Mastering business development

Aug 17, 2020

For many leaders, business development resides outside their core competencies and comfort zone, to their firm’s detriment.

Leadership of professional service firms calls for three primary components: strong technical expertise, a set of values consistent with the organization, and an ability to attract and retain clients. Having worked with AEC leaders for many years, I have found that they have little difficulty finding and building technical expertise. Similarly, they can achieve alignment with firm values so long as the firm has clearly defined them.

The problem arises with the third component: business development. Broadly defined, business development means marketing firm services to new and existing clients, then winning the engagement. The firm economic model relies upon it, and its importance will increase as we navigate another recession. However, for many leaders, business development resides outside their core competencies and comfort zone, to their detriment and the firm’s.

Building business development expertise. To build business development expertise, consider the following five building blocks:

  1. Learn the business of the business. AEC professionals love what they do, i.e., design and deliver beautiful and functional buildings. They will invest countless hours making that happen. Not so much the business of the business. Many express not only ignorance of how firm economics work, but lack of confidence that they can learn “those numbers.” Without mastering them, however, they will have a hard time negotiating profitable client projects. Financial training for nonfinancial managers in the AEC industry should move from a nice-to-have to a critical investment. If the training is not in-house, follow up with further education tailored to the firm’s business.
  2. Overcome fear of business development. In the words of one young engineering leader, business development is scary because “it’s a new territory with no template.” A building project has a schedule, budget, and a standard action plan to guide the way. Business development follows no playbook. While most firms have organized lists of marketing prospects, PowerPoint decks and generic materials, as anyone who has survived the mind-numbing weekly marketing meeting will tell you, they support but do not deliver work. Instead, winning work requires leaving the office to explore the market. That means asking probing questions about trends and creating unique strategies for each prospective client. In this uncharted journey, you might encounter the discomfort of talking with people you barely know, hearing questions you can’t answer, and proposing new project offerings that, while doable, will steepen your firm’s learning curve. The only way to overcome discomfort is to embrace it. It’s intrinsic to trying something new. The more you stretch, however, the easier and more enjoyable the process becomes.
  3. Manage your time commitments strategically. Time is always in short supply, particularly as people juggle work and home. Layering business development onto that challenge requires smart time management. Winning client work covers a continuum of promoting your skills via speeches, articles and interviews, courting new clients, delivering stellar services, tending relationships, and gathering market intelligence. Allocate your time across all these activities to make sure each receives deliberate if only brief attention.
  4. Give serious attention to firm politics. People often recoil when they hear the word, “politics.” They equate them with underhanded schemes for stepping over others to gain advantage. In fact, politics merely means how people interact, with whom, and why. To make sure your colleagues include you in their pursuit of external work and support yours, become an expert on your firm’s practice groups and geographies. Three tools will help:
    1. Study the firm organization chart. Identify the key decision makers, influencers, and information sources. Who talks to whom and, better, who listens to whom? Then you will know where to spend your time.
    2. Consult or initiate the creation of a central database. A database of firm skills, experience and clients will inform firm members as to what talent is available and minimize overlapping new business campaigns.
    3. Dedicate time and energy to cultivating relationships. People have a tendency to reach out to familiar faces. If you feel someone is ignoring you, more likely they feel more comfortable defaulting to known quantities.
  5. Find a mentor to model the way. Seasoned business developers have well-practiced techniques gleaned from experience. However, if you ask them for pointers, they might struggle to describe what they do. The best way is to shadow them to client meetings, observe, and debrief afterwards.

Business development fuels the firm engine. It therefore behooves firms to devote significant time and energy to cultivating its leaders’ ability to deliver it. Everyone will benefit.

Julie Benezet spent 25 years in law and business, and for the past 18 years has coached, taught and consulted with executives from virtually every industry. She earned her stripes for leading in the scariness of the new as Amazon’s first global real estate executive. She is author of the award-winning The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None. Her workbook, The Journal of Not Knowing, provides a self-guided discovery mission to navigate the adventure of pursuing one’s dreams based on the Journey principles. She can be reached at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.