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Sep 6, 2023

Consulting Business Basics for Licensed Counselors - S3E6

Christa Butler:

Welcome to the Voice of Counseling from the American Counseling Association. I'm Christa Butler, and joining me today is Davia Roberts, who is here to talk about her journey to operating a consulting business and finding variety in her career as a counselor. Davia Roberts is a licensed professional counselor and the executive director of the Carrier Bradley Agency. Additionally, she's a corporate wellbeing consultant, meditation guide and yoga teacher. Early in her counseling program, she knew she wanted her career to reflect her varied interests and skills. That's why it's no surprise her career has led to many non-traditional opportunities. Nowadays, she uses her platform more than a therapist to help other counselors explore career options beyond the couch. Welcome to the Voice of Counseling.

Davia Roberts:

Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.

Christa Butler:

Excited to have you on. Can we start by discussing a little bit more about your experience consulting and what made you decide to start a consulting agency and what are some of the highs and lows that you've experienced over the years with running your agency?

Davia Roberts:

I'm going to be honest, my path to consulting was not linear whatsoever. It was anything but traditional. There are some people who had these paths and said, "You know what? I'm counseling and I want to be able to bring my expertise to these organizations." Honey, I said, "I am burnt out. I am leaving counseling. The field obviously must not be meant for me because I'm exhausted."

Davia Roberts:

And I was working at a nonprofit in Texas working exclusively with survivors of interpersonal violence. And so trauma was all I was doing. That was it. And to give you a little bit more context, I was only doing trauma. I was living in Austin, which is an expensive city to live in, and I was making less than 35 grand a year. Yeah, your face. So when I say it was hard to take care of myself when just my basics are barely being met with my paycheck, I need to be able to pay for my own counseling. I'm exhausted, and the things that I need to be able to prevent burnout and compassion fatigue simply aren't accessible to me.

Davia Roberts:

And so at that point, I was like, my health is literally being affected. I'm going to choose me. And I felt guilty about that. There was a significant amount of time where I wrestled around should I leave this job? What else would I do? And eventually, in 2018, the 1st of June of 2018, I left that job and I moved to DC and said, "I don't know exactly what I'm going to do next, but I know that mental health and wellbeing are still important to me even if it's not direct services like counseling." And so what ended up happening is that organizations were reaching out to me because I was online, people knew that I did public speaking. I would volunteer, do pro bono work. Oh, my church wants me to talk about mental health? Awesome. I'd love for us to have this in the church. Okay, you want me to speak at this school? Great, I'll do that.

Davia Roberts:

So what happened is I started to get larger platforms, and when I would speak at this conference or this person at this business would hear from me, other opportunities would start to open. And so they would say, "Based on your clinical experience, what do you think we need?" And before I knew it, I was doing consulting. Because I had put myself out there to say, you know what? Traditional counseling is cool and I will always have love for it. And at the same time, the way the environment that I was in wasn't productive for me. And so I was like, yeah, baby, I got to go. Every environment is not like that.

Davia Roberts:

But because I was able to just take a risk and say, "I'm going to choose myself and my wellbeing while still being connected to my purpose," which is mental health and wellness, I was able to have another door open itself to me through consulting. But that would not have happened if I just stayed where I was in Texas at that little nonprofit. I don't see that having been a reality. But to your point, I had a lot of risk. So there were highs and lows. Baby, I was broke at the beginning because I was bootstrapping it. I was figuring it out. Figuring it out, and I was learning on a whim. And so for me, it was a lot of learning curves, but I wouldn't take them back whatsoever.

Christa Butler:

Yeah, it sounds like it was definitely a journey to landing where you are now. And I think a lot of counselors tuning in will be able to relate to some of the things that you discussed as far as working in an agency and trying your best to do your best work. But then dealing with some of the challenges that comes with working with high case loads, intensive services and feeling burnt out, but then also struggling financially. I think that's one of the difficulties with being a counselor is sometimes, depending on the specifics of your circumstances, your employer, sometimes the pay it doesn't support you in being able to live the life that you want as far as some of those things that you were speaking to, as far as your wellbeing and being able to pay your bills without feeling like you're also in the struggle, being able to afford your own counseling services.

Christa Butler:

And I think that's the beauty of what you've come to within your career path because you found a way to take your interest and to take your passion for mental health and wellbeing and to use it in a transferable way that is very much so still connected to what we do as counselors. So that's an amazing story. I wish we had more time to dive into more of that. But I think a lot of people will be able to relate. Honestly, I really do. So could you tell us what's the difference? How is a consulting agency different from a clinical private practice agency?

