AccelPro | Intellectual Property Law
AccelPro | Intellectual Property Law
On The Art of Client Management

On The Art of Client Management

With Beth Toth, Principal Coach and Consultant at Consulo Consulting | Interviewed by Celeste Headlee

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Welcome to AccelPro IP Law, where we provide expert interviews and coaching to accelerate your professional development. This interview is part of our AccelPro Career Tools series, where we explore topics including client relationship management and wellness.

Our host is internationally recognized journalist, author and NPR host Celeste Headlee. Today we’re featuring a conversation with Beth Toth, Principal Coach and Consultant at Consulo Consulting.

Beth has a long history working in the human facing side of business; starting in HR, she’s moved through recruiting to consulting, and has a comprehensive perspective. She has advised organizations including startups and Fortune 500 companies, along with individuals from entry-level employees to senior executives.

Beth offers insights on how to best manage difficult situations with clients and set a strategy even when obstacles emerge. She describes how honesty, shared goals and an openness to others’ mindsets have allowed her to navigate relationships and help her clients move past sticking points.

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and YouTube.

Interview References:



Celeste Headlee, Host: Some of the news that you give clients at times may not be what they want to hear. How do you create trust in these relationships so that, even when it's not what they expected or even wanted to hear, they can still trust what you're saying and trust your expertise and move forward?

Beth Toth: Trust really starts from the beginning. Stephen Covey has this whole speed of trust thing: we can only operate as fast as the trust that we have will allow us. It starts by actively listening—getting really curious and really listening to what the person is saying, asking good questions. Powerful questions, we call them in coaching, do not just have “yes” or “no” answers. You have to ask yourself, Am I asking questions to understand the deeper root of the issue and what I really care about? and, Am I coming in judgment free?

I was a consultant for a very long time, and then I moved into coaching, and one of the things that was hardest for me was, as a consultant, I'm being paid to tell someone the answer, and as a coach, I'm being paid to help someone discover their own answer.

Now when I go out and I advise, I try to fall somewhere in between. It’s asking good questions, understanding what the desired outcome is, and understanding why that outcome is really important to that person or that organization. Why does it matter in the big picture? And then being able to say, based on my expertise, “Here are some of the steps we could take; here's a plan that we might take.”

It is about listening first and then co-designing an approach second. And once we've done that the person really feels, Oh, I've been a part of designing this plan, now we can take the ride together. So when it doesn't go exactly the way that we had hoped or planned or desired, we can work together because we're already in it together. 

That’s the best way for me, because at least I know how to share this information. How do they best communicate? How do they best listen? And they're more open with me, to hearing what I've said because I've already brought them into the process and built their trust.

CH: Anytime that you either go to school for a particular profession or get trained in a particular job, if you're in it for four or five years, you find that a lot of the most important lessons were not the ones you were trained in. Can you give me an example of the things that you really wish you had known going in?

BT: I think the biggest lesson for me was, even though I need to show up as the expert in my area, it doesn't mean that I know everything. I need to show up confidently with the things that I do know, but also be confident enough to say, “I don't have the answer for you,” or, “I'm not 100 percent sure. Here's what's coming off the top of my head now, but I'd love to spend some more time looking into that,” which really is another way of building trust. 

I'm not just saying everything that comes off the top of my head. I’m leaving room for being wrong. I don't want to say it got me in trouble early on, but I felt like I was being hired to do a certain job and I needed to come in confident and that I should know the answer and really be a driver to get everybody on my same page.

CH: Sometimes there's this push to always be the smartest in the room, to always know every answer, to never admit that you don't know something.

What kind of experience do you have with that type of personality?

BT: Just by way of background, my whole career has been on the people side of the business. I started in HR, in recruiting. I went to business school and studied management and organizations. I worked with the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California, so I've been in this people (and how people drive) business, my whole life. 

When I finished grad school, I went into Deloitte Consulting, one of the big consulting firms, and that's really where I got the foundation of frameworks, of approaches, on how to do client service and learning from lots and lots of different people. Since then I have been out on my own, since 2008, early, really early, in the gig economy. I’ve worked with companies that were brand new startups all the way to Fortune 500s, across several industries, and all the way from entry level people through the executive suite. 

If we want to think about all the different levels of confidence and personalities that I've talked to over the years, there's definitely been people, particularly in some of my consulting work with the larger consulting firms, who've been doing this for a really long time and they've seen it all, and that's their image of themselves. That’s how they want to present themselves. 

I think in any coaching situation, you have to have someone on the other end of the conversation who's open to learning, to doing something a little bit different, to listening to a different perspective. There will be a chunk of people, lawyers or otherwise, who might say that “I'm not motivated to do something differently like that.” The value of taking a step back or saying, “Hey, I'm not 100 percent sure on this,” is not worth it for them because they have to give up some credibility. 

I think what I've learned, and what I've seen in organizations, is when a leader can say, “Hey, here's what I know, and here's what I don't know, and here's my plan to find out,” there is a credibility that's built. Not necessarily on how many books I've read, or all the statutes that I can spit out, but really on the fact that, I'm also human, I'm willing to be slightly vulnerable with you. Because I look at you as a human too, and we're having this experience together.

