How Not To Suck at Biz Dev

By Michael Melcher
Partner, Next Step Partners

Being better at business development would be good for your career.  You’ve been told you need to do it. You might really want to do it (maybe). But it’s not happening, or you’re doing some but not enough, or you’re not actually seeing results from your investment of time and energy. What gives?

It’s disheartening to spend years (or even decades) developing an important skill set—say, the core skills of being a really good lawyer, banker, consultant, accountant, construction engineer, or even executive coach—only to realize that you need something more to be successful in the long haul. 

The truth is that in technical fields, technical expertise is not enough. Sure, you clerked for a famous federal judge. But can you bring in clients?

There are reasons why you might suck at biz dev, and there are real solutions, but it’s not just about reading a book, using a model or going to a conference.  So let’s first look at what’s really going on.

The Nature of the Gap

What will make a difference for you depends a lot on who you are and which specific things are difficult for you.  

Ronald Heifetz of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government coined the distinction of “technical” vs. “adaptive” challenges. Technical challenges have known answers. Just read the book, figure out the best practice, or find the top ten tips that really work. 

Experts who give 60-minute webinars, hold one-off trainings, or author books in airport bookstores are typically promoting technical solutions.  

Adaptive challenges either do not have a known answer (“What should be our firm’s strategy for the next ten years?” “How do we deal with automation?” “What are the steps to achieving meaningful diversity?”) or require you to figure out how you are getting in your own way. This could include how you are defining the problem or framing your options, your preconceptions about what is possible, or how your strength in one area may be a weakness in another.  

Adaptive learning takes longer than technical learning, is less obvious at the outset, and can be uncomfortable, but yields better results. This is one reason why “coaching” approaches are gradually overtaking “training” approaches in the marketplace. A question-based, reflective, and experiment-based coaching approach just takes you farther than memorizing someone’s top ten tips.   

Yes, There is a Technical Side…

There is a technical side to biz dev: theories, practices and tools that will help you achieve results and the absence of which will make it vastly harder to make progress. In other words, you might suck at biz dev because you’ve never really been exposed to some truths about how biz dev works.  

One of these core truths is that there is no actual mystery here: Biz dev comes down to building long-term relationships with clients, potential clients and intermediaries, and being able to learn about their needs and share what you do. It’s not much more complicated than that. You need to have some type of expertise to be able to promise value, but if you can’t communicate well and don’t build and maintain relationships, the world will have a hard time ever learning about your expertise.

Skills and concepts on the technical side include having specific expertise; developing your weak-tie network; being able to talk about your firm and your work in an engaging way; and understanding how “consultative sales” works. We’ve created a 90-item Business Development Diagnostic that you can download to see how you are doing on them.  Pick two or three technical to focus on improving.

But Real Improvement Comes from the Adaptive Side

However, if you suck at biz dev, it’s not just technical.  There are adaptive issues you need to examine before you free yourself to live up to your potential. The real improvement will start when you figure out how to get out of your own way. And this has a lot to do with mindset.  

Mindset is the set of beliefs and assumptions that you carry walking into any situation. It’s a kind of baggage we carry without being aware we are carrying any baggage. We will always have some type of mindset. The key is to reveal the mindsets that we default to, interrogate them, and decide what mindsets are really going to serve us.  

Here are a few of the most common leg irons when it comes to business development:

1.     The bait and switch mindset

You went into this career because you wanted to engage in intellectually challenging work, or become an expert in your craft, or to help people. Now you’re told you are supposed to be good at business. It might feel as if all your competence-development was for naught. This isn’t what I signed up for! You might feel a teensy bit betrayed.  

2.   The “I don’t want to be a cheesy salesperson” mindset 

Everyone has an example of a cheesy salesperson (usually salesman). There might be one at your firm. You don’t want to be like him … even if you could … which you probably can’t. Taken to the extreme, the belief is: to be successful at business development, I will need to become a repellent person. Therefore, I will do no business development.

3.   The “people like me don’t succeed” mindset

The top level in most professional services is usually pretty white and often pretty male. So it might be reasonable to assume that to be successful in biz dev you need to be older, whiter, straighter and male-er. But it’s at least worth asking what behaviors these individuals engaged in to get where they are, since there are plenty of old, white, straight, males who have not been successful. You could also ask in what ways being different might allow you to be more successful. 

