How do you build a professional service practice? Where do you begin? How much time do you invest? What constitutes progress?

In a previous post on the similarities between business development and planting a tree, we recounted the story of French Marshal Lyautey, who instructed his gardener to plant a tree that would take 100 years to mature. The story underscores the fact that growing something strong takes time, and requires equal parts capability and vision.

The practical challenge is that between the planting and any tangible signs of growth, it can be difficult to measure progress.

When it comes to business development progress the challenge is compounded in a professional services environment where often the issue is addressed when short term results are expected. Add the fact that a sporadic approach makes it tough to be confident in strategy and methodology, and firms are left to wonder whether the work will actually pay off.

Unable to discern signs of growth, the temptation is to survey new options. Where is there more fertile ground? What can be done to accelerate measurable return? 

By contrast, a mature and successful strategy is based on a realistic understanding of time, and has been in play long enough to incorporate a healthy blend of investments in the future, and past efforts that have grown strong relationships.

A Formula For Successful Planting

Build around quick fixes and you may be able to skate for a time. If you’re lucky (and some are), you’ll invest in the right area often enough to stay flat, or enjoy modest growth. But look around; firms that have embraced the this-is-how-we’ve-always-done-it strategy are struggling with the realities of disruption and change.

On the other hand, if the goal is to design a strategy that delivers marked organic growth from the investments you make in business development, consider these three principles for effective sowing and reaping.

1. Plant wisely. Strong relationships don’t grow on trees. Throw seeds everywhere, and you’re wasting time and resources. Here are three ways to evaluate whether the ground is fertile. Look for areas of:

  • High consequence change
  • Personal affinity
  • Deep expertise (personal or organizational)

2. Nurture carefully. Want weeds (wasted resources and unproductive opportunities) consistently invading your marketing and biz dev efforts? Pay attention to them only when its convenient…or urgent. Sporadic attention to business development will not deliver appropriate return, much less grow anything that will endure. Quality relationships (and this is what business development is about) grow in the context of conversation, collaboration, and valued contributions. Invest here…and invest long enough, and questions about ROI will disappear. On the other hand, neglect or avoid the work of relationship building, and you will perpetually search for business development answers.

3. Pay attention to the season. Success follows a strategic look at the calendar. While planting takes time, effective biz dev isn’t about waiting 100 years for the tree to grow. Each effort is unique; but if you’re planting today and counting on seeing significant results in less than somewhere between 12 and 24 months, you’re not building around a realistic timetable. This doesn’t mean you won’t see results based on work done earlier; often a focus on quality nurturing activates some “planting” that has already taken place.

Target smart, focus on building relationships, and do this over time in order to maximize your investments. And while a successful approach takes nowhere near 100 years, look for easy solutions, quick fixes or silver bullets to any part of this formula, and be prepared to start over — again and again.