Obvious but ignored: rainmaking success requires action.

New behaviors, especially those that play out in public for others to see, can be difficult. We lawyers especially, who tend to fall toward the perfectionist side of things, perceived a high risk in trying something new.  What if we fail? What if we look stupid? What if we really mess up?  

Recently, I took on a new role in my church. Despite having observed others perform this role, I was really nervous: I’d be in front of the whole congregation, taking on a highly visible part of the service.  In preparation, I read the handbook for performing this role, searched online for other guidance, drafted and revised the words I’d say, and mentally walked through every part I’d play in the service over and over.

I noticed three things about my preparation: 

  1. I could envision failure more easily than success.  I imagined tripping and falling on the altar stairs.  I imagined dropping the microphone and books and trays. And I even came up with my response should those things happen: flash a winsome smile, chuckle, and say “Well, at least I got THAT over.”
  2. I spent more time preparing than I did acting. I invested close to three hours reading and working on the comments I’d make. I even typed out the comments and then copied them by hand onto an index card!  And all told, I probably spent 15 minutes performing my role.
  3. While the preparation I did by myself was helpful, I got the most benefit from the few minutes I spent talking with others who could tell me what to do. The handbook, while helpful, included some directions that we didn’t use, and certain steps weren’t clear to me. So I grabbed someone who’s served in this role for more than ten years and asked for help—and she straightened me out right away.

The other thing I noticed is that I hear these same observations from my clients when they’re talking about business development. Reluctant rainmakers (those who would really prefer to build a book of business just by being a good lawyer, not engaging in specific business development activity) are especially inclined to spend as much time in gearing up for activity as doing it, and much of that time may be spent in fruitless worry.  We typically don’t call it that, of course: we may call it planning or brainstorming or waiting until the time is right.

The antidote to this paralysis by analysis is action. Action is the only antidote. In my church analogy, I started to feel more competent in my anticipated role when I talked with someone who could answer my questions, not when I read books or visualized my part in the service. And having performed that role once, even though I didn’t do things as well as I would have liked, I know what it feels like, where my specific challenges are, and what I need to do to improve.

With business development tasks, action may feel high-risk because of the possible consequences if it goes wrong. The truth, however, is that (barring exceptional circumstances) a misstep can usually be corrected, and in most cases, a small amount of preparation will avert disaster. In other words, don’t go into a meeting cold, don’t attend an organization’s meeting without knowing what the group is about and who’s in leadership, and don’t call an important contact without having some sort of plan.

Most of us hold back too long on rainmaker activity; few rush in without forethought.

Here’s the take-home

Where are you stalling in your business development plan?

  • If you’re stuck in planning where to start, get outside help from a mentor, a colleague, or a marketing professional.  It can be difficult to begin with the 30,000-foot view that is an overall strategy, and outside help can be instrumental.
  • If you’ve been putting off an activity because the time isn’t right, ask what will make for a “right time.” Sometimes the delay is legitimate.  If you can’t pick out specific circumstances that you’re waiting for, you’re probably just delaying. Examples of appropriate delay include waiting for a contact to return from vacation before you make a call or waiting until there’s a vote on specific legislation before releasing a white paper about how to respond to the new rules. Fruitless delay occurs, for example, when you’re waiting to get “more information” without being clear on what information you need or how to get it.
  • If you’ve been delaying an activity because you don’t know how it will play out, ask what you can afford to lose rather than what you might gain. Good planning can’t remove all risk. If you’re considering an action that might blow a relationship, you’re right to be cautious. If you’re holding off on getting your profile up on LinkedIn because you’re not sure how best to describe your practice and experience, you have almost nothing to lose.  (For a review on this, see Little Bets by Peter Sims, and my review of the book.)
  • If you’re waiting for your schedule to free up, act immediately. One of the most challenging aspects of business development is doing the work even when you’re busy with client work. Failing to do that, however, risks getting into the feast/famine cycle. Almost worse, for mid-level and senior associates and service partners, you run the risk of believing that everything is going ok with your career, when the truth is that today’s economy demands that every private practice lawyer must at least contribute to business development.

Action is required for business development success.  We’re still early in 2018: get your year in gear by acting today.

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