4.   The “avoid discomfort and failure” mindset

Learning involves discomfort and anxiety. That’s because when you are actually pushing into new territory, you leave the zone of competence and enter the zone of incompetence. There is a prolonged period where you will make mistakes, work hard with limited results, feel embarrassed, question your abilities and not have much to show for it. We all went through this as kids. The problem is that, as adults, we get lots of pats on the back and high fives for things we do well. So who wants to spend less time doing those positive things and spend more time doing things that make us feel inept? If you lack awareness of what is really involved in learning and change, you will naturally focus on the things you’re good at rather than push into things you might be good at with a lot more work.

5.   The “short-term investment” mindset

Biz dev is a long game. You’ll need to invest in unbillable and seemingly unproductive time to plant seeds. Some will grow to fruition in months or years. Others won’t. In order to find time to invest, you will have to take time away from things that may give you immediate rewards. If you have a short-term, immediate-gratification mindset, you are probably not going to do much biz dev.

6.   The “I don’t know if I want this” mindset

When you’re asked to get better at biz dev, you might feel you’re asking to re-up and intensify your commitment. This can be stressful. It’s normal to have ambivalence about one’s career and it’s very normal to have other commitments in life that demand your attention–family, health, community, or any of your personal values. The answer here is neither to ignore these competing values nor to give up completely on the goal of biz dev. Instead, try parsing the various factors involved and figure out what is at the root of your concerns. Maybe it’s a question of timing—now is not the best time. Maybe it’s a question of figuring out how to be authentic in your job. Maybe it’s a question of negotiating with colleagues what you can give and what you can’t. But as long as it’s just a big knot, it’s hard to get resolution either way. 

Progress comes by becoming aware of your mindsets, assessing whether they are working or not working for you, and exploring mindsets that will actually serve you. This doesn’t mean you need to turn into a different person. It’s about finding ways to do business development that will be both effective and authentic for you.

The Path Forward

If we conduct a coaching program for 15 partners in a professional services firm, there will be 15 different paths forward, even if each of those individuals is drawing from the same set of tools, models, practice opportunities and experiments. 

The coaching process is not about telling each person what to do, but rather working with each person to figure out what will unlock her full potential … and sustain progress over time. Training is, “follow my tips.”  Coaching is, “let’s figure out your own path forward.”  

While coaching is subjective and highly individuated, it’s not hocus pocus. Once you have a mindset that serves you—such that you don’t have a foot on the gas and the brake at the same time, but instead are cruising ahead at a steady rate—there are numerous things you can do that will improve your process and results.  

Here are a few:

Explore your weak ties. The most fertile area for new opportunities and learning is typically your “weak tie” network. These are people you don’t know very well or with whom you have fallen out of touch.  

Focus on cross-selling as much as on self-marketing. Take time to get to know your colleagues and learn what they do. In the process they’ll learn what you do and trust you more. 

Record what you actually sound and look like. Watching yourself on video or hearing a recording is painful, but incredibly useful. It’s the ultimate in direct feedback. 

Shut your mouth. Really. The next time you have a conversation with a colleague, potential client or new acquaintance, aim to talk 20% of the time.  Ask open-ended questions. Don’t rush to fill empty airspace. If you are extraverted, practice telling yourself, “don’t talk, don’t talk, don’t talk” as long as your counterparty seems able to say interesting things.  

Set goals and targets, but don’t over-qualify. Without goals, it’s easy to be dishonest about how much you are actually doing. So figure out what you want to sell and to whom. But don’t be too fussy about what you think this will look like. Things you expect to pay off might not, and things that seem like they have little potential can change your whole trajectory.  

Be the cheerleader. Part of working as part of team is talking up your colleagues’ accomplishments. Talk about others’ hard work, positive attitudes, and triumphs over adversity. Be the one who spreads good news. You’ll elevate people’s spirits and coincidentally brand yourself as someone who cares about others.  

Don’t work on everything at once. You don’t have to master 90 business development behaviors. If you improve on two or three, you will see progress.  

Because you’re right—at the end of the day, you’re not all about generating business. You’re a professional who uses her mind to work that has a social and economic benefit. Business development is what allows you to keep doing that.  




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