Davia Roberts:

Oh, that's a great question. And before I even dive all the way in, I do want to say that some people's private practices will involve consulting. Some people are going to have nice diverse services that they offer. So it doesn't have to be either or. But if you are someone who strictly has a private practice that is only focused on therapy, it's individual, family, group, that's where you stay. And that's what the service is start to finish.

Davia Roberts:

Whereas when it comes to consulting, for me, I personally don't offer any therapy, whatsoever. I actually have it in my contract that says even though the consultants that you work with are clinicians, this does not initiate a client-practitioner relationship. And so for us, it's more taking a step back and looking at the organization as a whole and figuring out, okay, let's have some conversations with the people here, what's really going on? What is the issue that they're facing? What's the root issue? And then we use our professional expertise to come up with a plan to help them address it.

Davia Roberts:

Of course, we're clinicians, so we are using our mental health knowledge to come up with that plan, but we're not actively treating them. They are not our clinical clients. And so to that degree, you can still have some protection, of course. Lawyers, contracts, making sure everyone is informed about limitations. Because I'm not here to treat you or diagnose you like a client. But I can provide services that provide psychoeducation around wellbeing and making sure, for me, specifically working with agencies so that they can have a workplace that actively fosters mental health in care as part of the culture. And I'm like, okay, you're not my client. However, let's make sure that we have some basic foundations and we know how to do this work.

Christa Butler:

So that sounds like really good suggestions to those who may be interested in starting a consulting business that is completely separate from clinical practice is that you're going to want to specify in your forms, in your documentation, that this service is to provide consultation services and is separate from clinical diagnostic treatment. And that's a great way, like you said, to protect yourself and to, I think, also transparency in services and what you do and what you do not provide so that it's crystal clear to potential consumers who may want to hire you. So could you tell us more about what are three things you wish you knew when you first started your consulting business that you would suggest that other clinicians should also be aware of from the start?

Davia Roberts:

The first thing that comes to mind is simply... I mean, it's not simple, but to trust yourself. Trust yourself that you have knowledge and expertise to offer these organizations or companies. I think a lot of us, I don't want to say we devalue our work, but because we don't have a certain degree or a certain certificate, we think it's not meant for us or that we can't offer anything to these other spaces. And that's simply not the case. We have so much to offer that because it's normal to us. We're like, of course everyone knows this about mental health and then you work with these organizations. Oh, nobody knew that. Okay. And so I'm like, no, we have a lot to offer. So do not devalue that trust that you can figure this out. Trust that your work is beneficial.

Davia Roberts:

And the second thing that I would say that's also connected to that, trust that you deserve to be paid well, to up your rates. As I mentioned earlier, I came from the nonprofit background. I was used to barely getting by. And when I say in these last few years, I remember getting one of my first corporate checks. And baby, when I tell you I cashed that thing so quick, I was like, just in case they change their mind, because I was not used to that amount of pay. And it took years. I started in 2018, it's 2023 where I was still undercharging. And it took open conversations and learning from other consultants and just observing the field to figure out, oh, I should be charging more. This is the standard rate.

Davia Roberts:

And there are organizations who will have the RFPs, the request for proposals, and you'll see, you'll do the math and it's like, wait a minute, this is like $15 an hour for this extensive project that you want to be done. I'm not doing that. That's a disservice to me. And some organizations are betting on you to accept that low pay. And so I want to say, don't be afraid to have uncomfortable conversations and also say no to certain opportunities that come your way. We're not so desperate to get our foot in the door that we end up being taken advantage of. Be aware of what the field expects and then charge what is the norm. And if you were doing above and beyond charge beyond that.

Davia Roberts:

And I would say the last thing is just knowing your power as a consultant. And what I mean by that, every opportunity is not for you. And even when you have a certain client who presented well on paper, they did great the first discovery call, you seemed aligned. But now all the interventions, all the things that you're proposing, they don't want to do them, but they're getting frustrated with you. We're not seeing the changes. I can fire you as a client the same way that you can say we are no longer ideal in counseling, the same thing happens with consulting. I want to be a part of positive change. And if you are not doing that, you are impeding the work, then we're going to have to let this go.

Davia Roberts:

And going back to contracts, that's another piece, asterisk. Make sure that you have contracts to protect yourself because some people will ghost, be silent for months. Yeah. That's not uncommon. And you need to make sure that you have things to protect yourself if they're not holding up their end of the bargain. And so just being aware, because there are huge companies where people are like, they wouldn't do that. They have tons of money. They do. And because of that, people really want to work with them, so they may accept any type of treatment. And so just being aware that you do have power and to be wise and not afraid to speak up and advocate for yourself.

