Attia Qureshi: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started My Consulting Business
You need a network: in consulting at least 75% of your work will come through referrals, which means your first few jobs are crucial. Many of those jobs or referrals will come through your network. The touchpoint may be a connection of a connection, but your network nonetheless. The first year, the jobs I secured were referrals from my mentor and his wife. They referred me to smaller clients and nonprofits, which helped me get my feet wet. When I landed in that small, rural town I mentioned, I went on about six coffee chats per week to meet people who I though could connect me to other people. One of those people recommended that I reach out to the big client I eventually landed. You never know where a casual conversation will take you, so don’t lose sight of the power of a network!
As a part of my series called “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started My Consulting Business ”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Attia Qureshi.
Trained at Harvard and MIT, Attia Qureshi helps organizations cultivate an inclusive, collaborative, and united culture by creating lasting behavioral change in their workforce. Drawing from her experience working in Silicon Valley startups, consulting for billion-dollar corporations, and launching two businesses of her own; Qureshi works with her clients to identify the root of the problem and create a custom program of facilitation, training, and coaching. Additionally, Attia is an adjunct professor of negotiation at MIT Sloan, the co-author of a book on negotiation coming out in the Fall of 2021, and has ongoing conflict resolution work in cocaine-producing regions of Colombia.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I never thought I’d be one of those people with a passion career, where they have something they fall in love with and have tons of energy and drive to share it with the world — until I took a negotiation course at MIT during my first semester as a grad student. I was so impressed with the way the content was framed — where you give people a self-interested reason to create more value in the world. Biologically, we all have a drive to fulfill our basic needs, thus we often focus on getting as much as we can for ourselves. The professor for the course, who is now my mentor and co-author, showed us that you can convince people they can get more out of a deal by working together rather than being oppositional. Since then, I have fallen in love with the concept of helping people improve by showing them how to meet their own needs by working toward the common good, and ultimately that’s my small way of making the world a better place. I bugged the professor until he let me become his teaching assistant, and then he started taking me on consulting gigs with him to run workshops at the corporate level. From there, I found an interesting and rewarding path, and I decided to launch a business as an independent consultant after graduating.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I had the opportunity to do conflict resolution work in Colombia in January 2019. Specifically, I was working to convince farmers to stop growing coca for cocaine production and figure out how to work together to grow crops that would be more profitable than coca. This is a hard sell. Coca is easy to grow and the cartel makes it incredibly easy for the farmers — they pick up the crop, drop off money, and do it all over again the next week. So when I went into the Colombian jungle to visit these tiny villages hanging off the sides of cliffs with paramilitarios visible every once in awhile it was out of my comfort zone to say the least. What was even further out of my comfort zone was getting these farmers to listen to me, given the comfortable lifestyle they had become accustomed to. The proposition of growing another crop is honestly a brutal one. In the short term, it means less money, less stability and a lot more work.
It was incredibly challenging work, but one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had since starting my company. Walking into a village with everyone staring at me with suspicion and leaving with everyone feeling hopeful and confident that they could work together and move away from coca was incredible. I was able to help them see a better path forward and agree on how to work together to achieve that. It showed me the power of my work on so many different levels, and I’ve made a commitment to continue doing that type of work as much as I can.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
As I mentioned earlier, John, my mentor and co-author, would be that person. He teaches negotiation at MIT, and his class and mentorship is what sparked the fire for me to do this work. Not only that, but he showed me how I could turn teaching and running workshops into a career. He put his faith in me by taking me on consulting gigs and then spending time co-authoring a book on negotiation with me.
The first semester I took John’s negotiation class, I was incredibly intimidated by him. I’m not normally a shy or timid student, but I always felt nervous to raise my hand in class because I wanted to be certain I would sound smart. Once I got to know him, I realized how silly this was — he is incredibly down to earth. At the end of the semester he has a tradition of inviting everyone to his home to have a barbecue, and we got to meet his family and friends. He and his wife have built an incredible community of people teaching and consulting in negotiation/conflict resolution, and welcome those who are passionate about it into that space.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When you get stressed about a particular situation, think back to all the other situations you’ve dealt with to find confidence in being able to handle it.” I’ll never forget this advice, as I think it’s incredibly relevant to so many situations and people. Starting a consulting company is brutally hard because it’s filled with a lot of rejection. The first year of my business, there were a lot of moments I felt depressed and totally dejected. It’s hard when the thing you love and feel so strongly about isn’t seen as valuable by other people. However, that piece of advice helped me get through that tough time and keep moving forward until slowly I started getting more and more work.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
My consulting work focuses on addressing cultural dysfunction that exists within every organization. This dysfunction can manifest itself in many ways — employee dissatisfaction, lack of diversity, ineffective leaders, etc. Ultimately, this hinders growth and innovation; the very things that make an organization competitive. I take a holistic approach to addressing these problems by doing a culture audit to find the root of the problem, then create a customized program of facilitation, workshops and coaching to empower the organization and its people with a collaborative, inclusive, and united culture.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes my company stand-out is that my approach is evidence-based and empirically proven to work — I don’t work with organizations who are just looking for a check-box training to appease investors or the board. My solutions are customized, meaning I roll my sleeves up and dig into what is stifling growth by understanding what’s happening within a company’s biggest asset: it’s people. I’ve been trained at Harvard and MIT, the industry’s highest standard, but what really sets me apart is my experience. I’ve worked in startups, started companies of my own, and held positions at billion-dollar corporations. I know first-hand the problems that arise for my clients because I’ve been the employee, manager, and founder leaving the meetings frustrated by fractured systems. My work in Colombia’s coca-growing region also speaks to my conflict resolution abilities — talk about high stakes!
