Varnum Consulting elevates personal aspect of communication skills


Varnum Consulting’s Jennifer Maxson, left, and Sarah Flick, right, help leaders at all levels become the best they can be.

by Cynthia Price

Legal News

There is a point at which both Jennifer Maxson’s and Sarah Flick’s eyes light up and they share infectious smiles.

Maxson and Flick are coaches and consultants at Varnum Consulting, and Maxson is also the Practice Group Leader.

What they are discussing with such passion is the moment when one of their clients “gets” it, really understands all that communicating well entails.

As Flick puts it, “We’ll say to them, if this is your message, and this is your audience, now listen to your words through their mindset — that very moment, when they realize how it sounds, and you start to see the light come on ... that really makes what we do worthwhile.”

“That’s a great moment,” Maxson adds in agreement. “When we see people grow in that way — we’re their silent cheerleaders.”

Varnum Consulting is a wholly owned subsidiary of Varnum Law, otherwise known as Varnum, Riddering, Schmidt & Howlett LLP. But, as Maxson points out, “Varnum Consulting is a separate organization, and there’s no implication that because you have a relationship with us you have one with the law firm.”

The current configuration came about when Varnum purchased Nancy Skinner and Associates about nine years ago. Both Maxson and Flick had worked since 1996 for Nancy Skinner, who, they say, was concerned about her own succession plan and wanted to ensure that the legacy of her firm’s helping clients would be sustained.

Varnum Consulting predated that purchase, but since then it has continued to grow in an attempt to offer leadership development, communication enhancement, executive coaching, public programs and customized training to an ever-wider clientele.

Coach and Consultant Ellen McNally has been with the group since the purchase, in 2003, and Pat Seguin, Executive Administrative Assistant, joined in 2008. However, both Executive Coach Michael L. Bivens and Kris Ridings, Relationship Manager “for key local and national client accounts,” just became part of the firm in 2011.

Maxson and Flick say that the concept of “audience” is a key one for their work, and that has shifted over their sixteen-year careers.

Says Flick, “I have seen the migration just in our experience. When we first started, lots of times we would be coaching people mainly on what they needed to present, but then there was a huge shift in research about effective communication. Now, it’s not about you, it’s about your audience.”

This requires a lot of time, energy, and emphasis on interpersonal skills such as active listening, says Maxson. “There is certainly a time and place for communicating through technology,” she comments, “but then there are times when you have to step away from it and be live and present with others.”

Varnum Consulting offers three continuing programs, open to the public. Speak Up & Be Effective™ helps people learn how to think on their feet, manage their nerves and speak more confidently; that program will next be offered on May 8. Speak Up & Be Effective™ - Advanced, a two-day course, will next take place on June 20-21, and The Exceptional Leader™ is coming up May 16-17.
For more information, visit

Human Resource Certification Institute (HRCI) granted these three programs continuing education credit certification in early April.

As Maxson explains it, “HRCI certifies Human Resource professionals beyond their current credentials, for example, as a global professional in HR. So if someone in HR is looking for additional certifications, our programs can give them ongoing certification credits.”

Maxson and Flick say that Varnum Consulting is always willing to give a “light” version of these programs, tailor them to a given organization’s specific needs, or even come up with a custom program for the public. For example, Maxson recently presented “The Business of Networking” to a sold-out crowd at Inforum, the professional women’s alliance.

A great proportion of the services they offer revolves around customized work with individual clients, such as the sales team for the Kellogg Company, with whom both women say they love working.
Varnum Consulting’s mission is to enhance the credibility of leaders, or as Flick puts it, “We show them how they can communicate with a balance between credibility and a sense of being authentic, so their audience says, ‘This isn’t just a person who’s credible that I could follow, but this is someone I really want to follow.’ That requires energy and initiative, and it requires some thought.”

Executive coaching, particularly in a one-on-one setting, is another dimension of Varnum Consulting’s services. It is most useful for, Maxson explains, though not limited to, succession planning. “When companies identify who is that top tier leader they want to retain, or what people are emerging from the middle tier of management whose skills they would like to see cultivated, we can step in and offer executive coaching to help them springboard those individuals.”

Varnum Consulting’s scope is broad, encompassing nonprofits, for-profit companies of all sizes, individuals and groups, and everyone from managerial executives to  “third shift leaders.”

Maxson keeps returning to the idea of change, such a constant in the business world. “We help individuals lead the business, lead people, and lead change,” she says, in particular offering assistance with communicating change throughout a company with an “activating message” that will help all stakeholders feel good about the changes.

In fact, Varnum Consulting relied on John Kotter’s Eight Steps for Leading Change when it was asked to create the leadership development curriculum for Leadership West Michigan last year.

Adds Flick, “We teach people how to  really set a clear communication objective, based on who the audience is. If you’re working on a large change in a company, and you tell people about it but wonder why they don’t buy in ... you have to remember that they may not know as much about it as you do. You really have to make a significant investment in figuring out what they need.”

As far as Varnum Law, Maxson says their role is usually limited to general referrals, in part due to attorney-client privilege. “Varnum attorneys can make the introduction, they’ll open the door for us, and that has been great.”