Christa Butler:

All very good points. I'm hearing multiple things, multiple things, and so I'll touch on a few of them. It sounds like it would be ideal to know what the market rate is for some of those consultation services and you continue to go back to protecting yourself. And so one thing that I would perhaps suggest folks to look into is perhaps what additional liability insurance coverage you can get to protect yourself. Because consultation is often included as an add-on to our liability insurances. So that may be something that you want to look into and investigate.

Christa Butler:

And you also talked about how not all opportunities are going to be the best fit for you, and knowing your worth, setting those boundaries. I heard that as well in what you were... Just setting very clear boundaries. And so one thing that I'm curious about is when it comes to selecting your consultation specialty areas, how do you suggest folks may go about doing that? And what was that process like for you when it comes to you kind of knowing, okay, I want to operate a consulting business, but what exactly is the service, the type of consultation service that I want to offer? What was that process like for you to decide that?

Davia Roberts:

Great question. If I'm being honest, it was a little bit of trial and error for me. And I think a lot of clinicians can relate to that. When we came out of grad school, this is a specialty that I want to have. And for some of us, we stuck with that initial interest that we had. And for some of us, we got in it and we're like, this was cute. However, this no longer feels like the right fit for me and something else feels more aligned. And so I would say that was the case for me. There were certain opportunities that came my way and I can do a great job, but it doesn't light me on fire and make me really get excited.

Davia Roberts:

And so I would say for someone who's trying to figure out what their specialty is, begin to just explore your interest as a consultant. Think about what interests you as a therapist. And at the same time allow yourself to think about what problem do you want to solve for an organization, whether it's a nonprofit or you want to work in corporate working with the Fortune 500 company. So what problems do you want to solve and who do you want to solve that problem for. Is there a certain demographic that you want to work with?

Davia Roberts:

And not even just thinking about the demographic, but when you get on a phone call, when you have that lovely discovery call and you're speaking with people, what are their values? Do they just want to check the box? Do you like something that's short and quick where it's like, okay, I do a few workshops, two, three months and then I'm out. Or do you want something that is more long-term, where you're working with folks who are invested in seeing a shift, a cultural shift over years. Because when we think about cultural shifts, those aren't happening in two to three months. And we have to be realistic about that and really figuring out what are your values, not just your area of expertise and interest. But really thinking about who do you want to work with because so much of consulting is about the relationship. And so making sure you're in alignment there, well, I think, helps people refine their area of expertise because it's not just, here's the topic I like, but also in what environments do I do well.

Christa Butler:

Yeah, I'm hearing that there is a lot of overlap between how one might decide their clinical areas of specialty and which settings they may want to work in. There's some similarities between that and the process that you might go through in terms of deciding how as far as your consultation business. And you also, again, I think a good point that you made is trial and error and recognizing that I think you'll get a feel for things and what feels like is in alignment with you, your values and the services, the problems that you want to solve. I'm also curious about, just thinking about this overlap here, what are some of those clinical counseling skills that have been useful for you in running your consulting agency?

Davia Roberts:

No bias whatsoever, but I think counselors are great consultants. We are accustomed to having hard conversations. We are trained to have hard conversations, and so our personal life can be in shambles, but we know how to do that professionally. And when it comes to consulting, a lot of the work is around having difficult, sometimes uncomfortable conversations with our clients, not only about the issue that they're facing, but that may also be addressing our own personal stuff. Are they paying on time? Are they hitting the metrics that they need to hit? We have our own expectations for ourselves and the work that needs to be done, but this is also a collaborative experience. The same way clients have to do some work. Guess what? Corporate clients have to do some work too in order for this to be successful. And so being able to have challenging conversations is always important.

Davia Roberts:

And we start those conversations even with client discovery calls. And as a clinician, I'm like, that's kind of like your intake. Let's see if this is the right fit. If we're a match, what are the things that you're saying need to be addressed? If I'm asking you hard conversations and you don't want to go there, is that going to tell me you're going to be resistant to sharing certain things in the future because of fear of how your organization may be perceived? And will that be a challenge or a block to us doing meaningful work if I can't get the full picture or access to certain information? And so for me, that one starts there, being able to have tough conversations and get to the real.

