Observe yourself to improve

As a young litigation associate (about a million years ago!), I found tremendous benefit in getting feedback from a more senior lawyer who routinely observed my performance. The same was true as I moved into coaching, and even now, after more than ten years of coaching others, whenever I get feedback following observation, I always have new insight that helps me to improve.

Observation by supervisors is built in some way into almost every kind of professional role. Whether it’s business development skill, performing the responsibilities of your job, your leadership presence, or anything else, feedback is one of the fastest possible routes to improvement…

But getting feedback on business development activities can be tricky. Much of the time is spent in solo pursuits that make it difficult for anyone to have access to real-time performance. Fortunately, you can become your own observer and provide your own feedback.

Being both actor and observer can be difficult, but if you identify a single behavior that you want to improve and focus on that, you’ll likely find it easier than you might imagine. For example, let’s imagine that you’ve noticed (or someone has told you) that you have a habit of getting excited and interrupting other speakers. Your motivation may well be good, but the behavior is disruptive and can come across as disrespectful, so breaking it will likely improve your performance. You might decide to make a tick mark on your notepad each time you catch yourself interrupting in a meeting, with the goal of seeing a declining number of marks over time. Once you get a handle on that behavior, then you can identify and move on to something else.

If you have an opportunity to get external feedback, do. Meanwhile, try this exercise: choose one discrete aspect of your business development skills or habits that you’d like to improve. Then identify ways to get clear on your current performance level and ways to track improvement. Track yourself for a week to a month, depending on the magnitude of the behavior you’re observing, and see what changes you notice.

Identify people to contact

Cultivating relationships is central to business development. After all, whether you represent individuals or the largest corporations, it’s people who will retain you, and it’s people who will decide how effective your work is.

Have you ever felt like you need to bring some new people into your network but not known where to find them? Consider relationships you already have that could be revitalized and developed. Although results are never guaranteed, it’s often easier to start with someone you know and to work on taking that relationship to a deeper level than to find the right place to meet the right person and then grow the relationship.

Try this exercise to identify a handful of people you should contact today…

  1. Think of three of your professional or social circles. These could include your law school classmates, former colleagues, former clients, other parents at your child’s school, members of your running club, etc.
  2. List three people in each of those circles. Think about the people in each circle who have some connection to your area of practice. Preferably, your list will include people you know well enough to call and have a conversation. Closer connections are better (especially potential clients or referral sources), but don’t agonize to find the “perfect” contact to include on your list. If you can list more than three, even better… Just don’t call your exercise complete until you’ve listed a minimum of three people in each circle.
  3. Identify the one person in each circle who seems to have the most potential, and reach out to those people as soon as you can, in the most personal way you can. An in-person visit is better than a phone call, a phone call is better than an email, and an email is acceptable but not ideal. Your opening can be as simple as saying that you were just thinking about them, and you wondered how they’re doing. Friendly catch-up conversations that touch on business can lead to some interesting opportunities. Before you reach out, think about what you’d like to get across (are you looking to speak more often? have you recently changed firms?) and during the conversation, be on the lookout for how you can help your contact.

Use this approach once a quarter or whenever your contact list could use an infusion. The key is that you’re renewing relationships, not trolling for business. If you’re desperate for new work, this is not the right approach for you. This is an opportunity to invest in strategically-selected relationships, which will likely pay off somehow, sometime, with no certainty about when or how that will happen.

Design meaningful follow-ups

You know that one-off meetings are likely to do little, so you always plan your follow-up strategy, right? It doesn’t matter whether you meet someone through formal networking, at a CLE seminar, or while you’re waiting for hours at the DMV… The best connections mean nothing if you can’t cultivate a relationship. (Unless, of course, you get business immediately and cultivate a relationship while you’re serving the client, but that’s rather uncommon.)

So, how do you prepare yourself to follow up with the people on your A-List—the top-priority people with whom you follow up with most frequently and with the most personalization? (If you’re not sure what an A-list is or how to use it, review Chapter 12 of The Reluctant Rainmaker.) In other words, how do you know what your new contact will find interesting enough that they’ll welcome your efforts to stay in touch?