One of my clients recently was facing difficulties coming to consensus during their quarterly strategic planning. The conversations would devolve into bickering over semantics, wasting hours of meeting time and dragging the process out over weeks. With this being a quarterly process, there was very little time to do the actual work between planning sessions. After observing the process they had, I created a new planning process that I’ve been facilitating for them for several quarters now. Using a combination of design-thinking methodologies blended with the way they prefer to structure goals and priorities, I’ve been able to help them gain consensus and nail down priorities in a single hour-and-a-half meeting. The key was using what already works for them, and tweaking it with a process that will keep things moving along. I also love driving more creativity, so I added some fun brainstorming in the beginning to make sure everyone was thinking holistically. My tailored approach for clients really sets my work apart, because no two clients are the same, and I create solutions that will actually work for their culture, processes and systems.
When you first started the business, what drove you, what was your primary motivation?
I’ve always wanted to make a meaningful change in the world, but for that change to also be meaningful and lasting. Awareness and education feel like the best ways for me to do that. I love the idea of motivating people in a sustainable way that will keep them using the skills because it’s ultimately better for them. While I wish I could tell people to just be better, it’s naive to think that will work. I’d rather convince people to make a change by showing them how they will be better off. I take a pretty honest and practical approach to my work based in reality and what is motivating to most people. Maybe this is cynical, but I’ve found it to be the thing that works best.
What drives you now? Is it the same? Did it change? Can you explain what you mean?
The desire is the same as when I first started the business. I still continue to want to positively change the world, which drives and excites me to continue to innovate and grow my practice. I’ve seen the work I do make a difference for people, and evolved my approach over time to make it even more impactful. I have seen how my work drives more value within organizations. By helping people work better together, which means increased efficiency and productivity. I’ve seen my work help coca farmers see a different path forward and stop producing cocaine — and I’ve seen it help organizations create more inclusive cultures, which ultimately drives more diversity and equity.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! I’m starting a new project with a thought partner on building more inclusion within organizations. This is done through the only proven way to instigate that change — meaningful, vulnerable conversations where people share their life experiences. We have developed a six-month program where small groups meet on a monthly basis to have these deep conversations, providing prompts and guidance to drive a higher level of awareness of what they and their colleagues/peers have been through. We have seen amazing results so far in how much more connected people feel to one another and how they feel more included in their organizations. We’ve also seen how participants gain the ability to recognize which of their own behaviors are perceived as being exclusive and recognize the changes they should make.
Does your company have a sales team? If yes, do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
As a small consulting shop, balancing sales with execution has been a challenge for me, both from the standpoint of balancing tasks and managing a sales pipeline. As I became busier with my consulting practice and my adjunct work, I decided that it was time for me to delegate the bulk of my sales work to Emily, a sales and marketing contractor. I think that it’s critical for consultants to focus on doing what they love to do and on creating value for clients — this for me has been the best way to make sure that my company fulfills the value that it is pitching and that our authenticity and belief in the value that our company provides shines through. At this point in my company’s growth, I am able to spend a lot of time making sure that Emily is deeply knowledgeable about my work, which is important not only for sales growth, but also for building the kind of culture that I am so passionate about helping other companies implement within my own company.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
The great thing about my work is that it brings value to any organization that includes more than one person — and that variety keeps me excited. I’ve worked with government agencies, tech startups, healthcare organizations and sports marketing companies. You name an industry and I can help an organization within that industry achieve a culture that invites growth and innovation. There are some specific job titles, though, for whom my workshops on negotiation are especially resonant. These include sales teams, law firms and real estate agents — really any job where you’re trying to influence someone else.
The first big client I landed was through a cold email I sent to the COO. I did some deep research on the organization and I was bold in my email. I told her that with my background, I knew I could make a difference at her company. A few weeks later she brought me in to learn more, and I brought a visual representation of how I approach my work. All those components — the boldly worded email and visual aids — ultimately landed me a yearlong contract with the company and deep, meaningful relationships with many people there. I’ll never forget that they gave me a chance, and the power of just taking a shot with a bold effort.
