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Overcoming Discouragement: A Prescription for Consultants

The nature of my work with consultants guarantees that I frequently hear tales of woe. Revenue slumps, projects lost or in limbo, engagements heading south, clients who don’t appreciate puns.

Of course, I witness the triumphs too, but when consultants call it’s most often because something is rotten in the state of Denmark Consulting, LLC. And those pleas for help often wear a patina of discouragement.

The steps below prevent bruises, ease pains and buff you to a glowing burnish. A tonic for the consultant’s soul.

Consulting comes with more than its fair share of rejection and energy-sucking interactions. The daily ego assault faced by a typical salesperson is magnified by the deeply personal nature of the consulting sale. A project lost feels like a repudiation of your ideas, your competence and your credibility.

Then pile on the occasional blow after you win a gig: a disappointed client whose expectations are unmet, a laboriously crafted recommendation that is rejected or ignored, a fixed-fee engagement that has slid into money-losing territory.

Given this backdrop, is it any wonder that discouragement is a well-known visitor at most consultants’ offices?

Fortunately, we’re a resilient bunch. Sooner or later we usher that unwelcome emotion out the door and resume the business of winning engagements and delivering value. But, the gap between sooner and later yawns on our balance sheets and in our hearts.

The fact is, if we don’t rebound quickly, we lose essential opportunities to reinforce our brand equity, nurture promising prospects, and close projects on the cusp.

And if we don’t rebound fully, we lose two essential ingredients for success in our profession: passion and conviction.

Let me offer a prescription for overcoming discouragement sooner and more fully.* Each and every step below is critical to the remedy.

Take a break

A real break. A “power” break, if you will. The research is clear: we do not analyze our situation well when we’re in a negative frame of mind. When you’re in the depths of discouragement, “pushing through” is counterproductive. Whether you take an hour, a day, or a week, set all thoughts of the business aside, and fully escape the gravity of your consulting practice.

Take a walk

Or a run, or a skate or a swim. Or be really ambitious and swim with skates on. The research on the impact of exercise on mood is also irrefutable. Interestingly, the literature shows that not everyone enjoys exercise while it’s happening, but the post-workout effect is consistent. Physiologically, the vigorous activity produces endorphins. Psychologically, we get the added boost of a sense of accomplishment.

Take credit

Put a point on the board and acknowledge your success. Even a minor victory changes the trajectory of your cognitions and emotions. Fortunately, you’ve just put two points on the board: you took a break and you exercised. Give yourself props for already setting yourself on the path back to go-getter land.

Now you can add a third win by accomplishing any small task. Answer an email from a client. Make a list of prospects you’ll call when your attitude is adjusted. Read an article you set aside. Throw out that pile of articles you’re never really going to read.

Bigger is not better. Done is better. Your goal is simply to cross something off the list with a flourish and a sense of accomplishment.

Take advice

You’d think consultants, of all people, would embrace outside counsel. Wrong. Move past that “doctors make the worst patients” nonsense and get a mentor. Every top performer has one.

You’re not looking for a cheerleader or a one-time injection of advice. What you need is an advisor whom you respect that receives regular updates on your performance.

Not only can your coach improve your technique, (s)he can look at the evidence and trot out your successes when despair is hiding them from your view.

Make a plan

Your discouragement is rooted in perceived lack of control and shaken belief in your ability to accomplish your objectives. The antidote is to assert control by outlining a clear path from where you are to where you want to be.

Be careful: a poorly constructed plan increases the likelihood that you’ll lose hope.

> Include small, achievable tasks at every step. An unbroken chain of actions you know you can accomplish.

While “big, hairy, audacious goals” are nice in theory and terrific rhetorically, the research shows most people accomplish more by setting achievable objectives.

> Acknowledge what you can’t control and detail your assumptions. For instance, you can’t control whether prospects pick up the phone. You can’t control whether clients attend meetings or choose to implement your recommendations.

You’ll find it easier to maintain hope, courage and a sense of control in the face of disappointment when you can pinpoint where your assumptions and reality diverge.

Make a ritual

Bolstering your spirits only when they’re down is like visiting the dentist only when you find a cavity. Painful and expensive.

