Posted 13th August 2010.
I‘m currently on vacation in France, sipping on Stella Artois and musing on why the French always seem so much more sophisticated than we Brits.
For holiday reading I'm skimming through Malcolm Gladwell's latest book – “What the Dog Saw” – a collection of some of his New Yorker essays.
I like Gladwell. Sometimes his research is a little sloppy, but he's always thought provoking, challenging and often very insightful. Great for holiday reading: not too heavy.
On of his essays is on the challenge of hiring people for jobs that are different from what they're currently doing now. He uses the example of trying to select quarterbacks for the NFL.
Apparently, quarterback performance in college football is a notoriously poor predictor of success in the NFL. Because the opposition is shorter, smaller and slower than you'd find in the NFL, quarterbacks have much more time and options. They can just stand and pick out passes to any of their receivers.
In the NFL they have far less time. Huge linebacks descend on them, they have to move before throwing, anticipate where the defence is going, and have fewer open options.
As a result, quarterbacks that excel at college level aren't necessarily equipped to do well in the NFL. The same isn't true for other positions where the skills are similar – just at a higher level.
Similarly, it turns out that qualifiactions and courses are incredibly poor predictors of how good teachers will be in practice. Being able to engage with children, to “command” their attention and spark their interest in learning has very little to do with the academic qualifictions teachers pursue in college.
So what does all this have with business development in professional service firms?
Well, the challenge many firms have in trying to find and grow effective business developers is that the early careers of most professionals don't involve much business development, or the practice of the skills needed to win work.
In fact, in many professional firms, because of the obsession with billable hourse, all activity other than fee earning client delivery gets crowded out. “High performers” have often sacrificed all non-billable activities like building fledgeling client relationships on the altar of billing more time. So when they're eventually called upon to win work for the firm, those “high performers” often stumble.
Other firms try to identify “selling skills” by looking for extroverts and people with the “gift of the gab”. They're essentially using the stereotype many people have of a “typical salesperson” to try to identify those in their own team with potential to succeed at business development. In reality, however, there's no evidence to suggest that extroverts are any better at selling than their more introverted colleagues.
So what's the secret? How do you identify people who will make good business developers?
There's only one way to find out: test.
Give all your associates the opportunity to practice selling skills. To go out and form relationships with potential clients. To actively nurture those relationships over time. To convert those relationships into sales.
Give them training and mentoring. Monitor their progress. Then select based on actual performance at business development – not on technical performance or what you think the characteristics of good business developers are. Select on actual performance.
Far too many firms select too early, based on the wriong criteria. They think they know who's got “the right stuff”. But they don't.
Casting the net much wider in your search for rainmakers seems like an expensive strategy. Wouldn't it be better to focus training, mentoring and experience on the ones most likely to succeed?
Well, it would. But the truth is that you just can't tell from a professionals early career just who is likely to succeed at business development. Very often it's not the high flyers or superstars. Sometimes it's the people you'd least expect. So you must cast the net wide.
But the returns from this approach can be huge. Excellent business developers can bring in an order of magnitude more business than the average: sales of 5x, 10x or more that of their peers isn't unheard of. And that's certainly worth expending a bit more early on to get.