In doing a recent debrief for a project, I got what is probably the finest answer I have ever received as to why we were hired for a project. The client told us the reason we were hired was because it was clear to the selection committee that we really wanted them to be successful. Conveniently for me, it also proved a few points I make often when coaching my practitioner colleagues (what are sometimes called technical professionals) about the key to successful business development. Here are my ABCs of business development soft skills in a nutshell:
A) It’s more important to be interested than interesting. Dale Carnegie wrote a seminal text about winning friends and influencing people in which he teaches us how to focus on the other. Whatever expertise, knowledge and skills we posses as professionals are most interesting to others when they can be used to solve a problem those others have. So often at networking events and in presentations, we focus on communicating what we have to offer rather than on what the person we’re talking to wants, needs or is passionate about. I’m as susceptible to talking about myself as the next person and I consistently find it’s a great way to get people’s eyes to glaze over.
B) It’s more important to ask smart questions than to have all the answers. My experience is that the most valuable people in any meeting are the ones that make everyone else either clarify their thinking, think differently or have an epiphany. I have been more successful in my professional life as a manager, coach and mentor when I have redirected people by simply asking questions that help them find the right path rather than showing them the path. Everybody wants to be smart. Everybody wants to be creative. Everybody wants to have the answer. Asking questions allows them to do that. I’d love to tell you I came up with this myself, but it was modeled to me early by my first boss at my first real full time job. Jerry Irvine, wherever you are, I continually thank you.
C) It’s good to know what people want, but better to know what they need. When I’m hiring someone to help me with something, my ability to express my wants is a function of what I already know. If you’re my consultant, I’ve hired you because there are things you know that I don’t and you can help me best by sharing them and helping me clarify the difference between what I think I want and what I really need, as well as the consequences of the various choices at my disposal. Want to know how to do this effectively, tactfully and in a way that will make your clients grateful to have found you? See A and B above.