A global pandemic is coming. It may seem applicable only to the past, but there are a great many people out there who are paying attention to all sorts of trends and behaviors that can help someone seeking to start a consulting business. I just so happened to be ready to make my business a virtual one, but I imagine there are others out there who might have been able to with a little more insight. Although the pandemic came as a shock to many, there are other events and shifts on the horizon. Reading widely and staying on top of the sectors and fields that may affect your business is a practice worth adopting.
As a part of my series called “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started My Consulting Business ”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Adriane Johnson-Williams, Founder and Principal of Standpoint Consulting, a Black woman-owned firm that approaches management consulting from a humanistic perspective. Standpoint asserts that by centering the lived experiences of clients and communities affected by business and organizational practices while focusing on results, leaders can produce desired outcomes and respect the humanity of all people involved. Dr. Johnson-Williams is drawn to challenging problems and embraces conflict as essential to progress.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I often have moments of amazement when I think about what my life is now compared to where it started. My family occupied an economic space that is invisible in the U.S. Although my parents had a market-rate apartment when I was born, and ultimately purchased a small 3-bedroom house, I spent most of my time in public housing with my grandmother, aunt, and babysitter. After a while I had access to the Girls Club (now Girls, Inc.) located in a dark converted storage area in LeMoyne-Gardens, the public housing project where my mom worked, and my aunt lived. I was a bit of an odd duck among my cousins and schoolmates. I always had more questions. I always wanted to know if there was another way to be or do things.
I decided at 10 or 11 that I wanted to go to boarding school, like on the Facts of Life, to get away from a home life I hated and schools that didn’t quite challenge me. I spent time at the library learning about boarding schools, so when I arrived at junior high, I could tell my guidance counselor my plans and get her help. And that’s exactly what happened. I admired my cousins who had gone to college and aspired to be like them, but when I visited one cousin at a state school, it felt a lot like what I was trying to get away from. There had to be another way.
I don’t know what it was inside me that pulled me out of Memphis, and my time in boarding school was more psychologically than academically challenging, but it gave me access to a much larger world. I learned what it meant to tack horses and prepare them for shows. I know the difference between dressage and hunter-jumper competitions. I saw plays at the Kennedy Center. I visited the Alvin Ailey School in New York. I went to the Soviet Union and spent time in Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). And I was in Lithuania when the country declared its independence. Me! And Black girl from South Memphis.
Just like any kid, I had a few different ideas about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I started with ‘lawyer’ and landed on ‘engineer’ — mechanical engineer — but that was not going to be my path. Regardless, the characteristics that drew me into engineering have been a part of my career in education, training, coaching, and collaboration. I enjoy identifying and solving problems. After a brief period in secondary and then postsecondary education, I realized I wanted to be actively involved in solving social problems with the people living them. I learned a great deal while working in collective impact and leading cross-sector collaborative efforts. I also learned a great deal in philanthropy. But what continued to draw me in was being able to help leaders identify problems and solve them. That is essentially what management consulting is. I’m thrilled to do what I do every day.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Just over two months into my new business, a global pandemic struck. I started receiving notices of paused or canceled contracts. I was certain the universe was telling me I had made the wrong decision. But in just two weeks, everything started to turn around. Because my services include training and coaching, and because I had been a professor who was very familiar with online tools, I was able to support my clients in moving everything online. My business rebounded quite quickly, and I surpassed my goals for 2020. A bonus in all of this is that I can support clients in Oklahoma, Utah, Washington, and Tennessee all on the same day.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
This is a challenging question. For a moment, I combed through my memory for a mentor or sponsor without whom I would have gone another direction. But the truth is my story is far more fundamental. My mother and her younger sister made a way for me, as spirituals say. My mom, Carolyn Ann Williams, told all of us that we could do anything, when there was no evidence to support that. As Sunday school superintendent, she endured my questions and let me spend time with her when I got kicked out of my class because I was interrupting the normal indoctrination program. When I told my mom I wanted to go to boarding school, she didn’t respond that we had zero pennies to contribute to such a fantasy. She sat down with my junior high guidance counselor to learn all about it and figure out how to make it happen. My mom took my needs before her church community and family members to make sure I had the resources necessary to take full advantage of the opportunities boarding school and private college offered.
