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Employee Spotlight: Natalie Gross

Senior Consultant Natalie Gross left a decades-long career in higher education when she joined The Clearing. Today, we’ll get to know Natalie and hear firsthand the parallels she’s discovered between helping students and helping our clients succeed.

Employee Spotlight: Rob Stewart-Ingersoll

We’re proud to introduce Rob Stewart-Ingersoll, The Clearing’s new Director of Data Analytics, Tools, and Methods.

Team Member Spotlight: Nick Srebrow on the Workplace in 2023

Nick Srebrow, who leads The Clearing’s Workplace Change Management practice, has a front-row seat to how the nation’s workforce and their leaders are adapting and evolving to hybrid work and the use of office space. In his work with the private sector and government clients, Nick and his team are helping those leaders navigate the new reality of hybrid work and to shape the right workplace experience for their organizations. With the workplace pendulum still swinging—most organizations are seeking a balance somewhere between pure telework and mandated days in the office—here are Nick and the team’s observations on what they are seeing as we enter 2023.

2022 Workplace Client Engagement Surprises

I originally thought that when the worst of COVID had passed, there would be a wider acceptance of remote work. But the pendulum swung more than I expected; it seems many organizations are mandating that employees return to the physical office on a more prescriptive schedule. It felt like a quick shift and in some ways feels like we’re going backward in terms of our openness and trust in people. Maybe it’s not really a trust issue—maybe we’re just nostalgic for how the office used to be or feel our connection to the mission and people slipping.

However, we’re also seeing a lack of alignment among leadership on this issue. It’s not that entire leadership teams are saying they want everyone back—rather, one or two people are, and it’s impacting the whole workforce. We’re watching the data and will see how that lack of alignment impacts 2023. If an organization loses people as a result of any in the office mandate, they’re probably going to have to shift their posture. For our team, that will inform how we approach discussions around trust in the workplace and how that trust—or lack of it—affects the employee experience.

2023 Workplace Service Predictions 

Our federal clients are thinking about how to manage the return to the office—either full-time or as a hybrid model—while the private sector is already settled. In the private sector, we’re helping clients down-scope office size. Having more people work flexibly in a smaller space is the norm now; it’s rare to see anyone getting a private office. We’re also helping people get accustomed to working in that environment. We’re seeing some pushback against open office space—people saying they can’t concentrate, they can’t get anything done—but the financial benefit is currently outweighing the intangible realities of open office space, so it’ll be interesting to see how it settles out. We may not know this year, but either way, we need to watch how space relates to the benefits that employers give their staff.

How The Clearing Is Uniquely Positioned to Meet Client Needs

If you look at the employee experience, organizations need to understand what the selling points are for staff. What can organizations give that’s not financial but that can lead to a positive experience? Helping leadership and staff come to a joint understanding about those kinds of benefits, while also understanding any barriers, are at the root, and that’s where we come in.

We take a people-first approach to workplace issues. When considering physical workspace changes, for example, that means we start with how employees will be affected and build out rather than starting with a plan for physical space and fitting employees in.

That approach means our workplace team is very adept at helping leadership understand and empathize more with their staff, thereby improving the employee experience.

We also have deep experience guiding federal agencies through workplace change and know that many have rules or mandates set by other parties, as well as internal workplace rules they need to navigate. Our experience working within these parameters combined with our people-focused approach helps our clients stay in compliance while also staying attuned to their employees.

Advice to Leaders Entering 2023 Ready to Make an Impact

Understand the labor market and know what the drivers are.

This is critical for all organizations, particularly those that are requiring in-person work. The labor market is going to go up and down, and for a while, it seemed everyone was taking off for new positions. Now it’s tightening back up. However, the pandemic has taught us that we shouldn’t always look at those drivers as purely financial. Workplace experience is one of those drivers—increasingly so—and physical workspace is a part of that.

In my experience, if you want to lose your talent, the best way to do it is to keep looking at everything in terms of how it affects the bottom line. That’s a surefire race to the bottom as you find yourself rationing supplies and not giving people the physical space they need to be effective and feel valued. Instead, view those expenses as another form of employee perk. It’s an investment in your people and a morale boost. There are so many studies showing how expensive it is to replace people; I’ve seen it estimated as high as two times the cost of retaining an employee. That should help make it easier to look at space as an investment rather than as a cost.

