Episode 79: Kishshana Palmer – Who said it can’t be fun?


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Hosted by Elizabeth Ü

Kishshana Palmer is not your average not-for-profit consultant. A vivacious and lively entrepreneur, she’s a consultant who will both give you a hug and a kick in the pants.

Kishshana’s built a business on being unique – which she says is both a blessing and a curse. “There have to be different shades to how you show up in the world,” she told Elizabeth.

“The balance that I needed to strike was to be my most authentic self, while still helping folks to feel comfortable.”

Kishshana’s bubbly attitude has led her down a successful career path as brand builder, coach, fundraiser, and self-confessed “solver” of things. It’s a career that she says has been plagued with both joy and failure – a crucial life lesson she’s hoping to impart to her daughter.

Listen along as Kishshana shares insights on powering through the tough times and knowing when to take risks. Xero Gravity #79 – it’s a kick in the pants!

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Episode transcript

Host: Elizabeth Ü [EÜ]
Guest: Kishshana Palmer [KP]

EU: Hey, hey! Welcome back to Xero Gravity! I could not be more pleased that I got to talk to Kishshana Palmer for this episode. She's a firecracker that I've been itching to get on the show. We worked together on a course for Xero U a while back on non-profit fundraising and she got the highest ratings that I've ever seen for a presenter, and I'm not at all surprised.

Kishshana knows what she's talking about; that's clear, but I just love her whole energy. Think brilliance and insight with a generous dose of glitter, fun, and fabulousness. She's the kind of person where you find yourself laughing with her for half an hour, and then all of the sudden you realise that she's somehow helped you solve your own problem. She's all about being even more true to yourself, and I dare you to listen to Kishshana and not come away wanting to take a bigger risk in pursuit of that goal.

Kishshana, you've described yourself as a consultant who comes in and will not only give you a hug, but will also give you a kick in the pants. You tell it like it is, and you're a really good listener, but how does someone with such an out-there, rockstar personality end up thriving in a professional environment that's, well, a bit different? How do you describe the usual non-profit consultant?

KP: The average non-profit consultant these days is either a lot older than I am: so much more seasoned, if you will, in their life journey. Typically they are from dominant culture, which for me means that they're Caucasian, and they're typically male. When I think about going out and wanting to partner with great organisations or entrepreneurs who want to do social good, those are the types of things; those three things are sort of what rides in the back of my mind. The very thing that sets me apart from your typical consultant is also the thing that legitimately sets me apart.

EU: Right!

KP: It's like a gift and a curse, you know?

EU: Well, what was it that made you say, "I'm passionate about consulting to non-profits?" I mean, clearly you weren't looking around and seeing the non-profit consultants and saying, "Oh, that person looks like me and they behave like me, that's clearly the career for me."

KP: Right. I didn't even know consulting was really a thing. What was more my reality was, as I continued to climb professionally I would come into organisations sort of as an interventionist. I sort of liken it to if you're going to your holiday party and it starts at 9:00p.m. and the hostess says, "Fashionably late" and it's like 9:30. I continued to show up at 7:45. With that in your mind, the party has not started, hostess is running around in her muumuu, dishes still flying everywhere, nothing is quite done, and here I am to help. I would show up in lots of different types of really great organisations, sort of a little early, but it sort of burns you out when you get there a little early. You don't want to be both really early to the party and the last one there.

What I found is that each time I got to a point where I was sort of burnt out and exhausted, another organisation would need that same type of skillset, and I realised that, "Oh my goodness! If these organisations need these types of skills, there must be tonnes of organisations that need similar types of help to advance their missions." I looked up and said, "Oh, people do this full time, like all the time!"

EU: You had been working full-time in various organisations in this fundraising or non-profit development capacity, but there was something else going on in your personal life that made consulting a little bit more interesting than maybe this full-time work. What was that?

KP: Absolutely. I tell folks I'm a solo mama. I don't say, "I'm a single mom!" When I got into fundraising work years and years ago, I was married and thought that I would be a trailing spouse, so this idea of being-

EU: Oh, what's that?

