Debra Howard began working as a freelance consultant twice. “The first time was unintentional,” she admits. “I had moved to Boston for an exciting job that promptly ran out of money and I needed to make a living.” Howard enjoyed the work and recognized that she would benefit from more seasoning, so she joined an established consulting firm. In 1991, when she struck out on her own again by starting Debra Howard Consulting, the move was completely intentional.
“I was really lucky early in my career that I had such good role models for leadership,” Howard said. “I had people who were willing to teach me what it means to be a consultant.”
Howard gets all her clients by word of mouth. She refers to her work as “high trust,” and although some people hire her from her website, she is pleased that most do so after being referred by other clients. Although Howard occasionally partners with colleagues, she generally works alone and therefore takes no more than 10 to 15 clients a year. She works with some of those clients for many years, performing different tasks as their organizations evolve.
Howard’s business has three distinct parts: individual coaching, group work, and organizational development. The individual coaching involves working with executives within the organizational context. Often, she solicits feedback from their colleagues to enhance the executive’s understanding of their impact.
The group work is designed to help teams function together. “Although we might wish our work was just about technical aspects, like building a bridge or planning an event,” Howard said, “so much of our effectiveness depends on the people we work with and there is no user manual for working with other people.”
Lastly, she does organizational development work with entities that might be struggling to grow or perhaps have grown too fast.
Howard likes to keep an even mix of clients, working with value-based for-profits, foundations, and nonprofits. “I like the diversity,” she said. “And I think each one has something to offer.”
One downside to Howard’s business is the need to travel approximately every other week. She has clients across the country, and even some international ones. She often has to travel to major metropolitan areas like San Francisco, New York, and Boston.
Howard has made Hinesburg her home since 1995 and absolutely loves the town. “I really like the diversity,” she said. “There is ecological diversity with hills, pasture land and a town center, and that means the people are quite varied and bring a lot of perspectives, which makes the town stronger. Hinesburg has interesting, vibrant people.”
The only downside to living in Vermont is the difficulty in travelling, so Howard would love to be able to add more local clients. “I’m always grateful to work with Vermont clients,” she said “and I give them a preferred rate because I don’t have to travel.”
“I still wake up every morning and think what an amazing thing it is to do what I love,” Howard said. “I’ve been doing it more than 20 years and I still feel that way.”