Contemplating consulting in public health, with Leah Roman

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Show Notes

Consulting has gotten a lot of interest in the public health space recently. For many reasons, public health professionals have chosen to explore consulting and have built careers around it.

We have even seen interest within our PH SPOT community, and have been asked for resources by you to help you take the first step. Until now, we were not able to provide you with any resources or support around this topic because we hadn’t found anything specific to public health.

This changed last year when we met Leah Roman! We came to find out that Leah was becoming the “connector” of public health consultants around the world. Not only that, she was also supporting aspiring consultants to take the first step into consulting! We knew right away when we met Leah that she was the right person to bring in front of you all.

In this episode, we speak to Leah about her journey into consulting and ask her to explain to us what public health consulting is all about. Additionally, towards the end, I tell you where to go for more resources on public health consulting.

You’ll Learn

  • About Leah and her story/journey into public health consulting
    • Fun fact: In the early years, if you had Googled public health consulting, Leah was the one who showed up
  • What it means to be a consultant in public health
  • Different terminologies to use to explain the work you do (consultant, contractor, freelancer); clients’ reactions to language
  • Mindset is key: you are running a business, not just taking projects
  • What a day looks like for Leah (taking client work), and how she then moved into supporting other consultants
  • Services one may offer as a consultant and industries to find prospective clients
  • The benefits of niching down versus being a generalist (jack of all trades)
  • Whether an online presence is a good idea
  • When it’s the right time to get into consulting
  • Differences and similarities around the world in public health consulting
  • How to deal with financial fluctuations
  • The best part about being a public health consultant (for Leah)
  • (The most exciting part) How to take the next steps into consulting, including additional resources

Today’s Guest

Leah Roman

Leah Roman is a public health consultant and educator in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area. After spending a decade in public health, she launched her business in 2013 to bring some flexibility into her schedule and to provide clients with customized services ranging from grant writing to health education program development.

People often refer to Leah as a “connector”, so it is no surprise that she has reached out to many fellow consultants over the past six years. During those conversations and meetings, she identified a few themes in terms of what we need to be successful: peer support and more business and entrepreneurial know-how (because for the most part, MPH programs are not teaching you how to run your own business). So Leah took it upon herself to become that person who could fill the gap for aspiring and current public health consultants.

Leah has a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of San Diego, a Master of Public Health from the Boston University School of Public Health and is a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES), as well as a Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES).


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Episode Transcript

Leah 0:00
So the person I had talked to at one university, had told his friend who is the dean at another university, “Oh, hey, I met this, I met this woman who knows all about qualitative research because his friend was looking to run some focus groups on his campus.” And so they contacted me and said, “Hey, do you want to do this five-month project?” And what I decided to do was go ahead and take on the five-month project, and in the meantime, I would look for a part time job, I would continue to look for a part time job.

Sujani 0:32
Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career with. Join Us weekly right here. And I’ll be here too your host, Sujani Siva from PH SPOT.

Hey, what’s up everyone, thank you for joining me today on another episode of PH SPOTlight a space for you and me and everyone else in public health, to share our stories and inspire each other. My name is Sujani Siva, the host of PH SPOTlight, and I’m here to help you build your public health career. So Consulting has gotten a lot of interest in the public health space recently, and you guys have even asked me about it and told me that you’ve been thinking about consulting. Until now, I was not able to provide you with any resources or even support around this topic, because I’m not a consultant myself. And I hadn’t found anything that was specific to public health. But last year, I met Leah Roman, who I came to find out was becoming the connector of public health consultants around the world. And she was also someone who was supporting aspiring consultants. Although Leah lives in Philadelphia, and I’m in Canada, we were still able to connect via video calls a number of times, and I just ended up loving everything about her, from her energy, her knowledge, and especially that something that was important to me was a care that she had for public health consultants. And so I knew that she was the right person for me to bring in front of all of you. Leah did her MPH degree at the Boston University. And she spent about a decade doing public health work. And then in 2013, she got into public health consulting and launched her business. And you’ll hear shortly from her as to what prompted her to make that decision. And while she was doing her consulting work, she realized that she was receiving a lot of requests for support from other consultants. And so she became this hub for a lot of people. And then also, as a result of that began developing resources for aspiring and established consultants from networking groups to a course to mastermind groups. And she just created this really need space and community for consultants. So you’ll get to know a bit more about Leah and her story as I get into the conversation I had with her. But in addition to her journey, we also dive into some very interesting topics to help you with not only understanding what it means to be a consultant in public health, but also all the things that it entails. So we delve into topics such as the terminology that you would use to talk about the work you do. So for example, are you a contractor, or a freelancer or a consultant and doesn’t really matter what you use, then we also talk about the services you can offer and the benefits of niching down versus being a generalist. And then we get into a conversation about whether an online presence is a good idea. And then of course, we talk about when is the right time to get into consulting, and how to deal with financial fluctuations that are associated with being a consultant. And here’s the most exciting part. At the end of this episode, I will be telling you a bit more about additional training and resources that Leah and I have collaborated on to bring to you. So be sure to listen to the full episodes, so you can access all of these. And without further ado, here’s Lea Roman.

Leah 3:56
Good morning. I’m very excited to be here.

Sujani 3:59
Awesome. And I’m actually really excited about this episode. I was kind of reflecting on the topic this morning before jumping on the call with you. And I was sitting there thinking, you know, I’ve gotten a lot of questions around Public Health Consulting, but I’ve never been able to provide the PH SPOT community with sort of a tangible solid concrete tool or resource or some sort of value that I felt that they could really take and and kind of run with to sort of help them answer some questions they’ve had. And it’s been because I hadn’t really found anything kind of like concrete and tangible online until I met you. So this is super exciting, because you’ve probably heard a lot of these concerns from individuals who want to jump into consulting for whatever reason, it’s for a flexible, work life sort of balance for lack of a better word with they have young children or For individuals who have gone overseas for education and now want to come back closer to home, they considered consulting and I got some of those questions through PH SPOT and not being able to provide them with the tangible answer or solution. I’ve always felt like there was a need. And I think this podcast with you and sort of some of the resources we’re going to share with individuals on this podcast episode is probably going to be the first time I’m providing anything related to public health consulting on PH SPOT. So that’s exciting for me.