Take a planned break every day, every week and a few times a year. I put work completely aside every Saturday without fail, and it’s an effective, restorative sabbatical.

Make exercise a routine. A daily walk or yoga three lunchtimes a week.

Note your accomplishments at the end of every day, just before you plan the next day’s goals.

Update your mentor and seek advice a minimum of once a month. Every two weeks is more effective and a quick check-in every week is better still. Remember, you’re not always looking for changes – in many cases you’re simply providing data that can be presented back to you when your mood has slipped off the rails.

Revisit your plan and assumptions quarterly. What did you think was in your control that actually isn’t? What small steps will progress you toward the big goal? Fortunately, your mentor can help you with this.

Consulting is a rough and tumble world, and you’re likely to take some emotional knocks along the way. With the prescription above, you’ll walk away with minor dings instead of major dents. You’ll spend less time singing the blues and more time whistling your way to the bank.

What do you think?

*This is a remedy for discouragement, not depression. I am not a therapist. If you are suffering from depression, please seek help from a trained, mental health professional.


  1. Thomas Cox
    June 3, 2015 at 2:18 pm Reply

    Well put, and well researched. I love how every step here is completely within our control. The dentist analogy is especially lovely — yes, manage your psyche like you brush your teeth, daily and with correct form.

    Running an consultancy is a mental game, and David you give outstanding guidance on playing that game well. Thanks for this.

    • David A. Fields
      June 3, 2015 at 11:20 pm Reply

      You’re welcome, Thomas. It is a mental game, 100%. Advice, guidance, ideas, models, plans, strategies… they’re all cerebral products. Is it any wonder that getting our head on straight is so important? Thanks for the comment.

  2. Tom Borg
    June 3, 2015 at 2:57 pm Reply

    This is solid advice. Yes, we will all experience discouragement and the key is to have a plan to deal with it. Someone once said, “True happiness is not the absence of problems. True happiness is solving our problems.” So with that quote in mind, having a plan to deal with discouragement and slumps in our consulting practice is a great way to solve those concerns and in the process experience success and happiness.

    • David A. Fields
      June 3, 2015 at 11:33 pm Reply

      I’m not sure who said true happiness is solving problems, but Agent Smith told us in The Matrix that humans rejected a perfect world where there was no suffering! Biologically, we’re built to solve problems. To strive for higher levels of success (however it is we define success) and the next level of accomplishment. Academics recently put a label on this: Hedonic adaptation. It’s up to us to outsmart our biology and, as you said, have a plan in place to experience happiness.

  3. Jaime Campbell
    June 3, 2015 at 11:21 pm Reply

    I am noticing a trend of networking while walking rather than networking over a meal. Usually done face-to-face, but just today I had a networking call in which the other party was out for a walk. Went very smoothly. (And actually a marketing opportunity turned into the possibility of a paid speaking engagement!)

    As a learning note for me, #5 really hits home. “The antidote is to assert control by outlining a clear path from where you are to where you want to be.” Yes, antidote, thank you. And I have just the tool for outlining that path without making the outlining process unwieldy.

    • David A. Fields
      June 4, 2015 at 8:58 am Reply

      Congratulations on the excellent networking, Jaime and the potential speaking gig! What’s the planning tool you’ll bring to bear on this remedy. (And don’t forget the other steps!)

  4. Mark T Moore
    June 4, 2015 at 1:00 am Reply

    Great suggestions David! What consultant doesn’t, as with any business, doesn’t go through the valleys after being on the peaks?

    Keep em coming!


    • David A. Fields
      June 4, 2015 at 8:59 am Reply

      Thanks, Mark. There’s definitely more on the way! (“Moore” pun was unintended, of course.)

  5. Frank Guo
    June 10, 2015 at 4:48 pm Reply

    Hi David, I think the “dentist” metaphor is golden. That would help consultants iron out emotional ups and downs!

    • David A. Fields
      June 12, 2015 at 7:56 am Reply

      Thanks, Frank. Our profession is tough enough; allowing yourself to be whipsawed by the emotional roller coaster just adds unnecessary stress!

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