It's not that I'm coming in and saying, “Hey, we're going to do this together. We're all learning here.” That's not the point. And in fact, I had someone say that to me recently and I thought, But you're the expert and I don't want to learn with you; I want to learn from you. But I am saying that each situation has its own nuances and its own details that I cannot show up pretending to know 100%. 

Even if it's the same kind of case that I'm hearing, there's going to be details—the root cause, the emotions, all of the context around it—is going to be different from situation to situation, and I need to come in and say, “Okay, here's what I do know, and here's what I've seen before. And I'm willing to say that this might not be the exact same as it's always been, so help me understand the differences here, and then let's figure out a plan for how to move forward.”


CH: Does any of this change when you're working with an individual as opposed to a whole organization? Does it complicate any of what you're talking about?

BT: It’s less complicated working with an individual than it is working with an organization. Because when I'm talking to an individual within an organization there may be pressures around the politics of the organization, the way things have always been done, the culture of an organization, so it's much harder for someone to say, “Hey, I'm going to raise my hand and do things differently.”

If I work in an organization where if I admit any weakness, or I say, “I don't know,” in any way because I know I'm going to get shut down, it's not a safe place for me to change my behavior. But if I'm operating in an organization where the CEO is saying, “Hey, we've just been faced with this new situation and here's what I know, here's what I don't know, and here's what I'm going to do to find out,” I'm going to feel safer doing that with my clients and with the people internally.

CH: We're talking a lot about people's concerns over their own reputation, their own credibility. When you don't admit mistakes, it also creates a culture in which it's not safe for other people to admit mistakes too. Do people tend to understand that, that as leaders they create culture?

BT: I think there's a movement to try to have more of that understanding and more awareness. Actually, I think that's one of the huge drivers of the increase in executive coaching in the coaching space that we've seen in the last five or ten years. There's been a huge uptick, and I think it's because leaders are starting to realize that their behavior does impact the success of the organization.

It sends messages and it really impacts the bones of the organization, the way that we get things done, and they are now more willing to ask for help. And that's where the coach comes in—they’re really helping with that self-awareness, and helping you look at, Okay, how did I react in that situation? How did I show up? And what were some of the messages that I was sending, even inadvertently? 

I didn't mean to say that mistakes aren't okay. If you ask me on the side, sure, everybody makes mistakes, but what I said when I covered something up or I did not give credence to “Hey, here's the lesson learned,” I didn't realize that's in conflict with the message of “It's okay to make mistakes.”

I think people are either seeking it out themselves; to have an outside coach to help talk through and change their behavior and how they show up, or they're being told by their organizations, by boards, by their clients, that what they're doing is not aligned with their intended outcome.

CH: Who's the ideal client for you? And on the other side of that, of course, would be, at what point do you realize you can't help someone?

BT: I think my ideal client is someone who has that impetus to change. They have the reason. I think we know in general in change management practice that change is really hard, and people aren't going to go through it unless there's a really big positive at the end—so, my current state has to be bad enough that I'm willing to put the work in to do it differently. 

I've done coaching one on one, I've worked with companies where I work with cohorts of people, and I always, in the cohort situation, ask, “Are these people being ‘voluntold,’ or are they opting into this program because they see the value for themselves?” 

In an ideal world, all my people are opting in. Maybe even they're a little skeptical. That's okay, but they're taking the time to really think about themselves, build self awareness, and also understand their impact on the people around them so that they can improve their ability to lead.

CH: So what kind of advice would you give to people to help them become better at change? To become better at not just embracing maybe new systems, but carrying them forward?

BT: I think it's rooted in curiosity. Again, we loop back to this idea of vulnerability. Am I curious about how things would be if they were different? What's a slightly better outcome that I could be getting? How could this be different? And once I start to ask that question, I am talking to different people; I might be doing some reading; I might go take a course to learn more, but I'm broadening my own perspective and knowledge of what's out there, and now I'm participating in the change.

I used to do a lot of ERP system implementations, these big technology implementations, and 80 percent of the people were being told, “You used to use paper for your job and now you have to punch a bunch of buttons on a computer.” And they're like, “That doesn't sound good to me. I don't want to learn a new thing. I've been doing my job forever in this same way.” And so, I can come in and say, “Hey, listen, this is the job; if you want a job, you can change,” which will work in a punitive way, but they're not feeling part of the change. Something is being done to them and they're being forced into a really tough choice. 

Or I can come in ahead and say, “Hey, help me understand your world;” I can get really curious; I can have conversations. “Help me understand your world and let me try to connect what your world is today with what it could be in the future. Let me help paint a picture for you so that you can, if nothing else, dip a toe in, even if you're not getting fully onboard.” I think for them it really is about being in an open-minded space where they believe that there's a better way of doing things.

CH: How do we fix the accessibility problem for coaching, where in general, coaching goes to people in the higher echelons of an organization. In many organizations that tends to be overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white. How do we fix that problem?