Leah 5:34
Wonderful, I’m glad to be a part of it. And that’s really how I developed the resources in the first place is that I got a lot of questions like the ones that you are describing, and had no idea when I started doing consulting, that I would become the face of it for a lot of people where they were direct a lot of their questions. But I think when I started, you know, now, it’s seven years ago, if you Googled Public Health Consulting, I was really one of the only websites that came up. So I think for a long time, if people were interested, they found me and they sent me questions. And that’s when I realized, wow, I don’t have enough time in the day to be able to answer all these questions that are coming in. But there were so many similar patterns in question- in the question. So I thought, you know, people feel isolated, you know, people want to know how to get started. And so how can I help people in a larger group? And so that’s where I have put together, you know, my networking group in my course, and you know, different things that we’ll talk about today on the podcast. So yes, very similar questions coming to me also.

Sujani 6:38
Yeah, I’m not surprised that people are coming to you. And you’re kind of the face of Public Health Consulting for a lot of people, because you’ve immersed yourself in this community, and you’re doing this full time. And I think you’ve- you were working in public health for about a decade before you jumped into public health consulting. And then you’ve also taken it upon yourself to really support other individuals in the same space across the world. I mean, you’re based in the US, but you’ve been supporting individuals in Canada and Australia and New Zealand, I think I’ve seen probably, I don’t know, dozens of countries, where these consultants are from. So we’ll, we’ll talk about some of those things later on. And so, you know, from my personal experience, when I’ve had friends or colleagues kind of talked about whether they wanted to dwelve into public health consulting, they’re sort of thinking, you know, what is that like, you know, we hear the word consulting and consultant in other industries. But when it comes to public health consulting, I think it’s fairly new. And so for people to kind of understand what it means to be a public health consultant. There are a few words that sort of get used interchangeably. And we’ve had discussions about this you on the idea about, you know, the word contractor or consultant, or freelancer, is there a way that people can sort of differentiate themselves? Are their terms interchangeable when we’re talking about Public Health Consulting, sort of as a broad group?

Leah 8:15
I think it’s a really great question, because I think language is really important. In public health, I talk about language a lot in terms of health communication, but I think language is also really important and how we brand ourselves and talk about our businesses, in, in my opinion, although we do hear these terms interchangeably, they don’t all mean the same thing. And they can affect people’s perceptions of you and the work that you do. So in my experience, and from, you know, looking up definitions, which I did when I was writing the course. You know, a Consultant, when you’re thinking about consultant, this is somebody that is paid to give professional advice or services to help clients solve a particular problem. So they are really brought in as an expert. And I think that that is how you want to think about yourself and your services, if you are doing consulting, so you know, someone has a grant process that’s not working, they have quality issues in their business, that’s not working, things like that they bring in a consultant to fix that particular problem. When we’re thinking about a Contractor, because a lot of consultants be like, “Oh, I work as a contractor.” Well, typically, when someone brings in a contractor, you know, they’re brought in to be paid a specific rate to perform, you know, specific work or service. So, for example, when I first started doing consulting, you know, I was kind of taking on all different kinds of projects, which is, you know, an interesting topic, we can talk about if we have time, a little bit of everything, and there was a local nonprofit that approached me because they had several of their health educators were out on leave, and they needed help dealing with all the health education inquiries that were coming in, so they basically needed a temporary health educator that they wanted on a contract basis for a certain number of months, I was going to have no control over, you know, how that work was conducted, I was just basically brought in as a temporary worker. So that’s really different than say, if they had brought me in and said, you know, “We’re having a lot of trouble with our designing our health education database so that we can evaluate our services, can you help assess our, our database and make recommendations as to how it can be improved?”, and you know, that would be a consulting project. So you know, that kind of temporary worker status was really different. You’ll also hear people say, I’m a freelancer. And I think that the perception of freelancers is changing. Historically, it was really someone who was brought in, you know, it’s like a side job or a temporary job, oh, I picked that up, you know, I do some freelance writing, you know, it was kind of very casual, I think we’re seeing a real shift for there to be professional freelancers, freelancers who consider themselves business owners, as similar to what I recommend for consultants to think of yourself as a business owner. And that’s, that’s very different in terms of both how you’re perceived, but also how you run your business. In terms of have, it’s not just something you kind of haphazardly pick up different projects, but you actually have goals for your business. So there are a lot of people that I meet out in the field who, who talk about themselves as a freelancer, but when I talk to them, they run a business. So I do think that perception is changing. But, but again, I think there are clients that if you, if you say, Oh, I do freelance, they may perceive you, as someone who is kind of an extra set of hands, they are to just kind of pick up projects, but not necessarily a problem solver, or someone that is a business owner.

I guess this is a good time to kind of dwelve into your story a bit more. So when you started off, did you kind of selectively say, I want to be a consultant, and this is how I’m going to set up my services? Or was it kind of naturally flowing where you sort of picked up some projects and then went into consulting. So maybe you can start us off by just sharing how you even got into consulting. And what sort of pushed you into that path?

