What’s the most important strategy for pivoting your business during an unprecedented crisis? In this episode, APU business professor Cynthia Gentile talks to Dr. Kate Watson, a prominent speaker, trainer, and consultant who specializes in change management about how she “practiced what she preached” in order to initiate fundamental changes to her own business during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hear about her focus on relationship building, how she measures her own success, and what she says is the most important step leaders must take before they can pivot their business model.
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Cynthia Gentile: Welcome to the podcast, Leading Forward. I’m your host, Cynthia Gentile. Today’s episode is the second in a series of conversations with women business leaders on the personal and professional effects of the pandemic.
Our first podcast was a fascinating look at one executive’s commitment to servant leadership in the wake of massive global upheaval. I’m excited to add this conversation to the growing cache of resources available to leaders of all stripes around the changing image of success and the relevance of agility and grit in the face of unprecedented challenges.
Today, my guest is Dr. Kate Watson. Dr. Watson is the President and Founder of The Advocacy Academy, a Philadelphia-based training and consulting company. She has conducted educational workshops in 20 states, eight countries, and across many fields, healthcare, education, social services, financial advising, victim advocacy, corrections, and leadership. On average, Dr. Watson speaks to 10,000 live audience members each year. She’s an ongoing consultant to the Department of Defense, the NFL, and to major television networks.
In addition to her speaking and consulting work, Dr. Watson sits on the Board of Directors for The LadyParts Collective, which is a Los Angeles-based theater company, specializing in the development of work relevant to women in the United States. Dr. Watson is the author of the upcoming book “Only Trying to Help,” which is also the name of her podcast now in its fourth season. Dr. Watson, welcome to Leading Forward. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.
Dr. Kate Watson: Thanks for having me, Cyndi. I’m happy to be here.
Cynthia Gentile: I’m really excited to talk to you about how you manage to stay focused on the success of your business. Given that the mission of The Advocacy Academy is online and generally in-person training, I imagine that the pandemic changed nearly everything about your day to day. But first, can you tell us a little about why you founded The Advocacy Academy? And the services you generally provide?
Dr. Kate Watson: Sure. So by background, I am a mental health therapist. And I had training in a particular set of skills around helping people change. I don’t know if it was by word of mouth or honestly it was so many years ago how this got started, but I started being invited to give presentations to organizations where they were interested in how we communicate with people. And not just people, how we communicate with people and communities about making changes in their lives or in society.
So today, The Advocacy Academy is a training and consulting company that grew out of those requests that I was getting to come speak at different organizations. And today I deliver workshops primarily to people in the helping professions, so social services, healthcare, education, et cetera. And those workshops are focused on creating change at the individual level, the organizational level. And even at the societal level.
I teach things like relationship building, communication, trust, empathy. I teach about goal setting, building good habits. And I teach about advocating for people, places, and communities that you care about.
Cynthia Gentile: So that’s quite an undertaking. I know you have a background in academic work having been a full-time faculty member at Peirce College in Philadelphia. When did you found The Advocacy Academy?
Dr. Kate Watson: So I had a training and consulting company prior to The Advocacy Academy. It was called Watson Wellness Promotion. And there, my company was really focused on change in the healthcare field. And as I started to take on more and more interest around broader societal change and broader organizational change, in 2017 I shifted my focus away from my health and wellness company, and I founded The Advocacy Academy. So we’re in our third year now, full-time.
Cynthia Gentile: That’s awesome. It’s also interesting to note that you’re a pretty new business at the point when the world changed. So how did your business life change in the wake of COVID-19?
Dr. Kate Watson: Well, I used to live out of a suitcase. I used to travel all around the world delivering these speaking engagements. And I would be in Japan one day and then rural Indiana the next day. And then Las Vegas the next day. And I was constantly in airports and train stations. And go, go, go, go, go.
So at this point, since the pandemic hit, things came to a screeching halt in a way that wasn’t totally unwelcome. My life had become a little bit too busy with travel and I was already looking for some kind of change. I think I was already interested in slowing that down a little bit. And I was working on that.
