“One of the reasons I didn’t make partner was because I am no good at Business Development”.
This is a statement that I have heard from several female lawyers as the reason why they decided not to progress to partnership. I know these women. I know that they are well-respected. They had sponsors wanting them to succeed in the firms they were at. They are successful in the roles that they currently have – but they are not partners, which is a problem for gender parity and those that come behind them. The belief that to be a partner means being good at winning work, is espoused over and over. But, it gets in the way of women progressing and, paradoxically, it gets in the way of business development when people are partners. In this article, I am going to set out why the belief that partners are good at business development does more harm than good.
Some career coaches tell aspiring lawyers to own their path to partnership. They should “up their BD game” to get noticed. It is understandable. Most associates have to put forward a business case to be made up and invariably that needs to show strong relationships and the ability to bring in business. They need a plan and numbers.
Some firms will have supported associates on the journey. They will have given them some skills and opportunities to develop those skills as they progress through the firm. However, the reality is that most firms do this too late, and by the time associates need to “up their BD game” they are fearful, and lack confidence and it becomes a barrier.
What does believing that partners are good at business development become a barrier to?
As we have seen, often in the case of women, not progressing.
For men, it becomes a barrier to doing business development. One partner that I worked with, who was actually one of that firm’s most successful rainmakers, had a fear of public speaking. He would avoid all opportunities that the team put his way to speak. He had never learned that particular business development skill and wasn’t about to admit that he was no good at it to his team and fellow partners. Now, he was successful without it (see point 1 below), but it shows what you see is often not what is going on behind the scenes.
The faulty thinking that emanates from the belief goes something like this:
Partners need to be good at business development, therefore partners have demonstrated that they are.
[Associates then think]
I need to make sure I can do this (or blag my way in).
For some, they feel they will never be able to succeed so they quietly step away.
[Partners then think]
Everyone thinks I am good at this, I had better not let on that I am not, because I will be found out.
It will be embarrassing to ask for help, better to hide behind a veil of business and get on with the day job.
This faulty thinking:
1. Undervalues the importance of the team
Unless you are a sole practitioner, or in a small firm, you are likely to be in a place where you have a range of professionals who are all good at different things. You will have a team of marketing and business development experts who are “good at business development” – that’s what they do!
Business Development is about relationships; in large firms, complex webs of relationships. These are created by teams working together. Understanding what you bring to the team is key. Understanding who can fill the gaps that you can’t, and being open to being vulnerable - admitting that someone else is better placed to do something - is arguably the best way to “do business development.” This myth that one person has to be good at everything is damaging and unnecessary.
2. Reduces the focus on other skills
Focusing on Business Development as the holy grail of partnership means that other skills are placed second. These skills could include being able to lead a team, or being able to develop individuals, or being able to offer commercial and innovative solutions to clients. All of these things make the firm attractive to clients (and employees). These all benefit client relationships – and hence could even be called business development - BUT because business development is so often equated with “shaking a tin and asking for money” these qualities get lost and devalued. They are rarely part of the plan or business case for partnership.
3. Gets in the way of learning
There is a lack of honesty caused by this belief. It is rare for a partner to put their hands up and say “I am no good at public speaking”, or “I hate having to go negotiate fees with my clients”, or whatever else they don’t like, or don’t feel confident doing. This leaves a strange existence where those coming up think they need to be able to do things that many of the partners don’t themselves do. It also leads to partners not doing things that maybe, with some training or coaching, they could do. This all gets in the way of learning.
4. Means talent is lost
In the context of gender parity in partnership, this faulty thinking causes women to step away. There are many statistics that highlight the gender differences around applying for jobs: women will only apply where they believe they are 100% qualified. If women think they are not qualified at Business Development, a skill that they often aren’t introduced to until a lot later in the day, they just won’t put themselves forward.
Is training the alternative, or changing the thinking?
Both! We believe that business development skills should be developed from the first day. Part of this journey should be about understanding what business development actually is (it isn’t shaking a tin). Professionals should understand what their own business development superpower is. They can develop this as they progress, and add skills that perhaps are outside their comfort zone but which with time will enhance their unique superpower. The importance of working together on business development should be understood and this message amplified. A client win never depends on one person.