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.

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Copyright May 2017