Prepare yourself with these three steps:

  1. Immediately after you meet someone who has a high probability of fitting your A-list, make notes about where you met and what you learned. I like to use Evernote to maintain these notes so that I’ll have access on any device, in any location. You never know when information will matter, so if you learn that her son Fred plays volleyball at the University of Iowa, note that. You’ll thank yourself when you drop your contact a note to congratulate her on her son’s performance in the national semifinals.
  2. Set up Google alerts on your new contact’s name and/or company. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get an email whenever your key contacts are mentioned online? That’s exactly what Google Alerts does. (Be sure to set up a Google Alert on your own name, too.) You can also set Alerts on relevant topics. Consider sending these to a secondary email address so that your critical emails aren’t hidden in a flood of alerts.
  3. Connect with your new contact on LinkedIn.  Depending on how complete his profile is, you may pick up useful information right away. And if your new contact is active on LinkedIn (liking and sharing news stories, for example), you’ll get an idea of what catches his attention.

Use these three steps to determine what your new contact will find valuable or interesting, as well as what will demonstrate that you’re paying attention. That’s the secret to follow-up contacts that build relationships.

Is it about them… Or you?

I had a conversation with a new acquaintance recently, to discuss opportunities for collaboration and to explore the potential for making referrals to her. I was looking forward to learning more about this person and her work. What I got was almost a monologue about what she’d done and how well things had turned out for her. Collaboration? Not so much. Interest in the clients I might refer? No. Further conversation? Probably not.

We all want to make a good impression with potential clients and referral sources, and part of that is telling them how we can help. We need to know something about a service provider, of course, but getting a barrage of information is rarely useful in making a decision to move forward.

So, how do you get information across without running the risk of an off-putting “me me me” conversation? These tips should help.

  1. Lead with questions. Whether it’s a sales conversation or exploring referral opportunities, knowing what the decision maker needs and finds valuable will let you frame your comments. What are her concerns? What qualities or qualifications matter to him? Once you know this information, you know how to talk about yourself in a meaningful way. (For more on how to do this, see Chapter 16 of The Reluctant Rainmaker.)
  2. Talk about your experience in terms of benefits, not features. Features are facts like the school you attended, how many years you’ve been in practice, or how many patents you’ve prosecuted, etc. Benefits are the reason someone should care about the facts.

    If you feel stuck, try stating the fact that you find relevant and connecting it to the reason that fact should matter to a client or referral source. An example might be, “I worked in my family’s small business for eight years and experienced the business’s chaos when my mother died, so I understand family business continuity issues and know how to avoid the things that can go wrong.”
  3. After you’ve been talking for a bit, pause and ask a question to gauge whether your comments are landing. Whether it’s a simple “does that help?” or a more in-depth question designed to deepen the conversation, simply shifting the focus to the person with whom you’re talking will help to ensure the conversation is relevant and helpful.

If you follow these three steps, you’ll likely find business development dividends in conversations, and you’ll avoid the dreaded drone-on. You can also turn them around if you find yourself listening to someone going on and on about himself, and perhaps rehabilitate a conversation.

Why billable work outweighs biz dev work (but shouldn’t)

You are likely aware of the distinction between urgent and important tasks in the context of time management.

Assuming you have enough work to keep you reasonably occupied and compensated (even if that means doing work for someone else’s clients rather than your own), business development tends to be an important task, but not an urgent one. The activity that will lead to new work falls to the bottom of the priority list.

Improving your practice is important, but unless there’s some pain or dire need involved, that desire is less immediate than doing what’s necessary to maintain your practice. Wouldn’t you rush to replace a broken window in your home more quickly than one that might better conserve energy? You’ll do what you must to fix the broken window, but everything from social plans to routine housework to downtime might pull you away from a home improvement project. The same goes for practice maintenance vs. practice improvement.

That’s why the feast/famine cycle is so dangerous: once business development activity has resulted in a “feast” of billable work, the temptation is to focus on that work and to back off the business development activity… Until the billable work is completed and the famine hits. By working to maintain the new level of work, you not only stop working to improve it but you may even unintentionally let the improvement slip away.

Seth Godin recently offered another explanation of why recognizing the distinction between urgent and important matters. Casting the distinction in terms of competence and confidence, he concludes that “[i]mportant… is fraught with fear, with uncertainty and with the risk of failure.” Read the rest of his post for a nuanced view of how viewing business development as urgent vs. important may reveal (and validate) your expectations about the likelihood of success.

Next time you catch yourself putting off business development activity because you have too many urgent tasks (read: billable work), revisit this urgent vs. important question. Do you need to address it in the context of time management or confidence?