Sure. So at the time, before, right before I started doing consulting, I had a full time job as a project manager at the Drexel School of Public Health, which is in Philadelphia, an incredibly busy job very full time. And I just became overwhelmed with just how busy the hours how busy how big the position was getting into, and especially when I thought about, you know, we were interested in having kids at some point in the near future. And I felt like, I don’t know if this is sustainable, you know, with kids. And there was travel and different things like that. So I started looking for a part time position, which if anyone listening has tried to find a really good part time position, especially one that’s not entry level, it’s actually really hard. Yeah. And so I, in the process of looking for a part time job, I did a lot of informational interviews with different people in my area, who would be the kinds of people who, you know, would maybe hire me part time. So some academic institutions close to me and things like that. And one of those interviews actually turned into my first client referral. So the person I had talked to at one university, had told his friend who is the dean at another university, “Oh, hey, I met this, I met this woman who knows all about qualitative research, because his friend was looking to run some focus groups on his campus.” And so they contacted me and said, “Hey, do you want to do this five month project.” And what I decided to do was go ahead and take on the five month project, and in the meantime, I would look for a part time job, I would continue to look for a part time job. And what ended up happening was that people said, like, when I told people what I was doing, and we’re like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that you’re doing consulting work or freelance work or contract with, you know, hey, I need help on this project.” And so I ended up getting, you know, calls and emails from there mostly former colleagues that I’ve worked with in various places. When I shared what I was doing, and then I was leaving Drexel. People started asking me to help them with their project. So it was very organic. I really thought it was going to be temporary, that I was going to find that illusive part time job. And it never, it never happened. So the great part was that it was organic and and referrals were coming in. And so I didn’t have that struggle at the beginning that I think a lot of people have had that I’ve talked to where they are having a lot of trouble finding clients, I was really lucky in that that wasn’t the case. But because it started kind of accidentally and on a whim, I had no business plan whatsoever, I had not thought about how to talk about my business, I’m sure I used all those terms interchangeably. And I ended up having to kind of backtrack, months later, when I realized, okay, I’m actually going to do this, okay, now I need a business plan. Like, now I need to sit down with, you know, an accountant and a, you know, small business attorney and kind of talk about some of these things. Although I had formed an LLC, which in the you know, the US is a really common formation for a business like this a limited liability company. Because for actually, for my very first client, you needed to be an official business, you needed to have a Philadelphia business license, because they were a local university. And so I did need to get my papers in place and get myself to organize prior to starting, but other than that, I really had no plans in place for kind of anything, I really figured it out later, and on the fly.

Sujani 16:29
Wow. I mean, you say organically, but it sounds like you really like put yourself out there, you had a plan of kind of changing your, your, your lifestyle, or, or the work that you were doing, and really put yourself out there. And I think that’s a very, very important step that people considering consulting really need to do. I think maybe when you think about wanting to be a consultant, and you sort of just sit on that thought, you’re not really going to progress towards anything. So I think you having even like initiated, some of those conversations are the reasons that you’re here today, you know, being an expert in this field. So kudos to you, Leah.

Leah 17:07
Thank you.

Sujani 17:10
So when you- when you took on that five month project, had you let go of your full time job at that point?

Leah 17:17
I had, I had let them know, they contacted me, I want to say it was like November. And I had said, you know, I was giving notice that my position and I would be able to start in January. So I left my position at Drexel, I think like the first or second week of January and started the project right away, because I didn’t really have like a ton of downtime in between.

Sujani 17:38
Okay, and so you would consider that five month project, consulting sort of gig or with that be more of like a contractor?

Leah 17:48
So I would consider that a consulting project, because they got in touch with me. And they said, we- we want to do focus groups to evaluate this, it was actually an educational focused project, it wasn’t public health. But they were like, “We don’t know how to run focus groups, we don’t know how many people we would need, how to analyze it, what it could mean, what it won’t mean, you know, sort of what are the limitations of the qualitative data.” So I advised them on the design, as well as the execution, the analysis, and all of that. So I would very much consider that a consulting project because I had a lot of autonomy in terms of, you know, how it was designed. And of course, I reported that to them and got feedback. But they were very much bringing me in as an expert on doing that, because they did not have that internal expertise.

Sujani 18:40
Gotcha. And so what does your day look like now that you’ve been doing sort of consulting for about seven years? I know, I know, you’re not a typical consultant where your entire sort of focuses on just consulting, because you have sort of another arm to your business where you’re supporting other consultants. So maybe you want to talk about both arms of your business. But what does a typical day as a consultant look like for you?

Leah 19:11
Sure. So I’ll, maybe I’ll, I’ll describe kind of the different things that I do and then go into the day so that your listeners can have a little bit more context. So in the first, I would say five years that I did consulting, it was all client projects, you know, like the one I just described. I took on a little bit of everything. I was a little bit of a jack of all trades. I did grant writing, I did course development. So online course development. I took on qualitative projects, like I mentioned, I helped organizations like local nonprofits, you know, help them with their strategic planning processes. So like a little bit of everything. As time went on, two things happened. One is that I learned a lot about niching down and having more of a specialty area And the benefits of that, which I very much related to because I was feeling a little overwhelmed taking on all different kinds of projects, I found that, you know, professional development wise, it was hard to stay on top of being an expert on everything. You know, to be the best grant writer in the world, you know, you want to just be writing grants. And so it’s hard. If you’re only writing a couple of a year, you know, to really be the best at doing that. And again, and harder for people to maybe refer to you because you’re doing a little bit of everything. People might not know, your specialty area. So I was feeling a little bit pulled in a lot of directions. I also again, very organically came to realize that I really loved being, I guess what I would call a convener of public health consultants, and those who are aspiring to be consultants. It makes sense if you know my personality, like I love, love talking to people. I love getting people together. I love it. Like some of my public health friends have joked that like, I’m like their public health HR director, I just, I like sent them their job descriptions that I saw that they ended up actually being hired at, because I love like learning about what people are interested in and connecting them to other people doing those things or positions, doing those things. So I love to be a convener. And what happened was, like about four years ago, five years ago, I knew a couple of other consultants. And instead of we all had sort of similar questions and challenges starting out. And instead of like blowing up our email at, you know, inboxes, all the time, I said, “Well, why don’t I just like, I’ll put us all in a Facebook group, so we can talk.” So there was like four of us in there. And what ended up happening is that people said, “Hey, I have a friend who is doing consulting, can I add him or her into the group?”, and then where I met people at conferences, and they said the same thing. And so the group grew and grew. And so now, there’s almost 100 consultants in my private Facebook group, which you’re a member of, as well.