Right alongside her was my aunt, Marjorie “Margie” Williams, who was central to my after-care team and my next biggest cheerleader. When I went off to Wellesley College without a personal computer, she used her access to lower cost equipment as a higher education employee to send me an Apple laptop and mobile printer — in 1996! It was such a privilege to be able to work where I wanted to and not be limited to the computer lab. The laptop lasted until the middle of my senior year. I had to type the last of my senior thesis in the computer lab, which made me all the more grateful for my Aunt Margie.
For people like me who come from very modest means, the mentors and sponsors we collect along the way are vital. But the people who positioned us to gain access to those mentors and sponsors are the real heroes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Progress not perfection. Perfectionism and its twin comparison are terrors. As human beings we can never be perfect. It isn’t going to happen. And we can only be who we are and achieve what’s within our capacity, so comparing ourselves to others doesn’t serve us. From very early in life I was an achiever. I had to be the best in school. I had to be number one in class. If I got anything less than a perfect score I was devastated. This mindset was paralyzing. I wouldn’t try things unless I knew I would be successful. As I think back, I can see all the potential enjoyment I stole from myself. Learning to swim, which I finally did in my 40s, and playing the piano, which may remain out of reach, were things I wanted to do badly but stepped away from out of fear of failure. The quest for perfection made me ill over the years. It led to severe anxiety and depression. And it wasn’t until I failed in a significant way that I was forced to accept I would never be perfect. That realization has helped shape the foundation of my new life. I work toward being better than the last time. I compare myself to myself. And I encourage all my individual coaching clients to set goals for themselves that are about their own improvement not about what others may or may not be doing. It is a liberating mindset. It also makes for a more humane leadership practice. Everyone on my team knows my position on perfectionism. They have more peaceful and enjoyable jobs as a result.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Businesses — nonprofit and for profit — often struggle to create organizational cultures that honor everyone’s humanity. This is at the root of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) challenges, poor customer relations, and poor outcomes. In the US we can approach organizations as machines and the people in them as cogs, which makes sense if your primary value is efficiency. But there are diminishing returns to the model because people are not cogs and they will resist dehumanization.
At Standpoint consulting we work with business and organizational leaders to understand the values that define their organization and determine whether those values are serving their employees and clients. We also help collaborative efforts in geographic regions, whether cities, counties, or multi-jurisdictional, in bringing the people they seek to help into the work as partners and not passive recipients of support. Our position is that focusing on the human beings involved in the work and benefitting from the work while aligning work with humanistic values is the way to create a culture that will produce desired results, promote collegiality among employees, and ensure client satisfaction.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Very much in alignment with our ethos, we stand out because we have a perspective — a set of lived experiences — that aren’t widely available in the marketplace. There are few management consulting firms founded and led by a Black woman and largely staffed by Black women, with the combination of knowledge, skills, and dispositions to do what we do. We are rare. And we are joyful.
Although I can’t share a specific story because we respect our clients’ confidentiality, I can describe our approach. In our practice, we find ourselves coaching all white teams on issues of race equity and results accountability. Our clients are excited to work with us although we make them uncomfortable. They are responsive to our guidance although we challenge them constantly. And our clients laugh.
Pursuing race equity and hard to reach results is daunting work. One of the reasons our clients choose us and continue to work with us is that we don’t pretend the work is easy, we don’t take any shortcuts, and we honor their humanity. We live our values.
When you first started the business, what drove you, what was your primary motivation?
I can get to the heart of a challenge quickly. And I have a personality that wins people over — most times. I am also tired of large consulting firms descending on Memphis, my hometown, taking away so much money, and leaving us with so little. The model of management consulting firms seems to be somewhat of a confidence scheme. Whatever your problem, we have an expert to solve it. And we’ll send you our best and brightest 20-something to prove it.
In 2012, when I decided to come back to Memphis, I reviewed some reports produced by a large national firm for the Memphis City and Shelby County Schools merger process. I was disgusted to see that they presented data on comparable districts that were not comparable districts. Having started my career supporting urban school systems across the country, I knew which districts could be considered comparable, and the best ones for Memphis were not on the list. That same firm returned to Memphis years later while I was working in collective impact and produced a report that negated all the work that was happening in the city around a specific issue and erased the work of my agency by suggesting our board consult with our peers in other cities. Mind you, these peers often referred to us for support. When I pointed out how flawed the report was the night before the presentation to the board, the executive director of our agency demanded they fix it. The poor youngsters who were charged with the work had to stay up all night. But they got almost 1M dollars for mediocre work.
