“Every great achiever is inspired by a great mentor” – Lailah Gifty Akita
Mary Waldron had the tremendous experience of being encouraged and mentored by Gary Romano early on in her consulting career. This guidance, together with Mary’s impeccable drive and passion has led her to her ‘dream job’ with Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD) where she is a P-3 Systems Project Manager of the Lead Implementing Organization for the Race to the Top federal grant with the Road Map Project. PSESDin partnership with school districts in the South King County region is helping increase school readiness for students and families by developing strategies that span the entire spectrum of support.
Mary truly understands and remembers what it is like to start on a career path in consulting. Her story is one filled with lows – taking two years after graduation to find a desirable job – and highs – finding and succeeding in her dream-job! Mary now not only works as a consultant in her dream-job but also hires numerous consultants. I asked her to share her insights as to how she found success in the consulting world and any ‘insider information’ she could provide us as a potential client.
Bonnie: Can you give me a quick background of yourself and your personal journey within the consulting world?
Mary: I had the privilege of being hired by Gary Romano at DCA as an associate. The projects that I was primarily assigned to were related to early learning. This work really resonated with me as my little sister had a lot of developmental delays when she was very young and I saw first hand the tremendous impact that access to early learning supports and services had on her. After just a few months of work at DCA, I soon realized that I was ‘different’ from the other beginning associates as I quickly realized that systems’ building was the kind of work I truly wanted to make a career out of. Gary saw this in me and he really pushed me to take on new and challenging things, much earlier than I even thought I could. One of the things that Gary encouraged me to do was to not limit myself. This advice, along with my decision to pursue a career in systems building, pushed me to obtain my Masters in Public Administration. This was by far, one of the best decisions I made as the skills in this program are very implementation focused and gave me a broad range of potential career moves.
Upon graduation in 2012 I set out on my next challenge – to find a job. This passage was also a pivotal moment in my life. I saw a lot of my friends, for a variety of reasons, take jobs immediately out of grad school that were not really aligned with their ultimate career aspirations, or were big compromises on other key values, like work-life balance. I was lucky that I knew what my ‘dream job’ was – to work in Early Learning at the systems level – but unlucky in the sense that there are not many of those positions available! I really had to make a choice – compromise and take a job that might not get me where I wanted to go, or hold out for a path that would lead me to my goals. It took me two years to finally find my ‘dream job’ but in those two years I learned some very important lessons:
- I learned to be purposeful about my time commitments in the short-term contracts I was taking on. I knew that these were not my ‘dream jobs’ but I also knew I needed to continue to build and polish my skill set. As I engaged in contract work I made sure that I was only taking on jobs which would keep my resume robust, would continue to develop my skill set and was work that I truly wanted to do.
- I also learned the value of sharing my ‘dream job’ hopes and aspirations with others. I talked frequently with people in my life about the kind of work I wanted to do. As various job descriptions came across my desk I would then forward them to people, such as Gary and friends from grad schools, who knew my skill set and interests well. I knew these trusted individuals would be honest with me and that I could have reflective conversations with them as to whether or not this was truly the job I desired. Through these dialogues, I ended up not applying to many jobs but I also immediately knew that when the posting for my current position came up that this was the job for me. Despite my gut instinct that this was the right job for me, I got ‘cold-feet’ and wondered if I was qualified. Gary’s response to this was “Why wouldn’t you be!?!?”
Bonnie: Can you discuss the agency you work with (Puget Sound Educational Service District) and how you now directly work with consultants?
Mary: I still feel like I am consultant even in my current job, as a large body of my work is ‘fee for service’. For example, as a state we are shifting from half-day Kindergarten to full-day Kindergarten. School districts need support in this shift – professional development for teachers related to instructional rigor and developmentally appropriate practice, and work with building principals and district staff on how to support this instructional shift. I am working to design and build out the menu of services that PSESD can offer, marketing what the value-add and impact of said services could be if and when we’re are hired. Therefore, just like a consultant, I am creating a scope and fee!
I also do hire consultants’, primarily for evaluation purposes, as we need independent evaluators. I have also used consultants to assist me with a systems building project for Race to the Top.
Bonnie: Given your involvement in hiring consultants, you can give some valuable insight to those just entering into the consulting world. Could you start off with telling us what qualities do you like to see in a consultant?
Mary: It is important that consultants really understand what their skill set is and find ways to effectively communicate what their value-add would be. When talking to prospective consultants I am not solely focused on the product that they are going to deliver, but rather what is the unique set of skills they are going to bring to the table. Consultants often speak about their deliverables but what I am searching for is a different perspective and unique set of skills that will move us forward in a way that we wouldn’t be able to without them. I believe this is communicated when a prospective consultant has a strong sense of self and purpose and is able to communicate exactly what a partnership with me would look like. This is one of the benefits I found to taking my time and looking around for a job after graduation – I was really able to recognize and develop what skill-set I personally had and as a result I am able to effectively communicate this to others.