Based on your experience, can you share a few strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Empathizing with your client is incredibly important because, as a consultant, I’m trying to help them through something challenging — all while trying to explain the work and value I’m providing. Make it as easy on them as I can by providing clear updates and asking what else they need. I make sure to give clients positive updates and applause any time something good happens — this makes the key stakeholders look good within the organization, and makes all those who are working through my change processes feel good about the work that they are doing too! Lastly, I make as many personal connections within my client organizations as possible. Getting to know people outside of work is very important to building strong relationships and mutual trust, and helps me to be as effective as possible within my client organizations, and ultimately paves the way to getting rehired or referred.
Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started My Consulting Business”. Please share a story or an example for each.
- The first year is brutal: brace yourself for a very hard year filled with rejection and very little income. My first year I made less than minimum wage from consulting, which was a shock after being used to a six-figure salary. I also faced dozens of rejections as I pitched my consulting work. That first year was also the first year I moved in with my now-husband to a small, rural town which made the shift even harder. He was incredibly supportive, but when I would go into a slump after a week of rejections, it would have a negative impact on our relatively new relationship. He got me into cycling, which was a saving grace — exercise really does help complete the stress cycle (See the book Burnout)! I also started seeing a therapist who helped me cope with the rejection, taught me not to take “no” personally, and continue to remain confident in myself and my work. I had also told myself that I would give it two years, and I would have to be patient and kind to myself through that time period.
- Have a niche: you may be good at a lot of things, but that doesn’t help a prospective client. It actually confuses them because they don’t clearly understand what you are able to do for them. The more specific you can be, the better. Doing this feels scary. It was really scary to me because I felt like I was losing out on opportunities by pigeon-holing myself. Once I started narrowing my scope, though, I found my sales pitch was also a lot clearer and more compelling. It’ll help you create more inclusive cultures through intentional and deep dialogue, the only thing proven to drive real, lasting change in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. After doing this, people better understood what I did, how my work fits into their needs and ultimately I then saw many more doors open for opportunities with more clients.
- You need a network: in consulting at least 75% of your work will come through referrals, which means your first few jobs are crucial. Many of those jobs or referrals will come through your network. The touchpoint may be a connection of a connection, but your network nonetheless. The first year, the jobs I secured were referrals from my mentor and his wife. They referred me to smaller clients and nonprofits, which helped me get my feet wet. When I landed in that small, rural town I mentioned, I went on about six coffee chats per week to meet people who I though could connect me to other people. One of those people recommended that I reach out to the big client I eventually landed. You never know where a casual conversation will take you, so don’t lose sight of the power of a network!
- Mentors are crucial: having someone guiding me and showing me what running my own consulting business looks like was a huge step toward success. John, my mentor, shared his knowledge, showing me how to manage client relationships, sharing models for pricing, and passing along referrals. It also helps to be able to turn to John and talk to him about the low moments because he had been there. There is a different type of empathy that comes from a mentor and it is incredibly supportive and comforting to know that there is a successful path forward, which is shown by that mentor. Additionally, mentors have a personal interest in helping you grow and seeing you succeed, as you become a part of their legacy. Even if they can’t give you countless referrals, the gift of their time and knowledge helps you grow and develop your craft,, which ultimately makes you a much better consultant.
- Find a partner: starting any company is hard, but it’s especially difficult in consulting where you are essentially pitching yourself to get work. Having a partner can bolster you in so many ways. It can add credibility, give you an extra set of hands to do the work you’re less skilled to do, such as create a pitch deck. It’s also a much less awful experience with someone by your side. I recently started partnering with someone who I had been trying to partner with for three years and it’s amazing! Collaborating and coming up with the best way to approach a project is so fun, and the ideas, proposal and work is much higher quality with both of us refining and building upon each other. It’s also great to have someone to have a shared dream with and to talk to about the good, bad and ugly. A partnership has also allowed me to compartmentalize my work and not put as much of the emotional burden on my husband, close friends, and family. Lastly, without a partner no one else can fully understand the joy of seeing your work make a difference. Having someone to share that with makes success even more satisfying and failure less painful.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would love to be able to inspire people to run their own inclusive dialogue groups, especially with people who come from different backgrounds than them. The world would be a better place if everyone would take the time to understand and empathize with one another by listening to their lived experiences! It would result in so much less hate and intolerance, and our ability to work together would expand by leaps and bounds.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Great question and a hard one too. As I mentioned earlier, I’m committed to using my work to help with big problems afflicting our world, such as injustice and finding common ground in tense, tough situations. I would love to be able to meet with Antony Blinken to discuss his work on foreign relations, diplomacy and efforts around peace in conflict areas. I would love to discuss with him ways to create more value and reduce friction and pain in troubled regions like Colombia.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!