And so and that’s a free service that I, you know, I facilitate that group for established consultants. And so, and then, as we discussed at the beginning, you know, I got lots of questions from people interested in consulting. And they didn’t really fit criteria to be in the networking group, because they weren’t established. But that’s where I ended up developing an online course, because I was trying to meet the needs of all those inquiries that were coming in. And then I started learning about the benefit of mastermind groups, which are accountability groups, where small groups of consultants can get together and learn from each other. And again, being a convener. I thought, this is fantastic. And it also helps meet that need of isolation that I think a lot of people feel when they start working alone, after they’re used to working in an office. And I wanted to help bring people together, because I saw how much the networking group was helping people. And I can only imagine, you know, getting on a phone call, how much that would help people really developing those close relationships. So, so a lot of my work has shifted from solely doing client work, which I do- do a little bit of still, but to really focus on these other resources to help aspiring and established consultants. So with that being the lens, my day to day is really more focused on those- on those resources at the time, I also have two kids, so a little bit. And I’m actually coming back from maternity leave in the next couple of weeks. So, right my net right now my days look a little bit different, because I’m home with my baby. And so but typically, when I’ve had childcare, I would work, you know, my son goes to school, like eight to three. So I have a lot of time during the day, where you know, to monitor the Facebook group, putting- I just went through an application process for my next mastermind, which starts in a couple of weeks. So putting out a call for an application process for consultants, that I did some screening calls from their intake forms to put people together in a group that would be really meaningful for them. You know, the online course is created. It was launched last year, you know, when it first launched, I was doing a lot of networking and marketing activities around that course. So, you know, I think my days vary, I really try hard to be someone who can batch work. I think that that works really well when you have limited time to work. So, so and what I mean by that is, I may spend a whole day working on planning for my blog, I write a blog that’s typically weekly. It’s been a little less frequent during maternity leave, but maybe spend a whole day on writing. And then I had a whole day where I just did client work. So my days typically look like that if I can make it happen, because I found that that is much more productive for me. But what’s been wonderful about this area that I’ve sort of carved out for myself, in terms of, you know, working with aspiring and established consulting is that consultancies that even though I do work alone, from my home office, I feel incredibly connected to other people, and spend a lot of time you know, emailing or calling other consultants. And so I feel like I have this whole network of people and support. So my day is really filled with a lot of joy from those connections.

Sujani 25:48
Absolutely. I think that’s what I really loved about your Facebook community is, it really got rid of that isolation I was feeling as well doing PH SPOT. I mean, I’m not a consultant per se. But there are some similar sort of downfalls of running an online business is that there isn’t sort of a colleague that you can just turn to and talk to, or just take a break with. So I’ve totally, totally loved your Facebook group community. So thank you for that. You mentioned actually a couple, couple things that I wanted to sort of dig deeper into sort of the types of organizations that would look for consultants. So I think earlier, you had said one of your projects was with a non for profit organization. And you had mentioned your first sort of consulting project was with an academic institution. Are those typically the only two organizations that would seek out consultants like from your experience, what are their industries? Could potential consultants sort of reach out to for projects?

Leah 26:59
Well, a lot of the consultants in my networking group work for state and local health departments here. So I think that is incredibly common. I have worked with our local Philadelphia health department as a subcontractor, so they had hired the Drexel School of Public Health for a particular project, and then Drexel subcontracted a part of that work to me. So I think definitely local and state health departments, nonprofits, for sure I have so many people in the networking group and I, myself have worked with nonprofits, especially on grant writing, I have found that there was a lot of opportunity in that arena, I think, it’s, it’s really hard for a nonprofit to have, especially, you know, a smaller nonprofit to have somebody in house who is an expert grant writer doing that full time. And so I definitely found that that kind of expertise, they were really interested in hiring somebody to come in and as needed, you know, to work on certain applications, as well as assessing their readiness to apply for grants in general. And then a lot of times, you know, we’re also connected with, you know, nonprofits to then evaluate programs, you know, that have brought in- been brought in with grant money. So I think, you know, all of those kinds of potential employers or potential clients are out there, certainly academic institutions, I think many of us have collaborated with universities on, you know, various projects as well, you know, schools of public health, we maybe need to bring in, you know, trainers, facilitators, you know, for their researchers, for their teams on various topics. So I think, you know, connecting with your local schools of public health, or your, where you graduated from as well, is a great way to connect, because I think a lot of times, when academics are bringing in, in grant money, it’s not unusual at all, for them to write in some money for a consultant, you know, who’s an expert on X, Y, or Z, you know, whether it’s the topic of the project, or some particular skills or training that they need for their staff? I think that is, you know, that’s a pretty common one as well.

Sujani 29:12
And so are most consultants sort of reaching out to these organizations? Or would they wait for a posting on the organization’s website for maybe a call out for a consultant?

Leah 29:26
What I have found, and from talking to other consultants, this seems to be very common, is that so much of the work that we do was never post- posted anywhere in any sort of formal way. So you definitely want to be reaching out to your contacts, and letting them know that you are doing consulting and exactly the types of projects that you’re interested in, you know, so I wouldn’t just be like, .”Hey, I’m doing Public Health Consulting.”, you know, yeah, at the university, you know, I would say, you know, I, “I’m doing I’ve left my full time job, I’m doing Public Health Consulting. My expertise is in qualitative research. And so I’m available to help train your team. If they need additional training in and vivo or Atlas TI or, you know, I see that you’re doing a project on X.”, you know, so I would be as I think the more specific you can be, when you talk to people, the better chance they will contact you with some work.

Sujani 30:25
And so how important is I know, you talked a little bit about niching down and specifying the type of work that you do? How important is kind of the topic area? So say, if I have qualitative analysis skills, do I also need to be an expert in say, sexually transmitted infections or perhaps in sort of a chronic disease? Or do you think that doesn’t really matter when organizations are looking for consultants?

