Want To Predict The Future? Follow The Vision

The mid-seventies motion picture All The President’s Men popularized the phrase follow the money. In the dramatization of the political scandal that became known as Watergate, the informant referred to as Deep Throat offered this phrase as the key to identifying those responsible for the dirty trick.

Questions about the events surrounding the 1972 U.S. Presidential election — who was behind the break-in at the Watergate…and why — made for compelling news coverage, and an entertaining motion picture. For months we investigated, probed, and prodded anyone that might provide insight into what had happened.

It has become a popular spectator sport. Whether anecdote or era, we believe in unearthing and examining what has happened. This is not to suggest that we ignore the lessons of history. But what if, in our focus on the past…on the implications of precedent and data…what if we have things turned around?

What if the real lesson of history is that leadership is about a distinct and articulated vision for the future? What if the existence and makeup of a view of what might be provides a window on what tomorrow will bring?

Consider three historical markers.

Even as he reflected on and drew context from history, Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was about a vision. “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…”

In the wake of challenging Americans to “ask what you can do for your country” President John F. Kennedy presented an almost unimaginable vision for a struggling space program — to put a man on the moon.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most memorable words to those assembled on the Mall in Washington, D.C. did not provide a ten-point analysis of a nation’s ills. Rather, they called us to a mountain top…to a perspective only accessible through eyes clear with bold aspiration. And his words resonate to this day — “I have a dream.”

Granted, boisterous tyrants have managed to build empires — from neighborhoods to nations — with clenched fists and seeds of fear. But this is the easy road. There will always be something to fear. Manipulators who tap into it can easily precipitate reaction.

But fear seldom gives rise to lasting change. And history’s most compelling visions are rarely rooted in the negative.

Whether small tribe, global enterprise or world power, the venture driven by fear perceives danger at every turn. This is not the stuff of progress. Much less, growth.

Where there is vision, there exists a kind of future-movie — exemplified by Dr. King’s dream for all children, JFK’s audacious idea of a man on the moon, and Lincoln’s new birth of freedom.

A compelling future-movie is inclusive, taps into the best attributes of the players, and precipitates the decisions and actions that are the difference between good and great.

Tomorrow always brings a set of unknowns. But consider the possibility that history’s most poignant lesson — whatever the venue — is captured by the writer of Proverbs — “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Musings From The Radio Studio — On Effective Business Development Communication

Studio MicrophoneA lifetime ago, in what seems like a galaxy far away, I spent some time in the broadcast industry. More specifically, in a radio studio.

At the time the fast paced “Top 40” genre topped most markets, and was designed to sound slightly anti-establishment with a shoot-from-the-hip tone. In reality, it was a highly structured, tightly formatted, close-to-scripted approach to delivering an experience.

The “clock” (a minute by minute kind of info-graphic of an hour) ruled. It was based on exhaustive research of what would keep the target audience tuned in. The job of the on-air “personality” was to stick to what the research said would work.

One quickly learned that at almost any cost, you were to avoid “dead-air” — broadcast shorthand for any silence between programming elements. Even a second or two of dead-air gave a prospective listener time and/or reason to sample a competitor’s programming on a different frequency.

Every segment was both product and marketing opportunity. Even the revenue engine — paid advertising — was more effective if it was part of the experience.

Business Development and the Customer Experience

The premise — that valued connections warrant a vigilance that continually engages — is a principle that translates to business development and client service efforts almost anywhere.

The occasional email, quarterly newsletter, annual event or however-well-timed-and-heartfelt-holiday-wish are hardly enough to seed what David Maister termed trusted advisor status. Each might be part of a plan, but allow too much radio silence to creep into your communication calendar, and no one should be startled when relationship growth proceeds at a snail’s pace. Or, when your prospect disengages.

Quality, multi-dimensional and regular communication is the fabric of a relationship that is going somewhere.

As is the case with almost everything related to business development, a broadcast-hour-type cookie-cutter solution for every pursuit does not exist. The elements of a thoughtful communication — the frequency, specific touch-points and nature of the message — depend on alignment with the target in three areas.