KP: Oh, that's when you're the one who sort of follows your spouse on his or her career all over the country or world: picking up the family to and fro. All of my folks who lived in various military families across the world know what I'm talking about, or if your spouse is taking that big next step in his or her job, or career and you kind of got to move every couple of years. That's what I thought our life was going to be like, so I picked a career that I could feel very passionately about, I could participate heavily in, but if I needed to leave in a couple of years the field is set up such that fundraisers tend to move around a lot, and so there wouldn't be an expectation that I would stay anywhere for 5 to 10 years.

That's how I got into fundraising in general. It was sort of an idea that, "Well, if I'm going to be in this thing, let me pick something that will allow me to both be a full-time professional, but also support my family." Consulting became a reality for me when I realised, "Oh my gosh, I'm on my own with a pre-teen now!" She is growing into this amazing person and coming into her own self. I don't know if you guys remember middle-school years, but those years can be icky and tough. You know? You don't know a thing about a thing, but you think you know everything. What I found is that being home more, and being more available allowed me to really be fully present, both as a mom, but also be fully present for clients. That was something I was not able to do in the same way when I was working full-time, because I was on the road all the time.

EU: What did that transition look like? Was there a turning point, or a breaking point where you were like, "All right, I'm just done with full-time work." Or did that transition happen slowly?

KP: I think it sort of happened in fits and starts. A few years ago was the first time that I had to deal with something with my health, so I stepped away from full-time work to deal with that and a consulting opportunity sort of fell in my lap, if you will, from networking and from folks just kind of knowing what I do. More than a few months into that particular new organisation I was on the road for 3 weeks out of a 4-week month, and I hardly ever saw my kid. I wasn't really sleeping. It just felt like work wasn't ever done. I said, "Something's got to give. I'm exhausted again."

When you do a thing over and over again, maybe the first time you burn out it takes you 3 years, and the second time it takes you 2 years, and the third time it takes you a year. There's a point at which you just burn out fast, so you just know what it looks like. This time I didn't want to be at burn out. I wanted to make a conscious decision to step away before that happened, because it's not good for anybody. Stepping back into consulting full-time was a choice that I made in order to be able to do what was best for my family, what was best for me, and at that time what was best, I thought, for that organisation.

One of the reasons why I decided to take a completely different turn with my brand and with how I presented myself on my website; my photo shoot, was because I felt like when I was in practise full-time I was hiding pieces of myself. People always want to be around me, which is such a humbling thing. They're attracted to my energy. They feed off of it. They learn from me. They walk away feeling good about themselves, which is awesome, and I love that. I wanted that to be conveyed in my brand. I wanted to be able to attract the kind of clients to me who wanted that feeling, and also who could bring some of that too, because, let's face it, most of us spend more time with our co-workers and folks at work than we do with our family these days.

EU: I know!

KP: I envy folks who can actually just shut it off at 5:00 on the D-O-T. My dad teases me about that all the time. He had years as a union guy and said, "I don't know how you young folks bring your work home!" You know? I'm like, "We all kind of do!" If you're going to spend more time with the people you work with than sometimes the people who are in your home, can it not be fun? Can we not have a good ... I mean, the work is going to be the work, and it's going to be awesome, and we need to deliver on excellence, but can it not be a little bit of awesome?

EU: Well, I wanted to ask you also about bucking these stereotypes. I found, especially having been in the financial world for over ... I was really young when I first started going to conferences and giving presentations on raising capital for small businesses. It was very, very common for me to be the youngest person in the room, the only person of colour, and the only woman; all 3 of those things. I remember I bought myself a suit because I thought, "Jeez, I'm really going to need to somehow show that I'm legit in this space." Especially that, as you were talking about, being so different from a lot of the people who normally fulfil the role that you do in this field. What challenges have you faced walking into some really strict corporate environments where people have never experienced a consultant that is anything like you? How do you strike that balance between being unique and relatable, but also being a competent person with a track record?

KP: Absolutely. I think that for me, because I've had to be a little bit of a chameleon as a professional of color my whole career, there's sort of like shades that you have to have to you. If pink is your favourite colour, there's got to be a little magenta, a little soft pink, a little rose. There just has to be different shades to how you show up in the world. The balance that I needed to learn how to strike was how to continue to be my most authentic self while still helping folks to feel comfortable, and also understanding when comfort wasn't really what we were trying to get at.