It is always beneficial when a prospective consultant is able to be really clear with me as to what needs to be in place for them to be successful (e.g. I am going to need to have access to these documents, these people, and these resources). This sets the partnership up for success by putting clear expectations for both parties on the table, and acts as an agreement we can revisit if things aren’t going as planned so we can work together to problem solve, rather than engage in the “blame-game”.
The one trait I admire are consultants who are not hesitant to hit the pause button and address that some prep-work needs to completed before we can move forward. I want to work with consultants who are not afraid to take on the role of the “critical friend”. I respect and want to work with those consultants who are willing to identify when and why a project isn’t going as expected. This kind of trust and honesty requires relationship building that is critical to setting the stage for a successful partnership.
Bonnie: What are you NOT seeing at all in the consultancy world? For example, are there certain things that consultants never seem to be doing well?
Mary: It would be really nice to not have to go to multiple consultants for different pieces of work. I love the opportunity to work with a previously successful consultant on multiple projects. This is why I think it is important to be very self-aware as to what is your value-add and to think about your skill-set with a broader and more transferable vision and most importantly – to be able to clearly articulate all of this!
Bonnie: Are there things that they always seem to do well?
Mary: I find that consultants can get fixated with industry ‘buzz words’ (e.g. strategic planning). Please do not rely on the use of those buzz words/trends to sell your services. I think it is important for you to be aware of them and be able to speak to them, as this can be motivating to a client and demonstrates that you are aware of what’s happening in the field, however if you really want to play the long game don’t rely only on these words or concepts to articulate your value-add.
Bonnie: You’ve been on both sides of the equation - being a consultant and hiring them- what do you wish you knew when you were consulting?
Mary: When consulting in the non-profit/social good space it is crucial that you do not lose track of what the ultimate purpose is – to improve the lives of children and families. It is so important that you keep that front and center in all that you do. When you do so you will find that it provides a natural filter when personally debating whether to take on new jobs and contracts. . The passion that you have for the work will come through in how you articulate your value-add, as well as your vision for a client or project. Clients can tell when you’re trying to shoehorn your skills or work into any project; they can also tell when you really believe that your unique passion, perspective, and value-add can move their work forward in a new and exciting way. It is always important to ensure how well the needs of the client fit with the skill-set of you – the consultant. Do not ever be afraid to know what you want and why you want to do it! It can be so tempting to fall into The Hamster archetype that Gary describes in his book – the solo practitioner, doing it all and doing everything to keep up with all their work but unable to stop and figure out whether the work they are doing fits into their ultimate purpose or how to get the help that could make their lives easier. Hamsters typically survive year after year, but like a hamster on a wheel, they are constantly overworked and exhausted from having to do everything. It is for all these reasons that it is important to be selective, based on your ultimate purpose, in order to avoid burnout and produce quality work.
Mary’s story provides inspiration and astute advice to both aspiring and established consultants. The points that I feel one should keep close in mind are:
1. As you begin on your consulting journey be sure to not limit yourself and be purposeful as you choose both your educational path and job(s). Share your aspirations with a trusted network that will keep you focused on your passion and not allow you to compromise your ambitions.
2. Ensure that you truly understand your skill-set and have an awareness of your transferable skills so that you can effectively articulate your value-add to prospective clients.
3. As you work with a new client be sure that you take time to truly develop a partnership/relationship with them. Most importantly, do not lose focus of your ultimate purpose whether it be to improve the lives of children and families or something else, always keep this at the fore-front of your work.
Bonnie Clapp, Associate, brings her knowledge in the fields of elementary education and most specifically, special education. She served as the Special Education Coordinator for over 600 students at St. Joseph Catholic Elementary School in Spruce Grove, Alberta, Canada for 2 years. As a coordinator she was an advocate for over 100 children and their families in one of their most vulnerable stages in life. Bonnie collaborated with psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, principals, teachers, educational assistants and parents both within and outside of the school to ensure the utmost quality of life for the children she worked with. In this role she was able to draw on her 7 years of previous experience as an innovative and successful educator in both inclusive and special education classrooms in Canada as well as overseas in England. Bonnie holds a Masters of Educational Leadership from the University of Portland. Throughout her Masters studies she benefited from tremendous research opportunities as she completed her capping project on New Teacher Induction. After completion of her Masters she was given the opportunity to successfully implement a New Teacher Induction program at her school with over a dozen new staff. This training program led to the permanent hiring of 3 teachers and 11 support staff. In addition to her Masters, Bonnie also holds a Bachelor of Elementary Education with a concentration in special education from the University of Alberta, Canada. She graduated at the top of her class for both of her degrees. Bonnie now volunteers a great deal of her time as she works with two nonprofits – Melrose Family Room and Parents of Tots – and is the co-president of her son’s elementary school PTO.