What Leaders Should be Thinking About as 2023 Gets Underway

If being in the office is going to be the norm, then employers must focus on the tangible benefits of working together. In short, demonstrate the value to employees of required time in the office. I’m tired of the words innovation and collaboration—yes, we want both, but what are the other benefits of working in a shared space? I’d suggest looking across workplace cohorts, like the brand-new employees, the long-time employees, and then the people in the middle. For new employees, for example, being in the office is how they meet people and develop their network and social capital. Each of these three groups wants and needs different things, and it’s up to organizations to figure out what means the most to each group and then act on it.

If you or your organization is trying to find its workplace footing, I would love to chat. I can be reached anytime at—I look forward to hearing from you.

Cross-Pollination: The Overlapping Worlds of Wine and Consulting

TC consultants Andrea Bachinski and Abbie Beekman recently wrote about the overlap between their former careers in the arts and their current consulting roles. Today, we talk to Cori Phillips about the overlap she’s encountered between consulting and another art: winemaking. Cori is a principal consultant here at The Clearing; she’s also a winemaker and owner of The Wine Reserve at Waterford in Loudoun County, VA.

Tell Us About Your Consulting Journey

I have been in consulting for almost 15 years and for the most part, worked with government clients. I love that as a consultant, you get to meet people from a variety of backgrounds facing a variety of problems. I have always enjoyed partnering with leaders and working together to address whatever the challenge may be.

My first consulting job was with DHS in a startup office called the Office of Emergency Communications (OEC). I worked with them to get their office set up. Since then, I’ve worked with EPA, GSA, HHS, and other federal agencies. My primary focus has been on strategic communications, change management, and program management support.

So, What Actually Came First: Consulting or Wine?

Well, my love of wine started long before my consulting career. But my consulting career started before my wine career! However, consulting was part of what gave me the confidence to take the leap into winemaking. It helped me develop my business acumen and that’s when I started thinking, after many visits to many wineries, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could combine my love of wine with the business side of things?” Fortunately, my husband and I were on the same page. So began my wine journey in the wine business.

As we visited more and more wineries, we began to more actively consider trying it on our own. But we had no industry experience, so those conversations would begin and end in the winery. Over time, however, they began to carry over into our daily lives. I decided that before we make an investment into winemaking, I should probably see what working in that business was like. So, on the weekends, I worked in tasting rooms at wineries to get a sense of what it was like.

That begat our original plan, which was to buy some land in Northern Virginia and start from scratch. Northern Virginia is a burgeoning wine region, and it was pretty perfect as far as we were concerned because our families and jobs were in the area. I hate to call the area up and coming, but it is compared to Napa or Sonoma. It is a very young industry here. There is still a lot of room for creating, exploring, and introducing people to wine.

So, we thought we would buy some land or some grapes, make some wine, and open a tasting room. After a couple of years of driving around looking at properties, we found a quote-unquote “fixer-upper” winery in Loudoun County. We looked at it and said, “Wow, this is going to require a lot of work, but it has a lot of potential.” However, it was far beyond our means to purchase. We decided to keep looking for our own little plot of land, but I kept in touch with the folks who owned the property. After about a year of it sitting on the market, they called us and somehow we were able to pull together the resources and made it happen. And that’s how The Wine Reserve came to be.

Tell Us About The Wine Reserve

It’s been an adventure! We knew we wanted to make wine with 100% local grapes from Loudoun County, but we came at it backwards from how we expected. Instead of buying property and building a tasting room as planned, we bought a property that already had the tasting room – plus some wine and grapes! However, we quickly realized that sourcing all our grapes from Loudoun wouldn’t be easy – but it remained our goal.

It reminded me of working with consulting clients who have a defined goal and a specific idea of how to achieve it, only to find out the path isn’t as clear as they thought. Sometimes all they need is help evaluating the roadblocks and developing an iterative process to hit their mark. So, iterate is what we did.

We started with mostly Virginia grapes, supplemented with California grapes. Eventually, we were able to phase out the California grapes and use only Virginia produce, getting us one step closer. In 2020, after five years, we hit our goal of 100% local, Loudoun grapes. Now, we’re going a step further and growing our own grapes. It didn’t exist at the time, but we could have used the Amperian Cycle to develop the solution to our grape problem! Every harvest, every vintage – it’s all been like the prototyping process.

What Consulting Lessons Do You Apply to Winemaking?

Lots! Here are just a few lessons from my consulting life, each with an anecdote from my experience in winemaking.

