What the Tough Mudder can teach you about biz dev.

I recently talked with a friend who completed a Tough Mudder. For those of you who aren’t familiar, a Tough Mudder is a 10-12 miles obstacle race through a variety of obstacles (such as sprinting through a field of live wires) and, you guessed it, lots of mud. Aside from the obstacles, two aspects of Tough Mudder are legendary: the focus on teamwork (“no mudder left behind”) and on overcoming fears through the obstacles.  And it’s definitely tough—or so I hear since it isn’t exactly my cup of tea.

Here’s what my friend told me that made me think of the business development journey: “I came to appreciate the obstacles because every time I made it through one, I knew I was that much closer to the end. When I was in the middle of it, I couldn’t really tell how far I’d gone or how much I had left to the finish line, but the obstacles helped me know that I was actually making progress.” It’s a useful lesson.

Here’s what the Tough Mudder can teach you about business development:

  • Approach the race as a marathon, not as a sprint. Although the Tough Mudder is “just” 10-12 miles long, expecting to whip through it would be a huge mistake even if you run that distance every weekend. Likewise, business development will last for the rest of your private practice career, and you’ll run ragged if you behave as if it’s a goal to be conquered in the short term. Keep your eye on the long-term view even while working to overcome each immediate obstacle.
  • Overcome your fears. I have yet to meet a lawyer who built a book without having to face difficult and uncomfortable situations. You need grit and consistency to power through those situations just as you do during the Tough Mudder to jump from a tall platform into ice-cold water and then run to climb a scaffold and slide down a pole through a ring of fire.
  • Realize that you can’t do it alone. To succeed in building a successful practice, you’ll need help from mentors and colleagues who can give you suggestions and feedback, professional friends who can make introductions and open doors for you, and referral partners who can help you meet the right contacts and potential clients. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to succeed alone—and you’d be wise to be invested in your teammates’ success as they are in yours.
  • Take the steps necessary to prepare. Training for the Tough Mudder might include cardio, weight lifting, and bodyweight exercises, along with finding out the best clothes to wear during the race and other “real life” tips. Preparing for business development may include designing your strategy and laying your business development plan, improving certain skills (networking skills, for example), learning about general principles of marketing, studying your target client’s likely concerns and goals, learning more about business principles, and so on. Whether it’s a Tough Mudder or business development, you can’t expect to go from zero to win without significant preparatory work.
  • Have a clear objective in mind. In most races, your time is your measure of success; in Tough Mudder, success might be measured in terms of your teamwork or even by overcoming the one obstacle that terrified you. Your personal definition of success should govern your business development efforts as well. You’ll likely approach business development differently if you want to become an equity partner at a large firm than you would if you want a more lifestyle-oriented practice. Knowing your “why” will let you be sure that you’re working to create the kind of success that matters to you.
  • Decide that you will succeed. Whether it’s the Tough Mudder or building a clientele to support your practice, you will hit obstacles—literal and metaphorical. It won’t be easy. At times you’ll wonder why you started this journey and you’ll consider abandoning it. Only your decision to persevere will keep you from giving up. Decide early and don’t look back.

Whether you’re training for a Tough Mudder or (like me) can’t imagine taking on that challenge, absorbing these lessons will help you build a successful practice. What else would you add?

What if small talk fails?

Relationships are at the heart of business development. That’s true regardless of the length of your sales cycle, meaning the typical amount of time required for a potential client to move from first encountering you to hiring you. It isn’t necessary to build a deep and personal relationship in all cases, but you do have to have enough of a relationship to allow your potential client or referral source to know and trust you.

Whether your potential client first finds you online or offline, one-on-one conversation is where a true connection may bloom. Most commonly, you’ll find that the process of building a connection takes time. (That’s why follow-up is so critically important.)

You’re probably aware that small talk paves the way for follow-up contacts. Through small talk (conversation that meanders through a variety of topics at a relatively surface level), you learn more about your conversational partner. You discover mutual interests and experiences, and you start to build a common bond. Through follow-up, you develop that bond, and over time a relationship flourishes… And you’re off to other business development issues. (If small talk isn’t your strength, you’ll find plenty of resources online that can help you improve your skills and increase your comfort.)

But what about those situations in which small talk fails? Perhaps small talk isn’t culturally accepted or, despite your best efforts, your small-talk skills aren’t creating an easy flow in conversation. In these instances, you’ll need to find ways in addition to small talk to establish and deepen connections.