Leah 30:53
I think you can niche down in a lot of different ways. So I think you could niche down by your skills. So you could be an expert in qualitative research and, and qualitative analysis. And you could apply that to a project on sexually transmitted diseases or, you know, so I think, you know, people can, can access your niche because they need your skills. Or you could niche down by topic, like you’ve mentioned, you know, there’s a couple of people that I’ve met, you know, that say focus in chronic disease is their specialty or mental health promotion and suicide prevention is there, so they have a topic that they have niched, down to. So I think you can or in a lot of people also, I’ll say, you know, niched, down by the kinds of clients that they work with, so maybe they exclusively work with, I met one woman who’s an evaluator who works specifically with small nonprofits, work in maternal and child health. So she has a type of client niche, as well as a content expertise niche. So I think you can niche down in all different ways. There’s a lot- again, there’s no right or wrong way. I think a lot of people are generalists, and are very successful doing that I was a generalist, you know, for a long time. So I don’t think it’s a absolute. But I do think that it really benefits you to have at least some sort of niche down, you know, so it’s not that you list 30 services on your website, because that’s just overwhelming for clients, who are trying to figure out from your website, if you are the right expert for them. And if you do everything, I think it’s hard for them to know that. And it’s hard for people to send referrals to you. But I have- I have, you know, obviously a lot of consultants in my network, the people that I consistently refer work to have more specific niches, because their name pops up in my head immediately, you know, so there’s someone it’s like, who does a lot of patient advocacy type of work? Well, if someone asked me about that, I immediately think of her, same thing with, you know, data visualization or program evaluation. So people that really do something and do it really well, their name is always top of mind for me. Whereas the people that do a million things, I just don’t, I just don’t tend to think of them as often.

Sujani 33:16
Yeah, that’s really good advice. I think it even helps you focus on the individuals to reach out to and you’re not sending 100 emails, but rather those 100 emails are very focused on the exact type of work that you do. Absolutely.

Leah 33:30
Exactly. I mean, I think you’re a great example, because you do public health infographics, I know that you do that. And so when somebody asked me about that, I immediately are like, oh, you should get on the waitlist for her course. And so, oh, I don’t think of anyone else, even though I know other people who probably do in progress. I never ever think of them.

Sujani 33:49
Yeah. And- and to that point, I think even when you do have a website up and people do go search on Google, your name will come up and you know, your entire website is kind of bombarded with the terminologies around like the service that you use, if it’s qualitative research, and you’ve got that all over your blog, your about us page everywhere. And so that’ll pop up versus you’ve got so many other words on your website. I guess to that point, how important is it for an individual starting out to kind of have a website if they are reaching out to say their universities or nonprofit organizations that they’re connected to? To just let them know that they’re doing consulting? Do you think it’s a good idea that they set up a website first or is that just not something that they should spend time on?

Leah 34:39
I think it’s worth it even just to set up a basic website you know, that just has like an About Me, a basic list of services and, a contact me and ideally, you know, a connection to maybe your social media accounts if you have them. I’ve definitely- because I get a lot of inquiries as you can imagine for be able to join the group, my networking group, I’ve met people personally. And one of the things I want to know is that they’re an established consultant. There are a lot of people that contact me that at best, they have a LinkedIn, that’s it. A lot of people don’t have LinkedIn, they don’t have a website. And I’m, I’m hesitant, you know, because it’s like, “Are you really an asset, you have no presence.” So I do think having some sort of online presence that identifies who you are, what you do, is very important. That said, please don’t put something up just to put something up, I have gone to people’s websites who, and I know, it’s hard because I’ve done my own website. But they use some sort of template, and they, they haven’t changed the template language. So like, say it has their picture on the front, but I click, you know, contact us. And it’s like, our bike store is, you know, something, that it’s like, oh, my gosh, this looks like some, you know, they never actually filled in the words from their business, they let the template be in there, or their links don’t work. I think you’re better off having nothing than something that looks bad. So I would say put up something professional, even if it’s just really basic. You know, same thing with social media. You know, I think people ask, do I need a social media presence? Obviously, there are successful consultants that don’t, for me, social media has been, I can’t even describe the value of the connections that I’ve made with people. I don’t have a professional Facebook page for my business, I only have my networking group, but Twitter and Instagram, I mean, client connections, their fellow consultants, just unbelievable amounts of value. So again, even if you just create something really basic on one of the platforms that you think would be most helpful for you, as long as it is professional, I think it will benefit you people can find you, you’re part of the conversation. I think that’s the thing about social media, it’s a discussion. And I think getting yourself in there as part of the dialogue is important. But again, something that looks like abandoned or unprofessional is worse than nothing at all.

Sujani 37:23
Absolutely. I know, there’s a lot of, you know, free ways to get a site up and running. And I use WordPress for PH SPOT. And I’ve heard of Wix and Squarespace. But another one I think a lot of people aren’t familiar with, which I use back in 2013, when I started a not for profit organization is Google Sites, which is very easy to use. So for anyone looking to just get a site up and running, that’s very easy to use Google Sites is a good one to start with. And I can even add that maybe having a really well established LinkedIn page might also serve that purpose. Would you say that?

Leah 38:00
Absolutely. You know, if I go to somebody’s LinkedIn, and it’s really detailed, they’ve got because people can leave recommendations there about work that you’ve done, you know, if I see recommendations, that that goes a long way, you know, it’s just sometimes people are like, I don’t have a website, here’s my LinkedIn, you know, they have 10 connections, it looks abandoned, it hasn’t been updated.

Sujani 38:24

Leah 38:24
It’s not that impressive, you know. And so I think there is competition out there, there are a lot of people doing consulting you, you do want to differentiate yourself. And you also want to, you know, the communicating to potential clients, you know, this is the high quality level of projects that I do, you know, like, I try to keep my website, you know, very updated, I check obsessively for typos, you know, because all those things reflect on you. And so when things look abandoned, there’s broken links, there’s, you know, grammatical errors and typos, which I see all the time in people’s websites. And a lot of times, I’ll email them and to say, you know, hey, I just want to let you know, you know, because I want someone to do that, for me. It just, it does reflect really poorly on you. And it’s such a shame, because a lot of people, maybe that isn’t how they are in their regular professional life, but their online presence sends a really different message, unfortunately.

Sujani 39:23
Yeah. And I guess with LinkedIn too, you can publish articles, which also goes to show that you’re sort of invested in this field. So if you have some reflections that you can share about some of the work that you’ve done, that’s also a good way to build some content for yourself.