What I came to is, there's just some audiences that are just not for me. I'm not for them, and thank God for having an amazing network of professionals I know. I can refer you to the person that would deliver on the level of outcomes you need that fits more within what's going to make sense, because ultimately it's about moving that ball down the field for that company or that organisation. If I had a potential prospect come into our midst and our organisation was not their passion, I would always refer them to one of my colleagues at another organisation that was their passion. 10 out of 10 times that gift came back to us 10-fold. That person would call us up months later, or a year later and say, "Hey, I remember when you did this thing. Here's a person I want you to meet."

EU: Well, that's great! I mean, it's great not only that you can admit that, but even in the process of giving that "no" to the perspective client you're providing value. I love to hear that it also comes back to you, ultimately. I really want to believe that the universe will provide if we're putting things out there and we're really committed to that impact. Speaking of impact, what are some of the big wins that you've helped your clients achieve?

KP: Absolutely. I think for me, raising money first and foremost. I've been fortunate to have organisations, $10 million budgets, $20 million budgets and up, who have been able to really go out and figure out how to get donor partners to come in and, I say co-create with them. Sometimes when you think about charities or non-profit organisations you might imagine sort of a tin cup and folks with their hand out asking for ways to be helped. Actually, philanthropy and giving is much more about co-creation. I happen to have gas and no car, and I have a GPS by the way. You happen to have a car, no gas, and you don't know where you're going, but you want to go somewhere. My job is to help us figure out how to all go in the same place; get this gas in the car and go.

I think the last thing is around talent; really being able to help organisations find the folks that are going to bring financial resources in. It's no secret that I spent most of my career in fundraising and marketing communications, and so, how to find the people who can tell the story, who can help people see their way to the story and in the story, and then be able to attract and marshal resources for that organisation, and how do you find folks who will stick, and how do you help to train and develop individuals who can become really passionate about both the work and the organisation. I think I feel really proud of the work I've been able to do around that.

EU: Well, the car, and the gas, and the GPS metaphor is so appropriate, because not only are we matching up, and I can really see that you're matching up these resources that are complementary and want to find each other and will not succeed separately, but I'll bet that that is a really fun road trip as well!

KP: Absolutely!

EU: If you can make that fun. I think it's easy to think about all of the positive things about being a consultant, but I have to imagine that there were some times that have been really hard as well. Have you ever had just a massive fail?

KP: Oh, failure. I think I was reading a quote, people talk about failure and success turned inside out, and if one door’s closed another one's open. I think even this morning I was posting something and I had a complete pivot and posted something else completely around just being able to wait when success isn't happening. This summer, I didn't think relaunching my practice was going to be easy, but I definitely did not think it was going to be as challenging as it has proven to be. One: I was trying to really find my voice. How am I going to differentiate myself from all of the other professionals that are out there? What types of organisations do I actually want to align myself with? Do I just want to limit myself to organisations when I have such a love for entrepreneurs and for small businesses? Is there a way to involve them, and to make that a part of what my business actually does? They were big, big questions, and this summer I think I must have put out maybe like $240-or-so-thousand worth of proposals, bids, things that went to contract. I don't think I closed a darn thing until the end of the summer.

EU: Oh no!

KP: I know! For someone who's spent her entire career closing, that was like soul crushing. I think I, at 1 point I made the joke, I was probably like prostrate on the ground crying my eyes out about how much of a failure I was. Here I am, more than 15 years of experience, raising money, getting folks to say, "Yes", right? Getting folks to say, "Yes", closing the deal. I could not close a deal inside a paper bag! I mean, I couldn't even close the bag!

EU: Oh no!