Be Ready to Adapt. Our realtor who sold us the property is also a winery owner and wine grower. Now, whenever he has couples that come to him about buying a winery he always wants us to talk to them. They come in and they’re so well prepared with their business plans and I’m thinking “Oh, that’s lovely.” But speaking from experience, I tell them to be prepared for it to get blown to shreds. Just like prototyping, be ready to adapt to realize your goal.
The Big Moments Require Lots of Little Moments. Every August a lot of focus gets put on harvest for vineyards. People get excited – movies and documentaries are made about it. And harvest season IS awesome, but it’s just a piece of the work that goes into growing grapes. There is so much work getting to harvest and of course after harvest is over. When it comes to growing grapes, the work never stops – it’s something you’re always working on. A good crop this year doesn’t guarantee a good harvest in the future – you’ve got to do all the little things to keep it good. It’s why viticulture reminds me of organizational culture. As my colleague Jason Miller will tell you, just like a good harvest, good culture doesn’t happen on its own. It takes work to develop and maintain. And just because you have “good culture” this year doesn’t mean it will automatically stay that way the next. So, make sure you put in the little moments, whether it’s fertilizing or gathering team feedback, so your big moments – harvest season and team member survey results – are what you hoped for.
People Development is All About Developing Strengths. There are a lot of similarities in the development of people and growing grapes. And a lot of progress happens at the quietest times. Winter is the slow season for grapes. After the hustle of harvest season, the vineyard is relatively quiet. That’s the time you’re out there pruning, doing the groundwork for the next harvest. When you’re pruning, you’re looking for the strongest roots and trying to keep them healthy while cutting away things that will take away from your strengths. It’s really homing in on what are going to be those vines, those roots that are going to yield the best fruit. It’s almost like the CliftonStrengths® Assessment, where we work with people to identify what they do well and then build on that until it’s a strength. And just like viticulture, doing the work in the quiet moments ensures you’re prepared for when the big season – or project – comes along.
Every Individual is Different. There is a nature-nurture aspect to growing grapes, just as there is when working with or developing people. Consider Cab Franc varietals of a grape. I know, traditionally, what a Cab Franc should taste like. I know what kinds of conditions a Cab Franc needs to thrive – how much rain, how much sunlight. That’s the nature part. It also requires nurture: effective pruning, harvesting at the right time. However, the ideal conditions or intervention aren’t the same for every varietal – just like the same working conditions or feedback style doesn’t work for every individual. Knowing this, in both consulting and grape growing, has helped me harvest better results (pun intended).
Good Things Take Time. In consulting, you quickly learn good results often take longer than expected to achieve – and if things don’t turn out like you expect, sometimes all it takes is a little more time to get things running smoothly. I’ve learned the same is true with wine. You may have had a great harvest in perfect conditions, but you open that first bottle and it is not as good as you thought it would be. However, wine can get better with age – and oftentimes if you give it time to breathe it does get better. Similarly, in change management,  just because something didn’t go the way you planned doesn’t mean you should stop there. Learning from the process and giving something more time to work is often the solution. I once entered a wine into in a competition and it didn’t do as well as I thought it should. And then I waited a year and entered it again and it lived up to those expectations. Like a lot of great outcomes, all it took was a little more time.

As I continue my consulting and winemaking journeys, I’m excited to continue cross-pollinating (another pun intended) ideas between my two worlds. Whether you want to talk strategic communications or Cab Franc, I can be reached at Or, come visit us at The Wine Reserve in historic Waterford, Va., for a tasting or tour.

10 Years at The Clearing: What’s Changed, What’s Stayed the Same

What Brought You to The Clearing?

At the time I was looking for something different, a place where I felt true purpose, belonging, and personal growth in the work. I learned that John Miller and Chris McGoff were building just that – a unique approach to consulting. I had worked with John and Chris at their previous govcon firm. The new company was still focused on government contracting; however, the way they were building the company resonated with me.

Specifically, I was interested because The Clearing (TC) was founded as a platform for change agents, consultants and clients alike. Leaders could bring their organization’s biggest challenges and wildest dreams to TC. Clients’ passion plus TC’s expertise and bespoke solutions became the formula for making extraordinary contributions to causes that matter.

What Were The Clearing’s Early Days Like?

Our first workspace was a typical startup feel – high energy, fast pace, lots of laughter, fun, and are-we-going-to-survive anxiety. The office was a fourth-floor walkup in DC. We had a rule that you weren’t required to talk for the first two minutes after the climb. Phew!

Very quickly, we found government leaders with highly complex missions and fragmented stakeholder agendas who needed a navigator to help manage change and transformation efforts. These leaders were courageous, willing to take on the biggest challenges that agencies were facing and anticipating.