The project should not have cost 1M dollars. Nor should have been so removed from the people of the city who had been in the trenches for decades.
People of color across the US are struggling to address social problems that primarily affect them. Business leaders located in cities with great racial and ethnic diversity are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to be more diverse and inclusive. And the firms all these groups rely on lack the standpoint necessary to inform their efforts in the best possible way. I knew the need was great, and I knew I could meet it.
What drives you now? Is it the same? Did it change? Can you explain what you mean?
I am still driven by the knowledge that I have what many leaders are seeking. The year 2020 raised several challenges to the surface, including issues of race and economic distress. The people who have the sophistication to address complex issues like these from a position of intellectual and personal knowledge are few. And the people who are willing to elevate the lived expertise of those who would otherwise be left out of problem defining and solution development are fewer still. Our approach at Standpoint is vital in the marketplace. Not every business or organization is ready for what we bring, but those who are now have us as an option.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
One of our most exciting projects is with the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, Opportunity Youth Forum. We are working with collective impact efforts across the country to improve their capacity to use data and collaborative tools to improve outcomes for opportunity youth, youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school nor employed. We are providing technical assistance on using results accountability and attending to race equity. And we are supporting teams in engaging youth in defining the problems and shaping strategies for intervention.
The opportunity youth population is one that is manufactured by our systems. Professional experts and academics can describe quite plainly how, from a national perspective, these populations come to be. But every locality has its own distinctions and the youth have a critical lived perspective on what the problems are and how to address them.
By supporting collaborative teams across multiple jurisdictions, we can both help those teams work with youth to change the systems that contribute to their challenges, and share what communities are learning across the country in real-time to accelerate learning and change.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
Nothing beats results and reputation. We performed so well our first year largely based on referrals and the individual reputation of our team members. Our new clients for 2021 also came to us the same way. Almost every initial conversation we have with a potential client includes them reporting on who referred them and what the referring party said about us.
Based on your experience, can you share a few strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
There are three things I rely on for providing the best possible customer service:
- Do your homework. I know as much as I can about a potential client before I have the first conversation. When it’s time, I can ask informed questions and help to determine what they really need from us.
- Listen first. Although I can talk about all the services we offer and the ways we can help, I prefer to listen to potential clients first. By listening deeply and asking informed questions, I can better tailor my offerings.
- Keep doing 1 and 2 after the contract is signed. Regardless of the service we are offering, the client is in the driver’s seat. By being prepared and listening, I can meet their needs and help them achieve their goals.
Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started My Consulting Business”. Please share a story or an example for each.
- A global pandemic is coming. It may seem applicable only to the past, but there are a great many people out there who are paying attention to all sorts of trends and behaviors that can help someone seeking to start a consulting business. I just so happened to be ready to make my business a virtual one, but I imagine there are others out there who might have been able to with a little more insight. Although the pandemic came as a shock to many, there are other events and shifts on the horizon. Reading widely and staying on top of the sectors and fields that may affect your business is a practice worth adopting.
- You’re going to need more cash. I wish I had more of a warning about cash flow. You might think that being an adult and managing your personal finances for decades would prepare you for managing cash flow in your business, but you would be wrong. You don’t control when people will pay you. I was impressed with the little stash I had set aside, but the combination of a global economic crisis and the everyday realities of cash flow let me know I didn’t have enough. And, unless you are independently wealthy, you probably won’t have enough either. Don’t let that stop you. It might get uncomfortably tight occasionally, but if you know consulting is what you’re supposed to be doing, go for it.
- You can do it all, just not at the same time. Before I launched, I had a full menu of service options and revenue streams. I created a timeline to get everything up and running in the first year. It didn’t happen. When I realized that I couldn’t run my business, build my business, and develop all my offerings at the same time, it made me nervous. Having a diversified revenue stream was stuck in my head for some reason, and I was certain I was failing. But the first year isn’t necessarily the only year. My ideas are still great. They are still aligned with what’s needed in the marketplace. And they are now scheduled for development and launch on a timeline that is more consistent with reality.