I mean my whole career is based on change. I know change is hard and it was hard for me too. It was hard for me to figure out a way to consciously slow down. And I think sometimes when we struggle to consciously slow down, the universe has a way of showing up and putting the brakes on life and that’s kind of what happened.
So as I was trying to strategize about staying at home more and how that would look for my business, I quickly realized I had no time to sit and think about it anymore. Everything closed on me. And so at this point I am an online trainer. I do my speaking engagements through Zoom or other online platforms. And pretty much overnight became a virtual speaker rather than your more traditional public speaker.
Cynthia Gentile: So you’re definitely not the first person to tell me that the universe spoke to them in a global way with this pandemic. And it forced you to maybe make a change that you were edging towards, but hesitant to take on head-on.
So given that everything stopped at a very quick pace, I know for me personally and professionally, it did as well. What did you do in those early days of the pandemic to kind of shift your focus to that virtual trainer role, but stay focused on the goals you had for The Advocacy Academy?
Dr. Kate Watson: I tried to practice what I preach. So people hire me to help their organizations through change. And I thought “If I can’t do this, what hope is there for anyone?” I always like to say I do those kind of Hollywood pep talks in the mirror with myself. And so I’m sure I found a bathroom mirror somewhere and had a little pep talk with myself about the foundations that I know about in my work that will really help me through.
And I know that when people, or organizations, or communities are facing change, the best thing to do is always put your relationships first among any other outcome that you might be interested in or worried about. Relationships go first.
So here’s what that meant for me: I was worried that my business was going to come crashing down and that this was over for me. All the years I had put into building this company, were just going to be a waste. I was worried.
And what I did with that time was I sat down and I wrote personal messages to each and every one of my active clients. And at that time, when we’re talking about active clients, it really wasn’t that long of a list. So it wasn’t that hard for me to sit down one day and say, “Dear so-and-so, how’s your family? I hope your husband was able to have that surgery before hospitals started closing off elective procedures. I hope your son or daughter is doing okay at school and doesn’t have to come home right now.”
And I was able to reach out individually to people and show that I know you and you know me and we’re here for each other. And my thought was, “It’s going to be okay if I struggle for a little while, as long as I maintain relationships with my clients.” And I thought, I know this to be a good strategy in other areas of my life. And it’s something I recommend to other people. And I really feel like it paid off in dividends.
Cynthia Gentile: So inherent in that though, is that you had taken the time to build those relationships before the pandemic. And so you knew about that surgery that was scheduled or that child that maybe goes away to university. So would you say that’s just sort of inherent in your personality? Or was that something that you’ve made a concerted effort to always do professionally?
Dr. Kate Watson: It is something that I am consciously doing. You mentioned that I teach at a college as well. I recommend to my students; you don’t just reach out to someone when you need a letter of recommendation. You don’t just reach out when you need something. You get to know people. Reach out to your faculty members when you know it’s the holidays, or it’s their birthday, or it’s their fifth year anniversary of teaching there. And don’t ask for anything. This is relationship building. That’s what networking is. Networking is building relationships. It’s not creating a list of people who you can use in tough times.
And so yeah, I wouldn’t say it’s an accident. I would say I very consciously listen to people talk about their pets, and their children, and their contractor who didn’t show up to put the roof on. And I listen to these things because these are the things that really matter to people. And as you’re trying to build relationships with people, the worst thing you can do is only touch base when you’re the one who wants something from them.
Cynthia Gentile: Right. Nothing’s more suspicious than just coming in with the ask. So in terms of the trainings that you provide to your clients, have you seen the focus of those trainings in terms of what your clients are requesting? Have you seen the focus change in the last eight, nine months?
Dr. Kate Watson: Absolutely. So if we take a look at 2019, I know I delivered 100 speaking engagements in 2019. And I can tell you, 90 of them were on a topic called motivational interviewing. It’s a style of communicating with individuals about change. That was 2019.
2020 rolled around and around May when there were protests all around the world in response to the George Floyd’s murder, Breonna Taylor, things that were happening related to civil unrest in the country, there was a dramatic shift. A dramatic shift in the way that people were requesting trainings.
