Some people are sales professionals by training.
Perhaps they’ve been in sales roles since early in their careers. This was quite common in my previous industry: a (invariably) young person would join the company as a B2B sales associate. They would get trained on our products, and would receive sales training. This sales training might involve making cold calls to targeted prospects, and making service calls to existing clients. Being a sales associate would often entail working in the “bullpen” – and open area in which you could hear your colleagues make their calls and where people could learn from each other. After being on the “inside desk” for a while, some of the most effective associates were eventually invited to go into a year-long advanced development program that could one day lead them to being promoted out of the inside desk and into a more senior, prestigious (and lucrative), “external” role.
I started my own financial services career in a sales role and held, over the years, various types of sales and sales leadership roles. They came with titles such as “Representative” and “Advisor”, “Director”, “Regional Vice President” and “Vice President”. The mix of sales and management varied from one role to another, but business development was always a key accountability of those roles.
In contrast with this model that I would refer to as “lead with sales”, there is another very common model that I would describe as “lead with expertise”. This second model is prevalent in professional services and consulting. Many of the people that I graduated with from law school three decades ago would have experienced such an apprenticeship: you join a firm as an associate and start learning the ropes. You pull in extremely long hours working on mandates for other people’s clients. If you work hard and are good at what you do, you get more and more work and become an associate that can be trusted with more and more complex mandates, more important clients. You eventually make Partner.
Now that you’re a partner, something changes. You’re no longer expected to just do good work for other people’s clients. No. Now, you’re also expected to bring in new clients to the firm. At the very least, you’re expected to uncover new opportunities with existing clients. You’re no longer just in the expertise business. You’re in the business of growing revenue.
You’re in sales.
Twenty years ago or so, I was having lunch one day with a senior partner at a leading professional firm. He was Chair of the board of a regional subsidiary of the company I worked for, and this was a mentoring lunch. I learned that day that he had “other people to do the work” and that a big part of his job was to make sure they were kept busy, by making connection with people and being on the lookout for opportunities to help them out. “You’re in sales!”, I said to him at some point. He was clearly taken aback by my characterization. “I’m a senior partner in a leading professional services firm”, he replied with a look of mild disgust on his face. “I’m not a salesman.”
By the end of our lunch, he had acknowledged that he was, in fact, in a role that had many of the attributes commonly associated with a sales role. The word we landed on that day was “rainmaker”, which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “a person (such as a partner in a law firm) who brings in new business.”
I now work in coaching and consulting and get to observe first-hand, both internally and in my work with clients, how challenging it can be for people to go from “leading with expertise” to “bringing in new business”. For many people who have come up through an expertise stream, business development – sales – is one of the most stress-inducing things they have to deal with in their job. The challenge, as is often the case as one becomes more senior in any number of fields (management comes to mind), is that what made them successful up to this point is no longer what will bring them success in the future. They need to switch gears – fast – but they never really got trained to do this. Or perhaps they did get some training, but it’s not like they were initially selected for their jobs on the basis of a natural affinity to sales, and the training left some issues unadressed.
What to do, then? There is no quick trick that I know of that will turn a subject-matter expert with no inclination to business development into a rainmaker at the flick of a switch. But like many other skills and competencies (e.g. people leadership, communication), this one, too, can be developed.
How we frame things in our own minds can make a big difference. A good first step, if you feel stuck, could be to question your assumptions. What exactly is business development for you? How might this view constrain you? Is that the only way of conceiving of it? What aspects of it put you off? What aspects of it might play to your strenghts and perhaps even be enjoyable to you? If you think business development is something you’re stuck doing on your own and you’re a team person, how might you make common cause with others to turn it into a team sport? The issues will vary, and being told to “just do it” simply won’t cut it.
And like anything new and challenging you take on and want to become good at, it’s better to start small and build on your successes, as I previously talked about here.
To me, business development is the process of connecting with people that I believe I could be of service to – whether now or at some point in the future. I believe that effective business development is a very gentle process – neither pushy nor “salesy” – one that is grounded in a genuine belief that the work I do is important and makes a difference for my clients. The most effective business development comes from a place of wanting to help, rather than a selfish place of wanting to gain. It is founded on relationships, and caring about others and their needs.
What about you? What are your views and experiences with business development?