Leah 39:39
Absolutely. It’s, you know, establish your expertise. And that’s a great way to do it without having to have a regular blog, which is as you know, as you know, from doing regular things. It’s a lot of work.

Sujani 39:51
So, here’s another question for you. Yeah. Is it a myth that if you don’t have enough experience, you can’t be a consultant. So someone that comes out of school thinks, you know, maybe consulting is a route for me because I don’t want to work at a nine to five job. But then they convince themselve out of it, because they don’t have kind of work experience, or maybe they’ve only just graduated and there isn’t enough, you know, for them to show that they can do this work. What would you sort of, say to someone that’s considering consulting right outside of- right out of school?

Leah 40:34
You know, it’s a great question. And it’s one that I get a lot, especially in the last couple of years, I feel like with the increased ability to work from anywhere, more and more people are interested in it, than even you know, seven years ago, when I first got started, and people asked me this question a lot about, well, I’m in New Grad, or I get the question, well, I have a master’s degree, I don’t have a doctorate, you know, am I an expert? Again, there’s no hard and fast rules about about this, I have seen relatively new grads run some successful businesses, not necessarily consulting, but some other kinds of public health entrepreneurial ventures. My instinct from from doing this for the last seven years is that I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re right out of school, and like you’ve gone right to undergrad, you know, from being 18. And now you’ve gone to undergrad, because you really don’t have a work portfolio besides maybe some internships that you’ve done. And I think, in my experience, clients always want to know, how have you solved this similar problem in the past this problem that I’m having, how have you fixed it in the past, whether that was for your employer, or a different client, people really want evidence that you have done this before, and you know what you’re talking about, because, again, that consultant language is you’re an expert coming in. Now, to go back to the language again, I think you could probably do some freelance and contract work as a new grad, and build up your portfolio that way. But I don’t know that you could really sell yourself as an expert. And again, this is not a there might be certain people in school that were like, are just unbelievably talented in a particular area, they have a service that’s really high in demand. In my experience, that’s more the exception. Most people just need to build up their experience, and even just build up your confidence, you know, some of the things that I have encountered as a consultant that I’ve really had to over- overcome some confidence issues, even though I was an experienced professional. So, you know, negotiating money, dealing with people who weren’t paying me on time, these were all, you know, dealing with contracts, these were all things that I learned on the job in my work at other places that then I was able to bring to my consulting, and it was still intimidating. So I can’t even imagine having to do that as a new grad who had no experience. So, you know, I tend to give the advice that people should work on building up their experience working on professional development, even just give yourself a couple of years of something to build up a portfolio. And I’ve looked around to see if there’s any guidance on this topic, which of course, there is not the closest thing I can find this is a pretty old citation but there’s a 2001 journal article about consulting in the journal health promotion practice, and that author Sylvia Bookbinder says, it’s probably best to work for at least five years before jumping into consulting. Now, her reasoning is that then if you decide to re enter the workforce, a lot of employers are looking for, say, five years of full time experience to get something that’s maybe not entry level. And so you know, her reasoning is that you should have that at the front end. That’s the only citation I’ve been able to find where there’s any sort of guidance in like a peer reviewed article about consulting and experience but- but that’s my instinct as well, is that people have I mean, people are not impressed. They say, “Can you solve this problem before?” And I say, “No, I haven’t.”

Sujani 44:30

Leah 44:30
So, I think you want to be able to confidently send people two examples of when you’ve done that in the past.

Sujani 44:38
And I think I’d go to add, and you mentioned this is that when you are working for another organization, it’s not only the content area that you’re getting exposed to, but also how to work with a team, how to write proper emails, and perhaps your organization works with other vendors where you are able to review contracts or legal documentation, or your pricing, and I think those are some really important skills that you need to have before you can negotiate these things on your own. And, you know, you probably know this and everyone in public health, that public health is very small. So if you get in and make a mistake or mess up your- you might end up having a bad reputation for when you are ready to go into consulting full time, I would think.

Leah 45:25
Absolutely. And every job, you build your network. So you know, my first job out of, you know, out of graduate school was at a college, and I became very well connected in the college health community, and still have heard from some of those people since doing consulting. And now it’s been, you know, 14 years since I graduated. You know, working at Drexel, people at Drexel have hired me to help them with projects. When I worked at Boston, I worked at the Education Development Center, I’ve been hired by centers within EDC, multiple times, as a writer over the past couple of years. So every job that you have, not only are you building your portfolio, you are just building up the potential clients that you have for the future. As long as you do a good job, those people will probably end up hiring you that’s very much the experience that a lot, that I’ve had, that a lot of colleagues of mine consulting colleagues have had as well. And I think it’s hard, obviously, you have to be patient, you know, you do have to take that time after graduation, to do that. But I think it is so worth it when I sit back and think about where I was, you know, January 2006, which is when I got my MPH at graduation, I have no idea who would have hired me, I had had, you know, an internship and things like that. I mean, that’s it. So now I think about who could potentially hire me and the numbers are just so much bigger.

Sujani 46:49
And I guess for individuals who do want to get into consulting down the road, maybe like one approach they could take is have that in the back of their mind, still work full time, but you know, reflect every year about the networks that they’ve made, or the areas that they’re interested in, and you know, start planning out that business or that consulting firm that they want to eventually build up. And, you know, it’s not wasted effort, you are building skills, you are building your network, as Leah mentioned, and you’re working towards that goal, but with patience, you will eventually be able to either jump into a part time or full time. And another thing I remember Leah, you told me it could have been a while ago when we chatted was that some individuals have also opted to work for other consultants just to get some experience. And maybe that’s something that young grads can do, you know, have a full time job, but also work casually or part time for another consultant just to kind of get the feel of what it means to be a consultant.