When I started at TC, I was the most junior change agent of the team – now I’m one of the most tenured. In my early days, I was the primary facilitator on the team of three; I was not only facilitating, but also taking notes, managing logistics, prepping for client meetings, and handling meeting after-actions. We lived the old “fly-the-plane-while-you-build-it” metaphor.

We quickly realized that our government clients needed our little group of change agents to disrupt the status quo and interrupt the pattern. They also needed a more reliable way to embed innovative solutions into existing operational systems. As we took on new customer challenges, we needed not just more people, but new and different competencies.

Over time, we added team members, each one bringing a critical element to our client solutions and team culture. We never looked for “culture fit” but for “culture additive.” Our team appreciates the unique strengths and capabilities that each member brings. We matured our internal systems to support our growing cohort of consultants, who represent the best of organizational design and development, workplace, resilience, risk & safety, data visualization, behavioral design, customer experience, and more.

Thankfully we’re now in an accessible workplace in DC, and we continue to foster an entrepreneurial spirit and proven method for success (and happy clients).

How Has Your Role at TC – and The Clearing itself – Evolved?

Over the last 12 years, I’ve gone from being more of an individual contributor and team lead, to being a senior leader at the firm. Today, I’m largely responsible for the firm’s ambiguous projects – the engagements where TC is co-developing the solution with the client in an agile manner. It’s exciting to me that the entrepreneurial spirit of TC is alive and well.

Although I now have an internal leadership role at the firm and all the responsibilities that entails, I still get to spend >50% of my time in direct delivery or opportunity scoping with clients and partners.

What’s Remained Consistent Over the Past Decade?

Our clients remain bold and courageous. We continue to partner with committed leaders across government and industry who are taking a stand for their mission. These are leaders who are willing to use their social and political capital to advance their outcomes. They understand that customer experience (CX) is not a function, but an entire way of being. Orienting to the customer’s needs and delivering with excellence is what we help all clients focus to achieve.

TC’s foundation has remained the same since my early days: we continue to design innovative ways to help leaders solve big problems. We continue to customize our proven solutions for diverse client needs.

Our values are still true. The language of the values may have changed over the years, but the notion of honoring the human, having fun, embracing ambiguity, and operating with integrity still line up with our founding values.

The Clearing Believes In “People First” Consulting – What Does That Mean to You?

Having a people-first approach is embedded in literally everything we do at TC.

The people-first approach is our client work. We won’t put forward a client solution that is absent from the ways that humans act and operate. Industry – and now the government – are embracing this philosophy of CX; for us it is the primary condition for successful change and transformation. The Clearing prides itself on creating change that sticks. To do that our teams and our solutions have to be relatable to the humans involved. Through assessments and engagements we get to know what inspires them to act and what incentivizes them to sustain long-term.

From an employee perspective, people-first means we don’t expect people to be machines. Humans are humans, and the workforce’s shifting to a Millennial majority is illustrating this in real-time. Our rising Gen Z consultants find ways to meet traditional govcon requirements while having flexibility in their lives. The marketplace is realizing that employees desire a fulfilling life AND a fulfilling career.

It sounds simplistic, but we believe people are the means AND the end. To be a Clearing consultant requires a certain mindset and a willingness to take chances. We don’t have a script we give folks on their first day. We invite honesty, creativity, and fun into the work so our employees can put forward their best thinking. Most importantly, these conversations don’t just happen in pockets, it’s universal across the firm. That human experience is what makes clients return again and again to partner with The Clearing.

Hear what attracted some of our team members to The Clearing in their own words.

What’s Your Hope for The Clearing a Decade From Now?

In 10 years, I believe the people-first approach will remain TC’s central focus. As long as the federal government has civil servants and as long as businesses have employees that serve customers, we’ll be here.

My hope is that we have more of our products and services available to those who can’t pay for them. When The PRIMES (our foundational underpinning) were created they were open-sourced. More recently, my colleague Hans Manzke published about giving equal access to what the world’s best minds have to offer, regardless of our background, age, education, or profession. He writes about the democratization of big ideas in his book, For All. I’d like The Clearing to continue that spirit of generosity.

Second, I want TC to continue to focus on the employee experience and drive our own people-first culture. It is extremely challenging to be a consultant – from entry-level analysts to the most seasoned executives – given the complex client challenges we tackle. Our teams are on the edge of innovation in all sectors. The complexity of the subject matter and stakeholder environments are demanding on each of us in different ways. I hope The Clearing continues to invest in resources that not only allow our teams to bring their best thinking but also ensure they feel supported as they take a stand for outcomes that matter.