The Harvard Business Review article Building Relationships in Cultures That Don’t Do Small Talk offers good tips for recognizing a no-small-talk culture (something that you should already know based on your due diligence) and for adapting. The most important two sentences in the article apply to relationship-building generally, not just across cultures:

One essential piece of advice is to take a longer-term perspective on developing relationships. If you assume that relationships and rapport can indeed be developed in a matter of moments, you’ll inevitably be disappointed.

The article goes on to suggest several tactics to use in the absence of small talk, including working to ensure that “your colleagues see you as someone worthy of having a relationship with, even if it’s not going to happen immediately,” finding impersonal topics for conversation, and knowing when it’s acceptable to build personal relationships.

Use these tips when small talk fails you, but also incorporate them into your relationship-building approach even when you get things going with chitchat. The better you are at adapting your approach to your new contact’s style and the more alternatives you have in mind for building a solid foundation for your relationships, the stronger your network will be.

If you haven’t registered yet for the first session of the webinar series, “The Human Touch of Rainmaking”, it’s not too late!

The webinar is TODAY at 5 pm EDT/2 pm PDT so mark your calendar. 

Click here to register. 

What’s your agenda?

One of my favorite questions is, “What’s your agenda?” I’ve noticed, however, that we tend not to ask that question of ourselves often enough.

Setting an agenda is a classic time management strategy. If you’re looking to make meetings shorter and more productive, circulate an agenda in advance and expect everyone to come prepared. If you want to make your day more productive, set your own agenda. Of course, other issues may arise in the course of the meeting or the day, but if you set your agenda first, you’ll at least know what you intended to accomplish and you won’t lose track of necessary tasks.

Knowing your agenda is critical for networking. Meeting new people requires you to have a sorting agenda in place: do you want to meet lawyers, bankers, or parents? Are you interested in officers in closely-held businesses, or would you prefer to meet officers in public corporations? Knowing who you want to meet will help you to identify the best groups to investigate and to target the right people for follow-up, which is where the networking magic happens, if at all.

Having an agenda is the difference between effective follow-up meetings and purposeless coffee dates that accomplish nothing. If you have some idea of what you’d like to discuss during a follow-up meeting, you’ll be able to tailor your conversation to be sure that you ask the right questions or offer the right information. It’s easy to wing it for follow-up meetings, but taking a few minutes to think about what you want from the meeting will make you much more effective.

Finally, when you’re talking with someone with whom you’re considering joining forces (for marketing or to form a new practice, for example) ask them directly (or ask yourself) what their agenda is.  Poorly phrased, the question is a bit confrontational, but the more you know or intuit about someone else’s objectives, the better your decisions will be.

Take a few minutes to answer these questions (or others that fit your circumstances):

  • What’s your agenda for today?
  • What’s your agenda for your practice?
  • What’s your client’s agenda?

5 Tactics to Implement NOW

I know you’ve been reading the negative legal news over the past few months.  Some of you have been directly affected, and some fear that you might be hit next.  Today’s post presents the five steps that you must take now.  These apply whether you’re looking for a new job (voluntarily or otherwise), trying to make yourself more valuable so your practice will flourish or so you’ll be considered indispensable at your firm, just starting out, a seasoned practitioner – you get the idea.  These five steps are also critical in business development, so pay special attention if rainmaking is on your goal list for 2009.

1.  Get crystal clear about whom you seek to serve and how to reach those clients, and then deliver more and better than they could possibly expect.  If you’re a fairly new associate at a large firm (within the first two or so years), you’re serving the more senior lawyers at your firm.  It’s important, of course, to narrow down on your niche, but your focus needs to be on the lawyers who will give you assignments.  If you’re more senior or working in a smaller firm, you may serve more senior lawyers as well as “real” clients of a particular description.  When you’ve identified the people you serve, look for ways to impress them.  Maybe it’s offering extra resources, maybe it’s proactively raising a potential problem before it turns into an actual problem, or maybe it’s offering a fresh perspective on a long-standing challenge.

2.   Set SMART goals for yourself and your practice.  SMART goals are Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-based.  Setting goals in this way ensures that you can track your success as you proceed.  Instead of saying that you want your client communications to be more timely, you might decide to set a standard that you return all telephone calls within 3 hours of receipt.  Instead of setting a goal to bring in new billable work this year, you might decide to set a goal of bringing in $25,000 of new work in the next year.  (Whether that’s an achievable goal depends, of course, on your own circumstances.)