Leah 47:54
Absolutely. I think that’s a great way to build your portfolio to network, you know, to get a sense of consulting, because you also may work for another consultant and then realize this isn’t for me. And that’s a great thing to learn as a subcontractor versus you know, now that you’ve quit your full time job and launched a business and then you realize I actually don’t really like. So I think it’s a very low risk way to get experience. And I and a lot of the consultants that I’ve met started that way they started there, I hate the phrase side hustle, but they started as a side hustle. And then they realized that there was a market for their services. You know, they had a special niche, people really wanted to access their services, and they ended up going full time. But they did start small first, in a very low risk way. And there’s, actually I don’t know if any of these listeners listen to there’s a podcast called Business Boutique with Christie Wright, which is, it’s great for people who are new business owners, especially and I’ve very much enjoyed her podcast over the years. And one of the things that Christie says is that it should not be a leap into consulting, it should be a step. And so and she says that in that this should not be something you haven’t researched, something that you haven’t tried something that you haven’t assessed the market, that you’re sort of blindly, like leaving your job and jumping into without thinking it should be the next step because you have planned and thought about it really strategically along the way. And I think that that is really great advice.

Sujani 49:30
Yeah. You don’t want to take a leap of faith into a new step into a with a good plan.

Leah 49:34

Sujani 49:36
So yes.

Leah 49:36
I did that.

Sujani 49:39
So you’ve been exposed to consultants from all over the world. Can you kind of think about any differences from country to country that you’ve come across or are able to comment on?

Leah 49:52
You know, I was thinking about this question because, you know, because the networking group is, you know, is its primary US, but it does have international participation, as you mentioned, what I see is that there are a lot of similarities in terms of the challenges people have, you know, feeling isolated, dealing with difficult clients being underpaid, how to raise your prices, effectively, I think there’s a lot of similarity in terms of those business challenges. There’s similarity in terms of the types of projects. You know, when I’ve heard people in the networking group talk about their projects, when I’ve talked to I have, there’s actually a Canadian consultant that’s going to join my next mastermind, that starting in a couple of weeks, I’m really excited to have her, the project sounds similar people are doing, you know, program evaluation, they’re developing and implementing health promotion programs, doing, you know, health communication projects. So the types of projects and the business challenges are, we all speak the same language. For sure. I think some of the differences are in terms of you know, how to set up your business, like the exact steps that you would take some of the business expenses that maybe a consideration so he- you know, we’ve talked about like here in the US having to pay for your own health insurance, those, you know, the benefits and things like that would look different in say, Canada in terms of the expenses, that you have to think about what types of insurance you may need to run your business, that’s going to be a little bit different. So I think there’s some some differences in those ways. And, I mean, potentially, the types of clients, although, when I’ve talked to people in, you know, Australia and Canada, I mean, it sounds similar they’re working with, you know, they’re working with colleges and universities, they’re working with nonprofits, they are working with health departments. And so it does seem like there are probably more similarities than less, it’s more maybe the specific business steps, and you may be able to speak to that, you know, better than I than I can. And this is one reason that my course what I really wanted to do was give people a way to be strategic about planning for their business, and making them do the work, you know, to say to them, listen, you should consult with a small business attorney, a small business accountant, ask them these questions, you know, what type of business entity should you be? Like what are the pros and cons of different setups. And so because- I think that is really universal, no matter what country you’re in, to ask those kinds of strategic questions. And to me, that’s very different than saying to people, okay, you should be an LLC. And you should do that, like, I try not to give people very prescriptive advice, because it may be different for their country, it may be different for their unique situation. So for instance, there are other consultants I’ve met, that are single parents, and they are the old this is the only income that their family has, well, their risks, and their financial plans are very different than mine are, because I’m married, I’m on my husband’s insurance, as are my children. So my risks in that way, look very different. So the advice that an attorney, you know, would give them or an accountant is very different. So I, I really try to give people the questions to ask professionals to help themselves, give them resources for how to make a business plan, but they have to do the research to figure out, you know, who’s my competition? You know, what kind of services am I going to offer? All of those things may vary a little bit depending on your geographic location. But yeah, much more similarities than differences in my experience.

Sujani 53:49
Oh, that’s good to hear. Yeah, for our Canadian listeners is lots of great resources. Online industry, Canada is a good one that I often, you know, have started with, and we would incorporate a business and it cost something like $200. And then I’ve even picked up the phone and just called accountants for a quick question, and they’re willing to help you with sort of a quick answer in the hope that they will eventually get business from you. So, you know, I think those are some really good advices that you should consult with the experts before you make some decisions. But that’s not to scare people on the business end of starting a sort of a consulting business. You mentioned finances, and I just want to quickly touch on that. Leah, do you ever worry about you know, am I going to make X number of dollars this month? Because unlike a full time job, you’re not getting a consistent paycheck. And so how do you deal with that?

Leah 54:50
I think that dealing with the financial fluctuation is probably one of the biggest fears that people have and then people ask me about out. Again, I think it really depends on your situation. So I’m really privileged to have my, you know, a partner who’s bringing in a more consistent income. So my fluctuations do not affect the household as much, you know, it’s not like we can’t pay for school or something like that. So again, I think if you’re a single parent, or you’re in a different situation, where you are the primary, or the only person with an income, this may be harder for you, although I do see people work around that. So for instance, I know some consultants that their setup is that they, they pay themselves at consistent salary, you know, they have an estimate of how much money they’re going to make, they pay themselves a monthly salary, that’s always the same, versus paying themselves with the fluctuation each month. And so that helps keep keep them you know, more level and able to, you know, count on that particular income. And then maybe they give themselves a bonus if they’ve made more than expected, but they’re, you know, kind of conservative in what they make for their monthly salary. I also think, you know, doing things like selling products, like ebooks, or courses or things like that, can give you some cons-, you know, some consistency in that you have more control over that than waiting for client work, you know, you can kind of make that happen for yourself. So I think there’s some some strategies you can use to have income either be more consistent or to supplement when maybe client work is lower, you could have you know, products or different things that you sell. But I haven’t been, I think, because I kind of fell into it accidentally, I didn’t have those fears going in, I was very naive. I will say that, you know, financial planning is a really important part of this business. And again, keeping in mind at least, like I don’t know how it’s set up in every country, but like, in the US, like, you’re gonna need to pay taxes on that money that’s coming in. So making sure that you have a really responsible plan for how you pay yourself, how you save for taxes and other expenses, is really important, so that you don’t get into trouble. And again, just having a really good person to assist you who is an expert, you know, there’s, there’s tons of accountants that specialize in small businesses who can help you figure out, okay, you want to have like, you need to make this much money, you need to have this percentage that you save for taxes, I think once you figure that out, it feels less intimidating. So I think my fears have gone down once I felt like I understood how much I needed to make and things like that. And also, and these are kind of larger, you know, financial viewpoints, but my husband and I, we specifically, you know, bought a house that we could afford with one income, if we needed to, we move to a place where we, we knew we wanted to be on the train line so that we could stick with only having one car and not getting a second car in the suburbs. So we made a lot of financial decisions in our- in our lives, that then take the pressure off me always having to make you know, I have to make a certain amount or we won’t be able to pay our mortgage or something like that. So again, like it’s really unique to each person, in terms of I think the risks and the recommendations to make those risks more tolerable.