BT: There's a large number of organizations out there that are really, for lack of a better word, commoditizing the coaching experience. Companies can make a contract with a coaching organization and they'll say, “I have people at the individual contributor level, at the more junior levels, that have a certain need,” which is going to be different than your middle managers and different than at the executive level. These companies have benches of coaches who can address people at different levels and those needs can be addressed one on one, or they can really be addressed in groups.

What we're seeing, and what I've coached a lot in, is getting a group of people together, not even necessarily from the same organization, who have the same skills that they want to build. Maybe it's communication skills; maybe it's delivering tough messages; maybe it's “How do I give feedback?” And they can meet in a group so there are economies of scale, and we have a curriculum. The topics are set. What we say during the conversation isn't scripted, but at least we know we're going to show up on Tuesday and we're going to talk about how to build relationships, how to build trust with our clients.

And then we're able to a) learn from an expert, because I have some concepts that I am able to share, but also b) learn from each other, because what makes the coaching experience different from training is it's not what I call a sit and get; it's not me telling you a bunch of things that I hope you go and do something with, or maybe not. It really is a two-way engaged situation where I might share something and say to you, “How does that resonate with you? Have you experienced that? What have you done in a situation like that?” 

Because the truth is, even if maybe we don't feel like we're experts at building trust, we all have some experiences and we've tried things that worked and didn't work. How can we all learn from each other's mistakes? I think there's power in that kind of group coaching. And also, to your point of making it accessible, it becomes much more affordable for individuals and for organizations to do it at that kind of scale. 


CH: What keeps you in this business? You said that you have moved from one career to another in the people business. Dealing with people can be a lot, so what keeps you in this?

BT: One of the things that really drives me is the idea of possibility. That's true for myself, and it's true for how I feel about others. One of the things that's a common thread with my organizational clients, and with my individual clients, is that there's this moment of stuckness.

Either companies are saying, “We're really trying to move the needle to grow revenue and our people are not doing it. What do we do?” or there's someone who's saying, “I'm feeling stuck in my career.” I see my role as helping people see possibility and operate from a place of choice. And even if you've got tough choices, like I could leave my job and not have one for a little while or I could do the hard work of getting a new job, you’re still operating from a place of choice. It doesn't necessarily make the bad options better, but at least you feel like you have a choice. 

So when they’re getting up in the morning, they’re now saying, “Okay, I don't love my job. This maybe isn't the right place for me forever, but it's not that I am stuck, it's that I am choosing to be in this place that maybe isn't ideal for now, but I've got a good reason to be here.” 

And if there isn't a good enough reason, I ask, “How do we create possibility? What would it look like to do something differently, to make a different choice, or even to change your mindset, your frame of mind around your day-to-day?”

So again, maybe they’re not actually switching jobs or taking a big swing, but they’re changing their mindset around this as a choice versus being forced: someone else is doing this to me. When we operate from choice, and we feel engaged and like we have agency, we are more positive, happier people.

CH: My last question for you is for other people who may be in a similar profession to you, maybe not exactly the same, but they're also in jobs that are all about talking to people. Sometimes it may be delivering uncomfortable news, sometimes about convincing people to accept change. Any advice to people on how to get through difficult conversations?

BT: Yes. When you're having a difficult conversation the first thing is to recognize why it's important to have it at all. If I need to deliver a tough message, I really need to say to myself, What's important about sharing this information? Is it that this is for your development, and I really want to see you learn and grow, so I'm going to give you this feedback?

Is it that you've entrusted me with sharing difficult news? If you've hired me to lead your case, and now I have to tell you that we're losing the case, that's part of the trust and the accountability that you've set up with me and that I promise to you. 

There's something that's deeply seated around why it's important that I even go through this uncomfortable situation of sharing difficult information, and once I understand the reason and I can connect that, I can then start to think about what my point of view is. What do I really need to share? What might get in the way of me continuing the conversation? 

This person might get really upset. They might yell at me. They might cry. They might deny. What are all the things that might happen and how do I want to react in those moments? Playing out the scenario and really being able to visualize if this person gets really angry at me, here's how I want to show up in that moment.

You can decide whether it's saying, ‘Hey, I'm seeing that this is getting really emotional; let's take a time out. Can we get back together on this conversation? Or do we need to take a break?’ Really visualize it, because in times of high emotion, we sometimes don't make our best choices. If we can think about it ahead of time and plan for it and prep, we have a better chance of showing up in those moments the way that's important to us.

And then we always want to close out a difficult conversation with a shared understanding. We may not agree on the outcome, I'm not saying that both people are going to come out happy necessarily on both ends, but the important part about a difficult conversation is that there's clarity at the end of the conversation.

CH: Rather than consensus, clarity, you say, is the most important.

BT: Yes, at least a general understanding of what's going to happen next and why, because not every decision is going to be popular.

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and YouTube.

This AccelPro audio transcript has been edited and organized for clarity. This interview was recorded on October 31, 2023.

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AccelPro | Intellectual Property Law
AccelPro | Intellectual Property Law
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