KP: It was such a humbling experience for me, and I just had to sit in it: completely doubting whether I should be doing this work, and just figuring out, "Is this the right thing for me to be doing right now? Should I even be here? Why is this so hard?" I really had to practise what I preach. For folks who've spent time with me, for my clients who I coach, I really talk about, especially my friends, I really talk about being present in what you're feeling and not just always just powering through. I am a solver, so I just like to power through. "Okay, here's the problem. Here are the steps. Let us execute." I had to kind of take a step back and just sit with it. That was tough. The time is ticking away. Bills have to be paid. Vendors are looking at me like, "What's next?" I didn't have an answer.

EU: How did that feel? For the woman that's always got the answer, how did it feel to not have one?

KP: It felt so soul draining, spirit crushing, failure inducing, agonising, all of it in one. There wouldn't have been a joy in that. Anybody who tells there's some joy in that level of failure is foolish! That is not true! It was terrible! I remember my daughter, who, she has no idea about how much things really cost, in a real, real sense. She has some idea, but not really what it takes to get a thing or do a thing just yet. Said to me, "Mom's going to be okay! You got this! You rock! You know that right?" She's like, "I will take over your IG. I'll do your IG stories for you." It's the cutest thing! My almost 11 year old as my social media manager; hysterical, but people were loving it! They were like, "Where's your daughter? Why is she not posting?" Just trying to find those small pieces of joy, and then kind of starting little by little.

EU: Oh, so there is joy in that?

KP: Oh yeah! You have to appreciate the small things! I looked up and said, "Have I gained 15 pounds? What? Have I not been to a gym? Have I not slept?" The number of "have I nots", or "when was the last time I…” I stopped taking care of myself, and I realised that if I wasn't taking care of myself then I could not be taking care of my business, and I could not be taking care of my clients. That was it. I was creatively tapped, and I just wasn't focused on anything other than the business of being busy.

EU: Which is so seductive! I mean, that is so seductive. Especially if there's something that you're maybe not wanting to feel, like the sense of disappointment, or this crushing blow. Like, "Okay, I'm just going to stay busy, because then I don't have to think about how crushing that was." But ultimately, it's going to come back and bite you in the ass.

KP: It totally does. It creeps up on you like a thief in the night. Once it did I sort of had a come-to-Jesus talk with myself; that late 11th-hour talk. I decided to start taking baby steps back to myself, starting out with, I walked into a gym the next day and said, "I'd like to sign up!" I put one foot in front of the other and I kept going. I started to go out more with my friends. I was sort of totally avoiding everyone, because I was like, "If this money is not going to be to build a business I am not using it for anything else, period, ever!"

I realised, I looked up and hadn't been out of my house except to meet with clients and go on client-sides, or get on a plane to go to a client in months. That's not healthy. I wasn't really living, and therefore I wasn't bringing that level of joy that I'm so known for to my work, because I wasn't feeling any level of joy.

EU: Right, and then you're not calling in those people from outside your immediate circles.

KP: Absolutely. Little by little I had to kind of start to crawl, then stand up, then tip-toe, then start to walk back to who I know I am, then to be able to be open to what's next.

EU: Were there lies that you were telling yourself throughout any of that, or were there lies that you told yourself to get out of that slump?

KP: You know, I'm a big one on, "Well, you know, just fake it 'til you make it!" I'm just like, "Yes! I am successful, therefore I am!" That was one of my little ... I was not successful in that moment, but I did tell myself that every day. I think that was one thing. I think on the not-so-awesome side I was like, "I don't know anything, about anything!" Which is not true, but I was so down on myself because things weren't happening the way I believed they should be happening, the way the sequence should work, the way the guru said it should happen, that I was like, "Well, clearly it's because I don't know what I'm doing!" And that's not true!

EU: Well, so you were able to overcome that particular voice. What happened?

KP: I come from a family where we just were not allowed to mope. There just wasn't allowed of self-pity, wallowing, feeling sorry for yourself, no one applauds that kind of behaviour or feelings. I think that ultimately, when the rubber met the road I sort of dug deep into that. I have a little person. I think the thing that is scariest for me on the one hand is, "I have a little person that relies on me 100%", but I think the thing that pulled me out was, "I have a little person who relies on me 100%, and failure because of lack of trying or lack of doing is just not an option." Let's kind of take a step back from "Money, money, money" and think about, "How do I actually want to help people?"