  • Personal and organizational interests and values
  • Organizational goals and aspirations
  • Critical business drivers

Understand what a target or key client values most, their short and long term goals, and their most intensely felt business drivers, and the framework for relevant communication elements is in place.

If a timing benchmark is helpful, think about connecting in some way nine or more times a year. The more frequent the relevant touches, the better. Incorporate a healthy dose of communication that includes a personal dimension. (Blogging gets consistently high marks in this arena.)

Use your best instincts on timing. Seek and listen to feedback — verbal and non-verbal. Be vigilant.

Think of business development — with targets as well as existing clients — as an opportunity to package an experience, and engage the audience.

Business Development Success Is More About Asking The Right Questions Than Having All The Answers

IMG_0086The game show Jeopardy has had it right all along — knowing the right question is the way to win big.

Conventional wisdom argues the point. And most of the time we buy into the argument.

In virtually every venue — from personal relationships to building a productive professional network, from pitching a pizza franchise to marketing a law firm or consulting practice — we invest mightily in dispensing answers.

Some will argue that market research is all about asking questions and listening. Legitimate point.

But let’s be honest: much of the time what passes for market research is really about gaining insight into the best way to position what we’ve already decided to take to market. What features should be emphasized? What words turn our targets off? How do we capture imagination and motivate?

Valuable. But the focus is on how we deliver our message. So convinced are we that powerful motivation derives from having all the answers, that our questions don’t accomplish near what they might. Never mind inspire or motivate.

Doubt this? Calculate the value of resources invested in designing, debating and redesigning the messages and tools used to tout qualifications to targets. Compare this to the ROI on our messaging efforts.

Now consider how many quality conversations have been generated by all of your messaging efforts.

This isn’t a metric most of us track; but we’d do well to start. The right questions instigate on-going dialogue.

A Better Conversation

Most professional service firms recognize and tout the value of relationships. Entire go-to-market strategies have been based on what it takes to become trusted advisors.

Yet, when presented with an opportunity for conversation or collaboration, how often is our default response the tried and stale approach to dispensing all the answers.

If you want to change the dynamics of a relationship, begin changing the nature of the conversations you have. Find a way to collaborate around a couple of key questions, and you’ll find yourself on the verge of changing the entire game.

Questions As Differentiators

In many professional service arenas (including legal) research indicates that mugh of the time the audience assumes you have some level of expertise. Put another way — your target likely assumes you have a lot of the answers, and can get to the ones you might not know. (Granted…we’d prefer they believe we have all the answers, but let’s get real…)

One of the easiest ways to differentiate in a crowded and competitive market is by resisting the temptation to always talk about what we know, and focus on the right question(s). There is always at least one.

If your product or service is the undisputed leader in a market, you may be able to slide by for who-knows-how-long. But check business school case studies these days. You’ll find more than a handful of postmortems on once venerable market giants who failed to ask the right questions of the marketplace.

The market is always delivering a critical message. The key to business development success is knowing how to engage. If touting answers isn’t doing the job, try posing a question or two. And being astute enough to be quiet, and listen.

Wondering Where To Start When It Comes To Business Development?

Confused Businessman Looking At Arrows Pointing In Different DirectionsIf you are wondering what it takes to fill the pipeline with work for the last quarter of the year — nevermind 2017 and beyond — two things may be true about your marketing and business development efforts: your professional network is anemic; and, as a result, you have a shortage of strategic targets.

Many have been led to believe that a quality work product combined with excellent client service will automatically result in a successful, practice. Capable and willing on both counts, optimistic professionals shop for the best spot to plant a practice and hang a shingle.

For many it doesn’t take long to realize that, contrary to the old saying, the possession of the greatest mousetrap in the world is no guarantee the market will beat a path to your door.

Combine competition and volatility with a market that presumes expertise and quality, and an increasing number of professional service providers are left to wonder what it takes to differentiate, and become relevant.

Too bad it is not a mousetrap we’re marketing.

We could shoot a video, create a slick brochure, and add some copy that focuses on effectiveness and efficiency. We could build a cool website, add some SEO, and just sit back and wait for the phone to ring.