Now, I would say I’m more 50,50. About 50% of my trainings are still related to communicating with people about health goals, like losing weight, or quitting smoking, or something like that. And now about 50% of my trainings are focused on things like understanding and uncovering implicit bias, understanding what a microaggression is. Even learning how to apologize better when we’ve made mistakes in the workplace and we’ve hurt people’s feelings or there’s harm that has been caused.
It’s been interesting to see the shift toward topics like trauma, intergenerational trauma. People are more interested in the humans that they work with and a little less interested in how to fix other people. And maybe a bit more interested in how to change some things within themselves.
Cynthia Gentile: That’s so fascinating. So do you find that people are more open to those conversations? And if so, do you think that’s because things are in the environment so much now we’re talking about it personally and within our families. And does that make people more open to having those conversations on a professional level?
Dr. Kate Watson: Responsibly, Cyndi, I don’t know if I know the answer to that. It’s one of the downsides of virtual training, is I feel a bit disconnected from the people I’m speaking to. And I’m having a harder time reading a room than I used to.
I feel like I used to be able to walk into a conference room or a lecture hall and just get a vibe, feel the room, kind of have a sense of what this group’s about, know the audience. Yeah. And it’s not impossible through a virtual platform, but it’s much harder.
So here’s what I will say. I don’t know if the participants in the workshops are more open to this than they used to be. But what I do think is that leadership is more open to investing in it than they used to be. I think the people who control the budgets in organizations are currently, at least in my limited experience, they are more open to spending money on this training than they were a year ago.
Cynthia Gentile: I mean, that says a lot too, because just creating the environment where those conversations can happen is huge. So how have you gotten comfortable with presenting fully in a virtual manner, given that you do detect some differences in your ability to connect with the audience. And we’re several months into this now. So how have you found yourself adapting? Or what are some strategies that you’ve used to adapt?
Dr. Kate Watson: Well, I’m always in sweatpants. And no one knows that I’m in sweatpants. So like there’s also the fun feeling like I have a secret that no one knows, which it adds to the mystery of my day, which I enjoy. And maybe I’m being playful when I talk about physical comfort and self-care, but there is something kind of cool about that, that I’ve leaned into in the last few months.
I used to show up to an organization in a really uncomfortable dress and heels and stand for eight hours in those heels. And have blisters at the end of the day and my back hurt. And now, I light an aroma therapy candle, and I’ve been wearing sweatpants and fuzzy socks. And when we take breaks, I can go have a healthy meal in my kitchen. And so there’s some personal life stuff that’s been really cool about this.
And otherwise, I’ve tried not to overthink the virtual space too much. People keep reaching out to me with tips and I’m not taking any of them because all of their tips are just very fancy and high tech. And it’s like, Oh, you can get all of your participants to download this app. And then once they download this app, they can sync to this program. And then once they sync to this program, they can vote in this survey. And I’m like, no, no one’s doing all that. I’ll just talk to them.
So I’ve tried to just keep the humanity in it and actually limit the technology. To me, it’s quite an accomplishment that we all made it onto the Zoom platform successfully. And at that point I tell everyone, okay, don’t touch your computer, just sit back and listen. Just enjoy. I’ll handle all the work. You don’t have to download anything, or click on a link, or find a file.
And so I’ve tried to keep it really simple for the participants and put the burden of the work on myself, which I don’t mind because I’m in sweat pants with my aroma therapy candle. So it all works out fine.
Cynthia Gentile: So those personal comfort items are an offset to some of the challenges that maybe are presented in the virtual environment. And that, I think that’s true for so many of us at this point, right? We can deal with a lot more when we have our fuzzy socks on and our favorite hand lotion, or whatever it might be.
So at the end of the day, a training day, how do you define success? A successful training or a successful day for you as a trainer? What does success look like to you at the end of that day?
Dr. Kate Watson: I’m going to answer that two different ways. Success for me in my life and as a business owner is something I try to measure by saying, okay, did I do something today that made my life just a little bit better than it was yesterday? And I, for me personally, I emphasize that success hinges on something I did, not some achievement that came from my actions. So I make a distinction between actions and outcomes.
