to unload about a problem. Maybe it’s school politics, unrequited love, or a lousy teacher. Whatever it is, there you are in the catbird seat behind the wheel. Next to you – your captive (and soon to be grateful) audience awaits your wise counsel.

You begin:

Step 1: Give advice disguised as questions: “Have you gone to your teacher and told him what you’re going through?”

Step 2: Offer immediate intervention: “Are you kidding? On Monday I’m calling the school to give that teacher a piece of my mind.”

Step 3: Goad and shame: “On Monday, you are going to talk to your teacher, and if you don’t, I will!”

For some reason, the conversation stops, the squeak of the wiper blades whining rhythmically the rest of your otherwise silent car ride.

What does a surly teenager have in common with an organizational leader? Transition and uncertainty come to mind. Change is scary. It brings up anxiety. The first instinct is to make it stop! Fire people. Hire people. Wring hands and worry. Find that expert to banish that anxiety. Enter consultant.

The first thing a good consultant does is listen. She asks great questions that help slow you down to reflect, that tap your wisdom and help you step back a few inches. Questions like these:

  • What’s keeping you up at night?
  • What would good look like?
  • If you had that, what would that make possible?
  • Constraints aside, what might it take to create that?

As you reflect and share, a good consultant’s mind is not wandering off to “What smart thing am I going to say as soon as he stops talking.” She is paying attention, and listening for the following:

  • What are you saying and what are you really saying?
  • What does your “what’s wrong” reveal about your values?
  • What is underneath your “make this anxiety go away” questions and worries?
  • What are your strengths and how might we build on those?

Sharing your deepest worries and your big dreams with a consultant feels risky. Does she get me/us/it? Does she know stuff? Will this information stay confidential? Is she a spy?

A good consultant knows that the most important condition needed for working well together is trust. Trust that the consultant truly understands. She has walked in your shoes and not just read about your reality in a book. Her values and yours are aligned. She thinks we have a chance. She likes dogs.

Final word to the wise—beware the guru consultant who has arrived at listening Shambalah — you never arrive. Listening is a lifelong practice.

What difference has listening made in your life? Any stories you can share? Questions? Comments? I’m all ears.


Andrea John-Smith is listener in chief at Scout Finch Consulting.

Andrea helps organizations succeed with a purpose and a plan. Her mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we want and deserve. A strategic planning geek, she has guided scores of organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out case studies here.

Copyright May 2017

Change the World in 7 Steps

Everything that we are grateful for today began as a dream, even an impossible dream. Thanks to the advances of neuroscience, we know that people are moved by dreams. Martin Luther King did not say from the steps of the Washington Mall “I have a plan.” Thank heavens, no. His dream sparked a narrative that would ultimately result, among other things, in the election of the first African American to the highest office in the land.

Humans are hard-wired for a great story. We love hearing them. But we love creating them too. This capacity for story, in fact, is the only thing that distinguishes the human brain from other animal species. It makes us us!

But we downplay our capacity to imagine and create bright futures. We poo poo how powerful we are and how much possibility is at the tips of our fingers. The best times to get glimpses of people tapping power they never dreamed they had is when they face obstacles. Something rises up inside us when we are up against it. Things we didn’t believe we were capable of, somehow, become possible.

Case in point. A 17-year-old boy named Chris Wilson in Baltimore was convicted to life in prison for murder. A good student, a self-described book-worm, chess player, avid cellist, he saw five of his friends murdered before he turned 17, and witnessed his mom’s boyfriend, a cop, beat her and threaten to use his service revolver to kill his family. While in prison, Chris’s family shunned him; No one wrote or visited. Though on paper he was supposed to spend the rest of his life behind bars, Chris needed a reason to get up, so he created something he called a “positive delusion,” a story about the life he wanted to lead beyond the prison walls. Building on this, he wrote up a “Master Plan” to make his ” delusion” real. Today, that locked up boy is a free man in his 30s running two businesses in Baltimore, about to attend the Harvard Executive Leadership Program.

Chris’s story models the 7 steps of every successful change effort.

Step 1: Experience disturbance.