But even if one assumes that is a workable strategy, professional services don’t come in a box. It can be difficult to quantify, and much of the time there’s not much tangible until a matter closes, a contract is signed or a case won.

Stop Waiting For The Market To Find You, And Take Business Development Into Your Own Hands

For everyone tired of waiting for the phone to ring, there is a much more productive and proven approach to business and practice development.

It begins with a focus on your network. Before you tune out, consider this.

The care and feeding of a strategic network is the key to developing a pipeline of opportunities.

How large does your network need to be? Ideally, large enough so that there will always be someone in your network in need of the services you provide.

A robust network — one you faithfully nurture — is key to eliminating those periods where the silence of the market can be deafening.

If this seems like a reach to you, think about the rainmakers you know. That thing you think of as an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time is, more likely than not, reflective of a robust network.

Where to begin if you don’t have this kind of pipeline? What to do next if you haven’t been working on your network?

There are no cookie-cutters; and specifics will depend in part on the stage of your career. But here is an idea to consider.

Begin with groups you’re already plugged into — alumni associations, civic clubs, service groups, professional affiliations, and churches are a few of the most common. You likely already have many connections able to fortify your network with referrals, recommendations and even business intelligence.

Focus on creating strategic visibility and delivering value. There is no cookie-cutter; but this might include providing volunteer leadership, offering subject matter expertise (via blogging, speaking, and serving on those volunteer committees for example), and a network will begin to emerge.

Consistently productive business developers have a way of being preoccupied with the things that are important to their network…providing a glimpse of what it might be like to work with them. This is the ultimate in strategic  marketing and business development.

Effective Business Development Strategies Are Built On This

Multi Racial people in brainstorming session with post it notesThe development of new business rarely occurs in a vacuum. In professional service firms where marketing and business development are silos at best, or necessary evils at worst, organic growth will be painfully difficult. And there will be consistent debates over where and how to invest resources.

By contrast, firms that realize measurable success — even in a volatile marketplace — have a wholistic view of the organization. Planning is a discipline that considers a number of factors — resources, nature of the practice(s), compensation structure, governance, competitive landscape and a go-to-market philosophy.

Constant debates over firm priorities and which opportunity to pursue are an indication that the go-to-market philosophy may not be aligned with clearly identified and shared goals.

Where identified goals are absent, a reactive approach to the market takes the place of strategy. Priorities shift based on the siren call of “opportunity.” Instinct tends to characterizes the decision-making processes. Not an ideal approach to a competitive marketplace.

To the degree issues of how, where, or even whether to grow are not reflected and addressed in an organization’s goals and aspirations, a functional firm-wide strategic plan does not exist. And in this vacuum silos form.

Most organizations will face regular decisions around:

  • where to invest;
  • how ROI on the investment will be measured;
  • the breadth of the practice to be offered;
  • how to survive aggressive competition, economic downturns or other market pressures;
  • how to evaluate opportunities;
  • which opportunities to seize, and which to let go;
  • how to prioritize investments;
  • the role of technology;
  • when and how to invest in innovation.

And the list goes on. It is difficult to imagine that many would suggest a professional service firm operate without guide posts in place that help shape a response to these questions.

Yet many do not see the connection between these fundamental issues, a strategic plan, and a sophisticated approach to the pursuit of business.

The Critical Strategic Planning Question

You may share scores of hopes — dreams, even. But the aspirations and goals that are central to the existence of a group are few. Certainly, no two endeavors are the same; but here’s fodder to help identify pivotal goals or aspirations.

  • What do we agree on with respect to why we do what we do?
  • Without respect to personal feelings about good, bad, right or wrong, can we prioritize
    • increased profitability
    • life style
    • reputation
    • legacy?
  • Do you want to grow in numbers? Be global? Local?
  • Do you value and aspire to rich diversity?
  • Do you agree on role in the community, and how that plays out in enterprise?

There is an endless list of questions within the question.

But answer — what are our most deeply shared goals and aspirations? — and you have a framework for every significant decision. For who we choose to work with; where we decide to invest; when to strike (and when to retreat); how to define priorities; what we value most.

