Finding Time for Business Development #5: The Power of the Positive

At the stage in a career when professionals are expected to start developing business, they usually have anywhere from three to eight years of experience and, in many ways, are the backbones of their firms.

Partners toss them client work as it comes in, knowing that they will catch it and get it done right. They help with the recruitment and training of junior professionals and with an array of administrative duties.

Some of these tasks can be alluring. A senior partner at a firm informed me that one promising young professional we are coaching was spending a lot of time on the firm’s knowledge management effort. “In the short run, he’ll get a lot of thanks for all he’s doing in that area, but it won’t count for much when he comes up for partner,” the man cautioned. “To make partner he will have to have demonstrated that he can bring in business.”

But what is a young professional to do when the head of his practice asks him to work on knowledge management or some other worthy effort? Promising young professionals have advanced quickly in their firms by saying yes when asked to do things. It goes against their instincts to say no.

I believe that at this point in their careers professionals need to say no, selectively. Doing so is a step in their progression from working for partners to being one. If you have to develop business like a partner to become one, then, logically, you have to behave like a partner in your dedication to business development, and successful partners don’t let administrative duties stand in the way of their rainmaking. Nor can you.

Here is the real question as I see it: When partners don’t yet see you as a peer and still treat you like an associate, how can you get them to allow you the freedom you will need to develop more work for the firm? Note that this is a how question, not a should-I question.

The one thing that will make a “no” to a partner’s request for your time acceptable is a prior commitment to something more important for the firm. Few things are more important than developing an account or market. A positive effort to do one of these things will often trump the partner’s request. But only if the following conditions apply:

  1. You have a clear idea of what you are trying to do and it makes sense to someone senior in the firm.
  2. You have a plan. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but it must show a sensible approach to the effort and make it clear that execution will require time.
  3. You demonstrate that you really will do something by taking initial actions, preferably ones that require you to be out in the market. If, for example, you have delivered a speech and visited two clients to talk about a subject, your claim to need time for rainmaking will be far more credible than if you have done nothing.
  4. On the basis of the plan and your actions you get at least an informal approval from someone senior to devote time to the effort. This person becomes what a Chicagoan calls your “clout.”

In short, make it clear that you are really doing something positive and important for the firm and you may find that you earn the right to say “no.”

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