Davia Roberts:

And then I would also say when it comes to diagnosis or a treatment plan, we're able to get to what's really going on. And I think about counseling, you know how a parent can come in with a teenager and say they're the issue and they really need to get it together and just fix them. Companies can come in the same way, this is the issue and folks really need to get it together. And I'm like, actually, what you're saying doesn't match. Here's the actual issue. Now are you willing to address it? And then if you're willing to do it, here's how I think we can address it. So I genuinely believe there's so much overlap from the clinical side to consulting, and that's why we make phenomenal consultants. We just have to actually believe that our work has prepared us for this because it really has.

Christa Butler:

Yeah. No, it's so interesting you brought up the example between the parent and the child because as you were describing the work and going in and assessing the organizational system, I'm going to throw that word out there. I was thinking about family systems work, but the difference is...

Davia Roberts:

You were like, she brought it all together.

Christa Butler:

Yes, she brought it all together. This is organizational systemic work. And really diving in there and helping them to assess some of the challenges, some of the concerns that they brought you in for. And often times, again, very similar to family systems, it's like a top down dynamic. And having that conversation. Just like you might be working with the parents to kind of make some suggestions, some therapeutic suggestions on things that they perhaps may want to make some adjustments with, sounds like doing the same thing with some of the leaders who may kind of come in there and pointing a finger at, oh, my employers, this and that.

Davia Roberts:

Yes, these employees, they're just not working hard enough. If I'm being honest, I remember working with someone in HR, obviously I'm not going to name them, but they essentially said, "I mean, the pandemic's over, they should be fine." This was in the beginning of 2021. Baby, what pandemic is over? Whatever do you mean? And the organization was around, they were helping professionals. And I'm like, these helping professionals are not only serving their clients, they're also going through the same pandemic. They are also dealing with loss and the shift and the changes. And that doesn't just magically happen because we got a vaccine and things are back to Kumbaya.

Davia Roberts:

And so to your point, really addressing and saying, wait a minute, now we have to have a little chitchat. And for some people, they're not going to touch it. And I will say, if you're going to be a consultant, you have to be willing to be uncomfortable and your people aren't going to like everything that you have to say. Especially I do a lot of burnout work. Organizations do not want to hear me talk about, "So what are you going to do with their caseloads?" They can't self-care their way out of this.

Christa Butler:

Oh, so now you [inaudible].

Davia Roberts:

Yes.

Christa Butler:

Say that one again. There's not enough self-care in the world for some of this stuff that folks are dealing with. Yes, yes.

Davia Roberts:

Exactly. And so being able to have those conversations is really monumental. But like you said, it is a lot of system work, a lot of system work.

Christa Butler:

Yes. So what are some of the risks? You kind of named some of them already there, but what are some of the risks that you've taken to grow your agency that have paid off for you?

Davia Roberts:

While it doesn't come across this way for most people, I'm extremely introverted. I don't like my work to be public facing, and that does not align with my purpose. I have to put my work in front of the public. I don't like to be constantly criticized. And that is all I deal with as a consultant. There are surveys left and right. This is information that I need to have so that I can improve and be better. And so for me, a risk has been putting myself out there, even if it's not received well. And that means creating content for free online.

Davia Roberts:

And people will always have something to say, and that's okay. Everyone has an opinion. That's fine. And I share that because there are so many clinicians that are afraid to brand themselves, put up a website, be on social platforms, and really just be leaders. But there are a lot of therapists who are afraid to be public facing and have public platforms because they don't want to open themselves up to scrutiny. And that makes sense. We all want to protect ourselves. And at the same time, I can't reach people or organizations who need me if I don't put myself out there. And so personally, it feels uncomfortable and I'm getting more used to it. It still doesn't feel great. I'd rather be private and just have an island and people magically know me and they hire me for things. But I would say that's been a big risk.

Davia Roberts:

But also just investing in myself in the sense of, let's take a workshop here or there. Let's find out what information I don't know and continue to go deeper. But also sometimes just committing to saying yes to certain things that feel like unchartered territory where I'm like, oh, you want me to do what? Are you sure? Oh, you trust me. I mean, I can, I have a plan, but I'm nervous. Still going into that area even if things don't feel perfectly aligned. And not in the sense of I'm going to do something outside of my expertise, I'm not going to start talking about eating disorders. That's not my lane of expertise. But some things just feel uncomfortable because they're new-ish. And so that's been a risk that's paid off well.

Christa Butler:

Yeah. Awesome. So it sounds like very similar to what you were saying about having uncomfortable conversations with the folks who are hiring you is also doing your own work in terms of being okay with being uncomfortable. And I think that's another parallel to being a clinician is that we have uncomfortable conversations with our clients, but we also have to be okay with being uncomfortable ourselves and having uncomfortable conversations with ourselves, even I think, as we move forward into new territory or into territories that just doesn't always sit right with us.