When it comes to business development, shared aspirations will go a long way toward speaking to issues of motivation, cross selling, the amount to invest in new pursuits versus the deepening of existing relationships. Even compensation.

This is not to suggest that answers come easy. It is to say that when you have identified the handful of things that you share, you have a basis for decision making. Effective business development strategies are built on this.

The Best Business Developers Share These Four Characteristics

Business NetworkingThere are markets where sales is little more than a numbers game. Send enough emails, make enough calls, knock on enough doors, ask the question over-and-over, ignore objectionns, and you’ll close some deals.

But you won’t build many relationships.

And that means that next month…or next quarter…or next year you get to start all over again. Call. Knock. Ignore. Persist.

In the cases where this works, tenacity and a list of suspects are the building blocks; and though perhaps effective as the cornerstones of a churn-and-burn strategy, this is not the way to build a vibrant professional services practice.

In stark contrast, here are four characteristics present in the best professional service sales and business developers I’ve known.

1. They are PEOPLE people. Over the long haul — through market dips and turns — if this is just a job…if you don’t like people…that will eventually come through loud and clear. All things being equal (read if you’re competing with another excellent lawyer) the market is going to opt to work with the professional who is easy to work with. If you don’t like them, you can’t fool enough prospects enough of the time to build a practice that will last. Be prepared to move from one commodity to the next.

2. They derive satisfaction from assisting. The best business developers find ways to deliver value to those with whom they work — whether in the context of a billable matter or not. I know a lawyer who, upon learning that a client’s child was looking for an apartment in his city, spent his weekend scouting out locations to recommend. Not billable. Not conditional. But at the heart of why the attorney is a good business developer.

3. They are Connectors. Limit your network to those who need the specific service or product you offer, and your network will almost certainly be too small. Service providers become trusted advisors, in part, because of a propensity for connecting dots…facilitating solution without respect to whether the problem is in my practice or not.

4. They have super powers. No leaping buildings in a single bound here. But while scores of excellent advisors can see every facet from one perspective, rainmakers see the big picture. Even in the midst of chaos, they listen between the lines, hearing what others miss. Master these powers and the struggle to differentiate your firm or practice becomes much less daunting.

One of Dan Pink’s best sellers is titled To Sell Is Human. There are other important characteristics, of course. But one of the reasons these four are on my list is they go a long way toward communicating humanity — the kind of humanity that connects and motivates.

You can fake it and do okay. Maybe. But if you want to be a better business developer, work on these characteristics. Build your plan of action with these as foundational elements. You will be onto an approach to practice development that you can actually stick with. One that will deliver.

Do All The Things You Know Make It Tougher For You To Communicate?

imageThere is no shortage of communicators talking about the challenges attendant to listening.

Type effective listening into your search engine, and you won’t have to wait long for the evidence. In 1.8 seconds more than 1 million resources will be one click away. Tips, tricks, guidelines, best practices, secrets, insights, barriers, ten-step-programs, five keys, principles, systems — I stopped at page 3.

Admittedly, we’ve contributed to the noise. Here and here are a couple of examples…just in case you are in the mood.

It seems safe to assume we believe this topic is important. It’s also a good bet the cynics among us might suggest we’re not serious, since progress is nonexistent…or, at best, snails-pace-slow. Which leads to this musing . . .

Is Knowledge The Enemy?

Maybe the challenge lies in the fact that the more we know, the tougher it is to listen.

Certainly, the more I am convinced I am right about any given topic or issue, the less inclined I am to yield the floor, much less actually listen to someone that is dead wrong!

What if our vast resovoir of answers-at-the-ready actually makes it more difficult for us to connect? What irony.

Is it possible — at least some of the time — that the richest communication takes place when everyone involved has more questions than answers?

The Hypothesis

If the exercise is honest — meaning the objective is more about connecting and communicating than it is born of infatuation with the sound of my own voice — the quest to identify what it takes to connect may be the one thing that drives us to quiet and persistent listening.

In other words — asking the right questions may be more critical to communicating than knowing all the answers. Or, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, being right is often the booby-prize.