Behind every success is a story of failure – one time (or two or three) when what you thought was going to work stopped working, when the big karmic hammer fell. Most of us will not be convicted to life in prison, but we all get to experience devastation of one form or another – personally and in the context of the organizations we are leading. Discomfort is high. The tools that used to work doesn’t anymore. You can either collaborate willingly with your transition, or be dragged along.

Disturbance is Step 1 on the path to transformation — an essential part of powering you out of maintenance mode and into change mode.

Step 2: Formulate a vision – a positive delusion. Write it down.

From the bedrock of disturbance when you might be thrashing around for answers, turn instead to questions. Questions like — “What might good look like?”

What would you create if resources were not a constraint?” “What would be different and for whom if our organization’s mission were 100% accomplished?

If your imagination feels stuck in habitual thinking, start (and say yes to) wherever you are. Whatever your first responses to your initial question, you can move up the aspirational ladder by asking “and what would that make possible?”

For example, if a nonprofit executive director of a youth development organization told me her vision was to “have programs run in the black,” I would say “Great, and what would that make possible?” In this way we continue exploring up the aspirational ladder until perhaps we get to a vision like “Kids in our community feel safe and loved.”

A vision is a statement about how the world will be different and for whom. You will know when you get to your vision because your gut says, “That’s it.” Now, write it down.

Step 3: You have your vision, you’ve written it down. Now, you’re tempted to “get real.” Your mind is exploding with all the reasons “you must be joking.” This is your habitual mind trying to put a stop to this off-script original thinking. Breath, and keep going. Ask “What will it take?” or “What are the conditions that would need to be in place for my vision to happen/be inevitable? Write these conditions down.

You may come up with conditions that you may not feel you can influence, but you will also discover conditions that are very much within reach of your influence. It’s all good! You will come upon ideas that you had not thought about before. Write them down.

Step 4: Focus on one condition at a time and reverse engineer with the “what will it take” question, all the way to now. So, if one of my conditions for kids feeling safe and loved is “Families have a place to turn when they are in crisis.” I can reverse engineer by asking, what would it take to create this. Write down all of the steps it would take and circle actions that are do-able in the next year or two.

Step 5: Ask who you might engage to move faster and further than you would on your own. When Chris Wilson went to prison he was utterly alone. He shared his “Powerful Delusion” and his “Master Plan” with the judge who convicted him, he shared it with the prison administration, and he connected with the people all around him by mentoring and being mentored. His vision and his plan made it possible for him to form a community out of nothing. It is the same in any change process. The power of your dream and the credibility of your plan attract people who bring expertise, encouragement, resources, and access to what you need to make your dream a reality. Your dream lights up others’ dreams. By sharing your dream, you are helping others advance as they are helping you to advance.

Step 6: Celebrate small and big wins. The goal cannot be the source of your joy. The journey, the many small wins, the big victories, and the expression of gratitude and the celebration of what you and the people around you are becoming – all of this is gas in the tank to keep fueling the dream. Slow down enough to take moments to remind yourself of the magic of your dream. Build those into every day. Take photos. Collect mementos. Start every meeting with a story of why this work is so awesome. Don’t skip this step.

Step 7: Take stock/learn as you go and apply that learning – adjusting along the way. The Master Plan is only a plan. It’s not bible and verse. It’s useful to notice how you thought it might go versus how it actually turned out, and then to reflect on what that might mean for your plan. Every step in the process and the people working with you are sources of invaluable insight that you can use to your advantage.

You need a bold vision. Without it, you don’t have a way to attract the support you need and to power through the difficult times. You need a plan. Without it, you seem like a dreamer, not serious — the support you do have will dwindle and new supporters you might attract will shy away.

Are you passionate about transforming a problem in your community? Are you eager to see the work you are doing build momentum? Is your organization ready to attract and build a larger community of supporters who will accelerate your progress?


Andrea John-Smith is the Founder and CEO of Scout Finch Consulting.

Andrea helps organizations succeed with a purpose and a plan. Her mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we want and deserve. A strategic planning geek, she has guided scores of organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out case studies here.

Copyright March 2017