Davia Roberts:

Yeah. Because we can talk ourselves out of so much and say, well, I don't have this credential. I don't have this. I don't have that. I'm probably not the best, but what are the ways that you are perfect for this opportunity? Can you still deliver? And if you can, is it really a matter of I don't have this certificate? Because if you have the experience that kind of trumps this piece of paper that you paid for.

Christa Butler:

Yeah. That's an interesting transition to what I was going to ask you next, but I want to ask anyway. For those who are interested in pursuing starting a consultation business, what suggestions do you have for how they can prepare? Are there trainings? Are there workshops? Are there things that...

Davia Roberts:

Perfect transition, right?

Christa Butler:

Are there things that they can do to help themselves just kind of get started and to nudge them in that direction?

Davia Roberts:

One of the things... I'm going to say something that is a bit controversial, all right? I believe in the value of a good training, a good program, and I do believe that if you're interested in consulting, get online. Especially on LinkedIn, find consulting groups and observe, get in the conversations, ask questions. If someone has a workshop, join it. And to the same extent, I think some of us are the most online workshop taken, let me sign up for this course, I need another certificate to the point where we delay doing the actual work because we are investing more time into this, quote, unquote "education" so we can be the right fit. And a lot of us are already doing this work.

Davia Roberts:

I know therapists who are doing consulting in their agencies around burnout and DEI and how to retain more clinicians of certain groups. I'm like, baby, you're doing the work. Why are you now paying thousands of dollars for this certificate? Cut it out. Again, do I find value in these things? Yes. And at some point you have to take the leap and just do it. You just have to put yourself out there.

Christa Butler:

Yeah. That's a really good point. Sometimes signing up for this training and this training and this training is avoidance perhaps. Maybe it's avoidance, maybe it's fear, and maybe it's really getting to the root of those things that could be getting in the way if you're moving forward.

Davia Roberts:

Exactly. Because oftentimes you can get in one training and really find out the basics. You don't need to take 30, you don't need a 10 month class. Because like I mentioned earlier, there's so much overlap where when you really see it for what it is, like, oh, this is systems work and I'm simply preparing an organization, not just a family, and how can I apply that? Next.

Christa Butler:

Right. Yeah. Right. Oh my gosh, Davia, this has been great. As we get ready to wrap up, I want to just ask you just one final question in terms of if you have any additional suggestions on just things that folks can keep in mind if they're wishing to make that transition from, let's say, clinical practice to a consulting practice. Any other final suggestions that you'd like to leave our audience with today?

Davia Roberts:

Yes. I would say if you're considering consulting as a particular avenue, maybe it's something on the side, maybe you want to transition to it full-time. I would say start to have some conversations with consultants in the field. Connect with people on LinkedIn, even follow people on LinkedIn to get an idea of what their career trajectory looks like.

Davia Roberts:

But depending on what your interests are, have some coffee chats and some information or interviews with the type of organizations that you'd like to work with. What are the challenges that y'all are facing? If you were to work with a consultant, what are the main needs that you would want to have addressed? Especially if you have friends or associates in these other fields have these conversations, because that allows you to come in with an advantage of knowing how to address their specific pain points. To be able to already have a plan in mind for ways that you can solve their concern. And number one, that gives us a confidence boost where it's like, okay, we're not going in blind. We have an idea of what to expect. But it also allows us to prepare ourselves and to position ourselves as the problem solvers at these companies need.

Davia Roberts:

But once again, it goes back to a skill that we all have, which is having meaningful conversation. Have these conversations with your people, your network, so that way you can have insight into the field, whether it's consulting or simply knowing what these organizations need. Because that information is so useful and can be pivotal towards opening a door for you in the future.

Christa Butler:

Awesome. This has been great. For our listeners that are tuning in that may want to get in contact with you, how can they find you?

Davia Roberts:

Yes. So if you want to connect with me online, I mean, you can Google Davia Roberts. There aren't many out there. All right. I will pop up. But if you want to find me on Twitter, Instagram, my handle is @justdavia, J-U-S-T-D-A-V-I-A, and my website goes by the same moniker, so you can find me online there.

Christa Butler:

Thank you so much for joining us and for everything that you shared. This has been a great episode.

Davia Roberts:

Been a pleasure. Thank you.

Christa Butler:

Awesome. Be sure to subscribe to the Voice of Counseling on Apple and Google Podcasts and Spotify. And you can follow ACA on social media. To join the ACA and to get exclusive access to all member benefits, checkout counseling.org.

Speaker 3:

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