3.  If what you’re doing isn’t working, change.  You’ve probably heard the definition of insanity, attributed (probably wrongly) to Einstein: “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  Maybe that definition doesn’t always apply, but it’s accurate for operating in our current environment.

So, are you insane?  Some old approaches are still valid, but others are now a waste of time.  If you don’t know which is which, make it your business to find out now.

4.  Find valuable shortcuts.  Time remains precious, and it’s wise to eliminate as many time-wasting activities as you possibly can.  If you want to learn something new, find a mentor, coach, or training program to show you how to avoid the common traps and how to become proficient more quickly.

5.  Drop the excuses and the blame.  I must speak plainly on this one: circumstances will never be perfect, and if you wait until they’re better you’ll actually be moving backward.  If you’re unhappy in your work but you stay on because it’ll be hard to find a new position in this economy, you aren’t doing yourself or anyone else any favors.  If you choose not to invest in necessary training or resources because times are tight, you’re actually costing yourself.  While you’re waiting for just the right plan or just the right time or just the right opportunity, others are moving forward with plans and opportunities that are good enough.  They’re moving forward and gaining momentum, and you’re standing still.  As we all learned in high school physics, objects in motion tend to stay in motion and objects at rest tend to stay at rest.  That holds true for people, too.

Here’s the bottom line: if you’re stressed and worried, you aren’t alone.  You may find it tempting to hunker down and try not to open yourself to further trouble, but that’s exactly the wrong thing to do now.  Everything may begin to look brighter with the new year and new administration, or it could get worse.  Don’t wait for an external solution.  Implement these five steps now.

Set ’em so you can reach ’em

When “Carl,” a 4th year associate in a large firm, contacted me about lawyer coaching, he was dreading an upcoming evaluation.  The office rumor was that associates were being asked to explain what they’d done to meet the goals they’d set in the previous year’s review, and Carl was nervous.  He explained that although he’d been working toward the targets he’d set a year ago, he wasn’t sure that his efforts would be viewed as meeting his goals, which he’d written as follows:

  • Improve skill in taking and defending depositions.
  • Improve written work product.
  • Get more experience in advising clients.

Do you see the problem that Carl recognized only in retrospect?  None of these goals can be quantified.  Had he improved his deposition skills?  Well, he could point to the depositions he’d taken and defended over the past year, but he couldn’t prove in any quantifiable way that volume equals improvement.  Same held true for his other goals.  After talking about Carl’s year, we found ways to suggest that he’d met his goals, but he vowed never to make the mistake of setting fuzzy objectives.


Unfortunately, lawyers at every stage of practice can set vague goals.  Have you ever said you’d like to “bring in more business” or “increase your billable hours” or “get more exposure to your target clients”?  These ambitions count as little more than wishes, because they’re not concrete and measurable.

How do effective leaders frame their intentions?  They set SMART goals, and they write down those goals.  A SMART objective is:

Specific: define what you intend to accomplish with sufficient detail to be meaningful.  Instead of planning to improve his deposition skills, Carl might have decided he wanted to get comfortable with the “funnel method” of questioning witnesses.

Measurable: a quantifiable definition of what you intend to accomplish.  (As Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured gets managed.”)  Carl might have said that he’d like to take 8 depositions over the course of the year and rate his comfort and skill in using the “funnel method” on a scale of 1 to 10.

Achievable: design a goal that’s a stretch, but a stretch within your reach.  Carl might realize that he’d be unlikely to take 8 depositions over the next year, and so he’d scale back to 4 depositions.

Realistic: create a sensible plan to attain your goal, considering your abilities and limitations.  Carl might approach the partner with whom he worked the most to share the goal he’d set and to get the partner’s buy-in, which would include agreement that the goal was realistic.

Time-based: define the time in which you’ll measure your efforts to determine whether you hit your objective. 

When you know what you want, you’re much more likely to seek out and accept opportunities to reach your goals.  Take a moment to recast your #1 objective as a SMART goal and write it down somewhere, perhaps in your calendar.  And then notice what happens over the next few days and weeks.  Chances are good that you’ll take steps toward your goal that you wouldn’t have taken without being concrete and clear and what you wanted to happen.