EU: Right. You had mentioned taking risks. Talk about the role that risk-taking has played in this transformation, in coming out of the slump and presenting yourself anew to the world.

KP: Absolutely. I think on the awesome end, risk has been about, "Well, what else do I have to lose at this point?" I'm not doing anything that's so risque that risk isn't... There's risk inherent in everything we do. I'm not doing something that's so out of the box that people will be aghast that's something I would try. It's just a little bit different, maybe a lot different from what others who are in my particular profession do right now. The risk was, "If this thing works, do you know how many professionals are going to come behind me and say, "Hallelujah! We can be ourselves 150% and it's okay!” There is an audience for everything." There was some risk in doing that.

I think the risk in other ways was, "No one's going to buy. No one's going to want this stuff. This could all be in my head, and the rent is due." You know?

EU: Right!

KP: What do you do then? For me, it was riskier to do nothing than to try what I've always wanted to try.

EU: Wow, that's a really profound statement! That is a really profound statement! It's like turning the entire perception, or projection of risk on its head. It is far riskier for you to waste your life not doing that thing you've always wanted to do than to just go out on a limb and do that thing that you are.

KP: I think that translates to business as well. I think in non-profit organisations we're sort of like, "We're not for-profit businesses. We're not, we're not, we're not." Well, we are social good enterprises, and you are trying to solve a pretty huge problem, and sometimes with really finite resources operating under very, very tight constraints unlike some of our counterparts in the corporate world. I'm sure somebody's doing to send me a note, an email, I'll get something saying, "She doesn't know what she's talking about!" But, come on, let's face it.

EU: Right, and then you'll probably get 10 other requests for you to come work with them! They'll be like, "Oh, this is so refreshing! We've been suspecting this! Thank God we can find somebody that actually relates and understands what we're going through!"

KP: Absolutely.

EU: I love this! I love how you're really noticing that narrowing your focus, and you had mentioned when we were talking before, learning to say "no" is really that thing that's going to call in the types of clients that you really want to be working with. Say more about that.

KP: Yeah, I think that the saying "no" part, I was reading a blog post the other day, I forgot who was putting it up, about the fact that there's all this talk about your ideal client, particularly if you're in a consulting practice of any kind; whether you're a business consultant, or creative consultant, whatever it is. There's an ideal client. For me, I'm not even really sure what that meant to me. I wasn't sure what that meant to me 6 months ago.

"What is my ideal client?" I tried to name her. I think her name was Justine. I tried to figure out, "Where would Justine be networking, or eating, or hanging out on the weekends? Does she have a family?" I tried to make this whole picture about who I imagined this potential client to be, when the reality was my client doesn't look like that yet, and actually, the client I would like I'm not even sure exists in that way. Actually, what I want to be able to deliver on are these types of experiences. I want clients who want those types of experiences. Pivoting away from trying to narrow all my focus into this ideal person to, "What are the types of experiences I would want folks to have?" Then, "Do I actually have the kinds of services that would facilitate those experiences, and is there a market for it?"

EU: I'm imagining that this isn't just helping one organisation at a time, you're really talking about shifting how the industry views leadership and how non-profits are positioning themselves in the world and supporting their staffs, because as you mentioned, burnout is a very real factor when it comes to non-profit management and non-profit staffing. What do you envision that in 100 years, if you're doing a really great job, or if the whole field of non-profit is shifting, what will make the work that you do right now easier, or even make it obsolete? What's your vision of what that could look like?

KP: Yeah, I would love for it to be obsolete! I think that would require a whole lot of self-awareness. I think that people bring their personal selves into their professional selves. There would just have to be a lot of work, I think on the personal end of folk's lives; an awareness that, "Maybe you shouldn't run this organisation. Maybe you actually don't need to be at the helm. Maybe it's a great idea, but give it to someone else." Also, "Maybe this is not the right career for you." Or any number of things that we just don't say out loud anymore.