Could it be that the art of communication is not about having all the answers; but about having the rare insight to practice the discipline of intentional listening?

Ready To Face The Reality of Business Development?

imageIn spite of mounds of evidence to the contrary, when it comes to marketing, business development and sales we can’t help ourselves. We cling to the hope of a viral happending that will change everything in an “unexpected” instant.

Others have pulled it off. Why not us?

The luck-of-the-draw . . . the right set of numbers. A silver bullet capable of piercing any problem. A grand slam with two outs in the bottom of the ninth . . . the “hail-mary” for a TD as time expires.

Strategic planning, big data, competitive intelligence and all manner of market research notwithstanding, we secretly hope a single great idea — maybe a tag line or a new logo, a killer event or a viral video will resolve all marketing woes.

Or, if we could just get a chance to make our pitch.

Buying-In To The Big Bang

In our gut we know it doesn’t work this way. Or do we just say that? Wasn’t it the “Just Do It” tag line (with a little credit to the swoosh logo, of course) that turned Nike into a leader? Never mind the millions invested in market research, target market identification and product R&D that preceded a multi-year multi-billion dollar multi-celebrity advertising campaign.

Companies like Apple and Nike make the formula seem simple: offer a good product (or service), create a superior message, and BANG! You’ve created a winning marketing strategy.

Only one or two issues: the strategic and sizable investments of time and money long before the sexy advertising debuts.

So what is today’s professional service firm to do? For discussion purposes, consider this three step stragedy as one way to start.

A Three-Point Marketing Plan

1. Identify A Target.

There are three reasons every marketing plan should begin with target identification: a) it is the only way to know exactly what your message should be; b) a target focus is the key to resource leverage (read success without a ten-figure budget); and c) (if no other part of the discussion has your attention) — apart from luck, strategic targeting is the only way to accelerate the hiring decision.

2. Learn What Your Target Cares About.

This is the baseline for meaningful connection and visibility. As tempting as it is to believe the marketplace will find our work compelling, a profitable business development pipeline — the thing that consistently ushers clients to your door — is the result of delivering value around what your target cares about. This is the stuff of professional equity. Asking the right questions is the key to definitive market intelligence.

3. Pursue Connection Around What You Learn.

This is the next natural step. Wondering about what to blog about? What organizations to join? Where to invest time and energy? Can’t figure out what you should do with social media? Still puzzled about what your marketing message should be?

A focus on the issues with which your target is concerned is the fabric of connection. And when it comes to long-term business development, nothing is more valuable to productive professional relationships.

Business development success is rarely about the size of a budget or creative genius. Both are nice; but connecting with a market is about resisting distractions, rejecting the siren call of silver bullets, and doing the roll-up-your-sleeves, often difficult work of choosing your target, and maintaining focus.

The bad news — there are no quick fixes. The good news — many in the marketplace haven’t figured this out. Yet.

Words Have Too Much Power To Be Thoughtlessly Tossed Around

Can we admit that we all say things we wish we could, in the vernacular of the day, walk back. When I’m the offender, though she’s been gone for many years, I cannot escape the influence of my mother.

She believed words have power . . . that what comes out of our mouths is important . . . that what we say today has an effect on tomorrow.

The four of us kids — me, my sister and two brothers — had predictable difficulty with what we perceived to be her ridiculous standard. She would not stand for us belittling each other, even in jest.

Once the words are out there they can’t be taken back.

Slang would draw an evil eye. If we threw around language she perceived to be nothing more than shorthand for cursing, we found ourselves in real hot water.

In part, this was a reflection of a poet’s heart. She loved literature, was fascinated by the wordsmith, and the lyrics of a song could bring easy tears.

But at a deeper level, she subscribed to the idea that words have staying power. Notes of context inevitably fade with time. What we say today will hang in the air, and echo in pivotal moments of tomorrow.

Even playfully calling my brother stupid would, in her view, make it easier for me to use the monicker again. And again. And siblings weren’t the only ones off-limits. Name calling is demeaning. Never mind the fact that it brings real discourse to a screeching halt.

Mom would not stand for us making fun of anyone.