Sujani 58:26
They it goes back to your comment from Christie right on stepping into consulting versus leaping, leaping in, yeah. And I mean, some people are willing to take that risk, you know, that gives them the extra push to go out and find clients and get their business up and running. But, but for those of us who are a bit more risk averse, starting consulting, perhaps on the side, or having a part time job to sort of help with some of the expenses that you do know are going to come up. And in the case you don’t have client work, you can still pay your bills and eat and have a roof over your head. I think those are all important things to consider.

Leah 59:02

Sujani 59:03
On a- on a happier note, what’s the best part of consulting for you?

Leah 59:08
I mean, for me, it’s really the flexibility. And I think of flexibility. Not, I think usually when people say flexibility, you immediately think of the schedule, you know, your schedule is flexible, which is certainly part of it. But for me, it’s also the flexibility to choose the type of work that I’m really passionate about. And that has changed over time. And, you know, so that your consulting work can change with you really easily versus like getting another full time job. Yeah. And so, you know, my interests have gone kind of all over the place in the last seven years, I’ve really been able to, you know, follow things that I’m passionate about. I’ve been able to try out different kinds of things than I think I would have been a full time job, you know, and even like my interests have changed a lot since having children. So I had my first child about a year after I started doing consulting, and then having a baby and a small child, I started having a lot of interest in, you know, maternal and child health issues and have been able to pursue those a bit through my consulting work, in terms of the types of projects, that I’m working on some, you know, blog collaborations I was able to do and things like that. So I think it just gives you a lot of freedom in terms of your schedule. And then also, and also your passions, and, you know, having small children, for me, flexibility was just absolutely huge, both of my children were born premature, my son had, you know, some relatively significant health issues as a result of being more premature than my daughter was recently. And so you know, having the freedom and like having that one thing off my mind, you know, okay, I’m not going to get fired, because I can’t go to work because my kid is sick, or I need to take take them to the doctor, was just such a huge stress relief for me. And I think even if you don’t have kids, or you’re not planning on having kids, you know, this idea of, you know, a flexibility. And, and, of course, you have to plan for that. Because if you have client commitments, and then I mean, you still have commitments, but it- you know, because you may have a sick parent, or some other reason why you need to take off of work for a certain amount of time, it really gives you the flexibility to do that, if you- and it depends the kinds of projects that you have, you know, when I, when I had my son, I made a really conscious decision to take on projects, that would be really flexible in terms of when I worked on them. So I didn’t take projects that required travel, because it was very hard, it would be very hard for me to be away from him for various reasons, I took on a lot of writing projects, because if you know, if he was sick, or I was with him all day, I could do writing projects at midnight or six in the morning, you know, it’s not ideal, or I could do it at nap time. You know, I didn’t need to be on a call or at a meeting at a certain time. And so that really worked with having a small child. So I liked being able to really pick and choose for what I- what I worked on. So I could still bring in income for my family, but I could meet those other needs and responsibilities that I had. So absolutely, the flexibility is number one and a very close second for me, which has been such a joy is all the people I have met who are also consultants and this community that has emerged, where and I don’t even really pick, you know, I mean, I consider them colleagues. But really, these are like friends now you know, where there’s people I’ve gotten to know so well who like when I see a book, I think of them, and I send it to them, you know, we’ve really become friends and I have this wonderful network of people who are consultants, who I never would have met otherwise. And I’m just so so grateful for them.

Sujani 1:02:57
I hope you enjoyed listening to Leah about her journey and all of the value that she shared. I personally love to hear Leah speak and share her valuable insight and just the knowledge that she has and care that she takes to explain certain concept. So guys, if you’ve been contemplating getting into public health consulting, Leah and I are going to help you take the first few steps, beginning with this Thursday. That’s Thursday, February 13 2020. We are going to be offering a webinar around how to price your services. And so if you head over to pH We will have all of the details outlined there for you about this webinar that’s taking place on Thursday, February 13 2020, at 7pm, Eastern. If you’re listening to this episode, after February 13, you can still visit ph Because we will have all of the resources there for you. But if you’re able to attend it live, we will have a q&a at the end where you can send in questions for Leah to answer at the end of the webinar. And in addition, Leah will also be sharing some more of her valuable training and resources with bonus offerings for just the PH SPOT community. And if you can’t attend that timeslot for the webinar, still sign up because we can send you a replay of the session once it’s been recorded. So that’s ph All of the details are there, share it with your friends, share it with your colleagues, and I look forward to seeing all of you on the webinar. And next week we’re going to be featuring another consultant to give you another perspective and story. So be sure to check out the next episode. And like I said, I found this amazing connector, Leah and we’re going to try to bring you as much value as we can together. And I know this episode was a bit longer than usual and I appreciate you sticking around me till the very end. And this week I’m going to leave you with Roy Bennett quote from his book, The light in the heart, “Don’t be pushed around by the fears in your mind be led by the dreams in your heart.” So guys, if you’ve thought about consulting and thought about getting into the space, I encourage you to attend the webinar, and just gather a bit more information for yourself and then try to take that first step. Until next week, public health heroes keep rocking the world because this world truly needs the work you’re doing. And thank you so much for tuning into PH SPOTlight and for the invaluable work that you do for this world.


About the Show

PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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