- This is going to be about you. When I decided to be a full-time consultant, I decided to build a firm. I didn’t want something that was named after me. I wanted something that could stand on its own and be consistent with a set of values that would appeal to the ideal client base for years to come. Well, that may be real someday, but right now my business is about me. It’s about my knowledge, skills, and dispositions. It’s about my reputation and relationships. It’s about me. Although I have employees and contractors, I’m still building the business, and I’ve had to adjust. I don’t like to be the face of anything. I don’t want to be the spokesperson. I just want to do the work. But that is not the life I’ve chosen, so I’m embracing this one. I have the great fortune of a great smile, a magnetic laugh, and all the words necessary to take center stage. You have some assets and tools that will serve you as well.
- This is going to be lonely. My maternal great-grandparents were entrepreneurs, but my grandparents and parents were not. I have two maternal uncles who own or have owned businesses. I don’t take advantage of their knowledge and experience nearly enough. Even so, what I do as a consultant is bizarre to people who sell goods and services that are common to everyday people. My wife is also an entrepreneur, so one might think we’d be in this thing together, but again, she is a custom woodworker, and I am a consultant and coach. Everything about what I do is odd to many of the entrepreneurs I know. I am building a team around me, which helps, but they are also my employees, so there is a clear boundary there. Because I’m an introvert, I tend to relish the aloneness. Even so, this is all on me. It’s tough to prepare for, but it’s good to know.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The United States needs to adopt the concept of human rights. Our resistance to human rights internationally is rooted in our denial of human rights as a nation. We don’t fully accept that human beings have fundamental rights just because we are human. This disbelief is apparent in all our social systems. Our deep commitment to capitalism requires that we dehumanize some to profit others. And our deep commitment to the lie of white superiority requires that we dehumanize some to benefit others. A shift in our nation toward a commitment to human rights is essential if we want to continue to thrive as a nation. Otherwise, we will destroy ourselves.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would love to spend the day with Michelle Obama. The first time I saw her after then Senator Barack Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, I was mesmerized. There stood a tall, dark skinned, Black woman waving to the convention crowd. I remember saying that Senator Obama chose an unmistakably Black woman as his wife. That seems like such a small thing, but it was quite significant. I wanted to learn everything I could about her. Over the years, I grieved for her when she was attacked. I celebrated with her when she was acknowledged for her contributions.
My only regret of choosing to pursue a career in higher education in 2008 was that I was going to leave Washington, DC and miss an opportunity to work with her. There was no concrete opportunity at the time, but if I had chosen to stay, I would have pressed my way.
In 2014, my boarding school, located in Middleburg, VA, held its centennial celebration. One of my classmates had gone to the Salamander Resort and Spa to scope out our class gathering spot for the evening. She called to tell me that Michelle Obama was in the restaurant, and we needed to get there immediately. Like an insane person, I screamed from the stable parking, where we were all gathered for a campus-wide party, “MICHELLE OBAMA IS AT THE SALAMANDER! LET’S GO NOW!” Like moms can always hear their children’s voices through the din, my classmates recognized me as theirs and came running. We drove up the road and made our way into the bar. I apologized to the hostess saying we were Foxcroft Girls, and although we respected her role, we would be ignoring protocol to take over the bar. We’d tip generously. But Michelle Obama had moved into a private dining room.
That didn’t stop me though. The classmate who had called was married to a doer and Democratic Party insider. I looked at him and said that I needed him to use whatever influence he had to get Michelle to walk back through that bar. We NEEDED to see her. I don’t recall how much time had passed, but the hotel’s general manager approached our tables for a chat. He came right over to me to introduce himself. I didn’t think anything of it, so I engaged him and told him how lovely the Salamander was and how thrilled I was to have it in Middleburg. A 5-star resort owned by a Black woman in Middleburg, Virginia was magical, I said. He remarked that it was as if anything could happen. And then I saw the secret service begin to make a path. She was coming! She just walked through with her party. She was just beyond my reach. We screamed like she was a rock star. I felt like I had come close to a deity.
I know Michelle Obama is a human being and not a goddess or a superhero. I would never take away her humanity. I also see in her someone who has survived the crucible of national politics and hasn’t once denied who she is or where she’s from. I regularly find myself in spaces where Black women are at best entirely foreign and at worst unwelcome. I believe I could learn a lot from her about how she made it. I’ve read her book — rather she read her book to me — but I know there is something more to be gained from a personal exchange.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!