I think that for me to be put out of business would mean that there's more space for individuals in the profession to be their authentic selves; there's more space for organisations to be disruptors and do things differently, to have organisational practises that don't follow a cookie-cutter formula of, "Here's what we've been doing for the last 100 years, you should too." That being a legacy organisation isn't a bad word, that actually it's because you have been around long enough and have been a learning organisation long enough that you've been able to figure out and reinvent how your organisation delivers on its mission as times change.

EU: Well, and you're modelling that.

KP: I hope so!

EU: You are! What a huge amount of self-awareness is required to share stories like this, and how perfect also that you're bringing these skills that are required to kind of give people that kick in the ass, or however you described it.

KP: Absolutely.

EU: You're going to go in there, and you're not going to let them just sort of rest on their laurels, or keep telling themselves those lies. You're going to be giving them a jolt of that self-awareness to help them kind of transcend to that next level. The next question that I wanted to ask you is, you mentioned your little person, you have a pre-teen, what are you really hoping will be different for your daughter when she's at the point of her career that you're at now?

KP: Yeah, I really hope that she doesn't have to fit into a box. I think that you mentioned, when we first started talking about going out and buying your first suit, so you can sort of fit in and look professional. I'm like, "Gosh! I have so many suits that I had to give away for that same idea!" Because, there was this person I thought I had to be, and a way I had to look, and a way I had to act, and there was a space and time in my life that actually, that was all true. I did have to look a certain way and act a certain way.

I just would hope that when she comes into her own professionally that she doesn't have to: that we have evolved enough that she's able to carve a space for the work that she wants to do professionally, and that there's a level of passion she can bring to her work; that she is not pursuing a profession because that's what she thinks she's supposed to do. Also, if there is a profession she wants to pursue that typically does not have the kind of financial stuff that comes with it, that she's able to find her way in making that possible. I think that would make me really happy as a mom. It really would; that she was able to pursue her passion.

She talks a lot about the kind of business she wants to own. It's hilarious. I think I have a little budding entrepreneur on my hands. The number of times we've gone on expeditions to the mall to find ingredients for things she wants to do, I think she has a pretty clear sense of who she wants to be in the world. I think 11 is the time to do it if there's going to be a time.

EU: Well, I bet she's getting a lot of that sense from her mom!

KP: I wonder!

EU: I'll bet! You're inspiring her!

KP: I sure hope so! I think kids watch you whether you know it or not, so I think I keep that in the back of my mind as I continue to build my business, and continue to build my brand, and continue to think about where I want to take my own individual practice, but also the field itself. I want her to be proud of me, I think that's the thing. I don't even know if there's an adult I need to be proud of me, but to see her sitting in the front row of the national TV show I'm on as I talk about this work, I think I'd be more geeked about that than anything!

She doesn't know a world in which mommy wasn't doing a lot. I think that, for her, being able to see me try to balance managing her and her full life ... Kids these days have a full schedule, and a planner of their own, and as well as my own pursuits, and being able to admit when I'm not doing everything well, to see me cry, to see me frustrated, to have me apologise because I am not my best self. I think that she has experienced the fullness of all of that; the joy when things go really well.

I imagine that she's putting together her own conclusions about what mommy is doing, and so that I think for me, is really important, and I imagine for every entrepreneur who's out there; particularly if you have kids, or you have that mama at home that you're just trying to make proud; whatever it is, then that is something that lives in the back of your mind. "Are they proud of me? Am I doing the best I can be? Will I be getting that literal, or proverbial high-five from them?" I think that for me, that is part of what keeps me going.

EU: Well you get a big high-five from me! Thank you, Kishshana so much for sharing your stories today! This has been really illuminating, and humbling, and inspiring as well! It's really great to have you on the show!

KP: Thank you for having me! This is great! I appreciate it!

EU: That was Kishshana Palmer; experienced brand-builder, coach, and fundraiser. I'm Elizabeth Ü, producer and host of Xero Gravity, and Alice Brine is creative director. Thanks also to Megan Wright, technical producer, Lucas Sachs, recording technician, and Daniel Marr and Jonny McNee, technical editors.

If you've got any questions, comments, or suggestions for the show, you can find me on Twitter @SmallBizWithLiz. Thanks for subscribing to Xero Gravity via iTunes or SoundCloud, and we'll see you next time!

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