And though admittedly inhibiting for three young boys in the house (my sister was much more like mom), the lesson was not lost; we knew it was never okay to be disrespectful of another human being.


As kids we were, predictably, much less discriminate when out of her earshot. But years later her influence lingers.

Yes, Words Have Power

They can be instructive, provocative, and convicting.

They can stir laughter, and prompt tears. They can reach into otherwise quiet corners of the heart and move us in unimaginable ways.

Mom subscribed to the let your yes be yes and your no be no philosophy. I don’t recall ever having doubt about where she stood or what she meant. She was the toughest person I’ve personally known . . . fighting disappointment and disease for years. Yet, she was gentle, kind and respectful.

Sure . . . most of us are going to slip up, and beg to walk it back. But it is worth remembering that words are able to inspire vision and conjure great dreams. They are far too valuable to be used thoughtlessly or indiscriminately. Much less, irresponsibly.

Four Guiding Principles If You Believe Business Development Is About Building Relationships

Confused Businessman Looking At Arrows Pointing In Different DirectionsFor a moment let’s say we really believe the notion that relationship trumps everything when it comes to business development for professional service providers.

What do we do with that? How do you build the kind of relational equity that is at the heart of a stable practice?

Warning. If you’re hoping for a silver bullet you are not going to find it here. In fact, if you believe business development is something to be turned on when things slow down, you’re not going to like much about this post for four reasons.

  1. Professional relationships are no easier than the personal variety — (evidence the next three reasons);
  2. Building the kind of equity that results in trust (which is what business development relationships are all about) doesn’t happen over night…it takes time;
  3. Investment is required — and we’re not talking about the big-budget kind — this is roll-up-your-sleeves and get personally vested in the pursuit of something important;
  4. Success demands caring about what your target cares about (versus a preoccupation with what you bring to the table).

Come to terms with these four realities, and there are plenty of creative ideas and tools to help you leverage your efforts.

But what do we do to actually build professional relationships?

Here are four suggested guiding principles.

1. Focus On Your Target’s Story.

Let me tell you all about me! This is the temptation — to believe winning is the result of getting our message across. Fall prey to this and we’ll focus on what we need to communicate. Completely convinced of our ability to bring something to any table, we expend every bit of equity we have cataloging all that we can (or might be able to) do.

Equity comes from knowing what the target cares about most, understanding where the need is most intense, and focusing attention at this precise point. (Kind of the same way things work in a personal relationship.)

2. Become a connector.

Individuals that make it rain for the entirety of a career, no matter the season, are almost always masters at connecting. This is closely related to number 1, above — a focus on your target. Relevant introductions, references and referrals are universally valued. Become viewed as the conduit to valuable connections, and your equity as an advisor is on the rise.

3. Care About What Your Target Cares About.

At the risk of going to this well too many times, the realm of personal offers the object lesson here: when you seek a relationship with someone, you invest time, resources and energy in the things that individual cares about.

Want to build or increase equity in a professional relationship? Short of creepy stalking, become involved in what your target cares about. A cause, professional or civic organization, or leisure interest afford the possibility of important visibility and association. This is one of the shortest paths to professional relationship.

4. Don’t Just Talk; Do Something!

While it is no news to anyone that talk is cheap, we continue to double-down on delivering a message all about us. Nothing does less to differentiate than endless blather about expertise. Listen up, and you’ll hear your competition saying the same things.

It will take some creative thinking, and it likely will not be easy; but find a way to actually share your experience and expertise with a target apart from an engagement, and you have a shot at setting yourself apart. This is where there is business development value in becoming involved in organizations your targets care about as noted above. Volunteer for a committee position in an association your target is involved with and seek an opportunity to collaborate.

Continuing education offerings and relevant thought leadership are a couple of the more standard ways to demonstrate versus simply talk about expertise. But if you’re committed to building a relationship, some effort in this area can unlock other possibilities.

There are other ways to build professional relationships, of course. This is offered as fodder for a conversation, and I f you have practical ideas, please contribute.

The one thing we’ll venture all good ideas will have in common is a focus on the object of our pursuit.