Major or minor in BD, but you still have to study

Career success often hinges on how you embrace your business development role, even if BD isn't listed on your business card.

It stands to reason that if you are in the business of selling technical services then all of your technical professionals must – at a minimum – aspire to be proficient in their respective technical areas.

A consultant, who has worked in government and commercial energy and environmental areas, remembers a mentor saying, “We do three things: perform technical work, manage people, and develop business. Pick any two of the three, do them well, and you will do very well.”

Our consultant found this to be interesting advice. However, he wondered, “Do I have to pick two? Can’t I be successful if I just do one?” The answer: Of course you can, it is just harder.

For example, it is not enough to merely become a “competent” project manager, program manager, or technical professional. After all, competent employees are a dime a dozen. Competency is the bare minimum that is expected, so just being able to perform your work is not going to give you competitive advantage over any other professional.

To get a competitive advantage for your company and to distinguish yourself, you have to become a true expert. But that is by no means an easy task. Experts take action on the leading edge of their fields. They publish papers on new processes or make presentations at conferences. Professionals who are at the top of their game give expert testimony and write books. Along the way, a few awards and advanced certifications contribute to their prestige.

The other problem is that it’s not easy to stay a technical expert. If it’s a hot issue, your competitors will catch on quickly. As the consultant mentioned above shared, “There was a time when I knew as much as anyone about environmental remediation and cleaning up chemicals in groundwater. But, that soon changed as others gained experience doing those kinds of cleanups. Today, oil spill experts are in demand, but nobody much cared about them until the problem in the Gulf of Mexico. Certainly this disaster was the catalyst for dozens of more oil spill experts appearing.”

Let’s say you want to simply concentrate on being a good manager. Theoretically, you could progress from managing small projects, to bigger projects or programs, and then to a senior leadership position that includes an office. This progression happens, I’m sure, but you really have to be an exceptional manager to make it work. And if you’re not a professional expert in a technical field, you will not have the respect of the technical personnel you manage. It just doesn’t work, because a leader cannot ask someone to do something he or she is unable to do. Exceptional managers lead from the front.

What about business development? Can you just be in sales and not manage or perform technical work? We think you can – obviously there are technical professionals who work for business-centered practices that do nothing but sell technical services. However, there is tremendous pressure to hit revenue growth targets, so it is not all that easy.

The larger issue is that a business developer’s success seldom lasts if they do not continue to engage with their customers and remain up-to-date on the products and services they provide. When a business developer goes “stale”, it becomes much harder for them to earn the trust of potential clients, who expect you to know something about the services and products you sell.

Our advice is to pick any two of the three and do them well. Or, another way to say it is, “major in one and minor in another.” We think you will discover that one “track” supports the other. The good news is that, early in your career, you don’t have to pick. You can try this and that and see what you like. But this approach can produce significant dividends later in your career.

EDITOR’s NOTE: Article based on expert opinion by senior MBDi consultant Bob Glassen.