And I just find that in life, we have very little control over the outcomes. I don’t try to measure my success based on some outcome. Like how much money did I make, or how many clients did I land, or how many contracts got signed? How many clicks on the website? Those are things I have limited control over.
I measure success in my own life based on things I did. Did I do it? Yes or no. If I did, I feel good about that. If I didn’t, then I got to work harder tomorrow. But I try not to measure success on things that are outside of my own actions.
Now, you also asked about how I measure the success of a training. I tend to measure that based on how relaxed people seem by the end of it. Because people tend to walk in really stiff, and closed off, and shooting me looks like, who do you think you are?
Cynthia Gentile: Sure, these are challenging topics, right? I mean, you’re pushing people out of their comfort zone. So, that makes a lot of sense.
Dr. Kate Watson: Yeah. And if by the end of the day, people kind of have their feet up, and their sleeves rolled up, and their hair’s a little messy. Then I feel like, okay, this person let their guard down. This person relaxed. And that feels like a successful day of training. If I see that people have kind of settled in more than they were at the beginning.
Cynthia Gentile: So is there anything that you can point to either in your formal training, your academic background, your personal background, that helped you be able to move forward in such a focused manner, despite the chaos that was going on around us? To keep your new business moving forward, to keep yourself personally moving forward. Is there anything that you leaned on, anything that you had in your background that you found really useful?
Dr. Kate Watson: Well, I’m going to share something and Cyndi, you let me know if this is really answering your question. It might be a slight sidestep, but it’s at least related.
Lately, people keep asking me this question: How did you pivot your business? How did you take a travel consulting company and pivot into an online training company? And the reality is I don’t really know the answer to how people pivot in tough times or at least I don’t know the answer that would be universally useful.
But I think we are overlooking a different question. Rather than how do we pivot? Not enough people are inquiring about just having the willingness to pivot. You have to be willing to pivot before you can learn how to pivot. And that’s true in all things in life. You have to be willing to exercise before you can learn how to exercise. You have to be willing to go back to school before you can go get A’s.
And the reason I’m emphasizing this is because when the pandemic hit and things locked down, I was really focused on just maintaining the clients I had. But an interesting thing happened. I heard from a lot of friends of mine who in business terms, we would call them competitors. I don’t think of them that way because they’re friends of mine. But in business terms, these are people who do the same thing I do for a different company, so they would be my competitors.
And they called me up Cyndi and they said, I’m not doing this online thing. I’m not interested. I’ll just wait it out. And they asked me, they said, Kate, I want to keep my clients engaged, but I’m not doing this virtually. Can I refer them to you for now? And I guess, essentially, they were asking me to kind of keep their clients warm for them. And I said, absolutely.
And in the meantime, my client list exploded. And what I found was, I was hearing from people who were not asking me, how do I pivot Kate? They were telling me, I don’t have a willingness to pivot. I’m not interested.
And then since then, folks keep asking me how, how, how, how do you do this? And I keep thinking to myself, first you have to be open to it. First, you have to be willing. And if you’re not, then I could give you all the strategies in the world, you’re not going to take them.
Cynthia Gentile: I totally get that. That’s a really interesting approach to think first principles, right? We have to back up to, do you want to do it? Before you can even start to work forward and do it.
Dr. Kate Watson: Yeah. Years ago, Tiger Woods wrote a book, kind of giving away all his secrets. And somebody asked him, why would you do that? You’re still playing. Why would you share all your secrets with the world? Aren’t you afraid people will take them and be better than you?
And Tiger Woods said no, because you have to be willing to do all these things. And he was making that distinction years ago that I’m kind of coming across now. Which is, yeah, I could offer all sorts of ideas about how to pivot in tough times, but if you’re not deep down willing to embrace change and lean into it, I don’t know why we would go through a list of strategies for how.
Cynthia Gentile: Kate that’s a perfect point for us I think to wrap this conversation up. Thank you so much for taking time to talk with me today and share your experiences and your perspectives on this episode of Leading Forward. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Dr. Kate Watson: Thanks so much, Cyndi.
Cynthia Gentile: And thank you to our listeners for joining us. Be well and be safe.