The DNA of a Powerful Question

DNA_960“The processes used by a coach, a counselor, a psychotherapist or a guru are similar:  they build the awareness and responsibility of the client.”  (John Whitmore)

I was in my manager Bob’s office, and we were going toe to toe.  I don’t even remember the specific issue we were discussing, but I had very firm ideas about the direction I wanted to take, and he was being equally clear that he didn’t think my plan was a good one.  Finally, he stopped, looked me right in the eye, and asked, “How willing are you to completely own the outcome?”  And then he went silent and waited.

That moment was probably about 30 years ago. Yet I remember it in HD quality – where we were standing in his office, and the look on his face as he leveled that question at me.  It is as clear as if it was yesterday. With nine words, Bob had asked me a powerful question and was waiting for my response.

Powerful questions get their name from the idea that they evoke powerful levels of thought and produce significant clarity for the client. In that moment, Bob had let go of his strong advocacy for his approach, and just asked me how committed I was to my approach and the resulting business impact. Instead of granting permission, he was challenging me to think into the future, project the implications of my proposed path, and take full responsibility for my bet.  To use Whitmore’s language, he was asking me to rethink my proposal (awareness) and then take full responsibility for it.

Here are what I have learned to be the genetic markers of an exceptional question:

It demands thought and reflection on the part of the receiver.

The best questions don’t have easy answers. They challenge the listener to go deep into their own knowledge, beliefs, values, and emotions, to respond. When we ask a powerful question, we have given our client an opportunity to become more deeply aware of all of those elements, and to process how they interact relative to the goal.  Almost inevitably, that process sets off reflection and integration, will lead the client to make a connection they had not previously made.   We are giving our clients a huge gift.

It is built on the foundation of a solid understanding of the big picture, critical issues, and overarching sense of purpose.

The relevance and depth of your question reveals to your client that you have done your homework and have taken in all that they told you previously.  You cared enough to understand them.   You’ve built on that background to frame a relevant question whose answer will deepen your mutual understanding of the issue at hand.  Not only are you gathering information, but you are strengthening the level of trust that binds you and your client.

It is not driven by the consultant’s agenda.

Too often, we use questions which are leading, and which can be received as a form of persuasion through cross-examination.  People are amazingly perceptive in picking up loaded questions. Two negative results occur.  First, the client instinctively puts up barriers based on the level of distrust that the question engenders. The relationship between advisor and client moves in a negative direction. Secondly, the chances of having any really new or helpful insight are greatly diminished when the barriers have been thrown up.

It is short and simply framed.

Brevity comes from clarity and preparedness.  When we’re not well prepared, we are crafting the question on the fly.  The resulting question has multiple components, wanders, back tracks and is dumped on the plate in a heap.  Great coaches like to talk about effective dialogue as a dance.  With commitment, presence, understanding, curiosity and experience, we are able to sense the rhythm of the conversation and help our partner move to where the music is taking them.


Give your clients the gift of clarity and commitment by asking them powerful questions.

Great Reads: 

Whitmore, J. (2002). Coaching for Performance: GROWing People, Performance, and Purpose. London, Nicholas Brealey Publishing.



Serve Before You Sell!

ConsultingThis month’s tip:  Add value to to your team or client before worrying about how you will be compensated for that service.  Said another way, advise and serve as if you are independently wealthy.

It was winter in 1974 and I was on temporary duty in Kansas City, attending an advanced technical school for Air Force communications engineers. A buddy and I had noticed that Hewlett-Packard created a series of very impressive technical notes that would be helpful to the technicians that we supervised. We decided to go to the local HP office and raid their shelves of all the relevant notes we could find. While we were there, we met the local district manager, and talked to him about how HP salesmen plied their craft. Mind you, that was 42 years ago, but I still remember vividly something that district manager said. He told a story about how HP field engineers often helped their customers use a competitor’s piece of equipment to make complicated technical measurements. Those field engineers didn’t earn a dime off of that service they gave their clients. But it was part of the ethic of HP at the time, that you helped your customer with whatever task was in front of them – whether or not that act of service benefited you in any way. Of course, customers did repay it, in loyalty and future business.  (HP was the industry leader in electronic instrumentation for many decades.)  But in that moment, the service to the customer was selfless and came ahead of any idea of compensation.

That conversation made a huge impression on me and it was a key influence in my deciding later in my career to join HP as one of those field engineers.

Jagdish Sheth,  in his book, Clients for Life (Jagdish Sheth 2000) coins a term he calls “selfless independence”.  He says this: “It is a foundational attribute for anyone who aspires to become a trusted adviser to their clients.  Without selfless independence, you lack substance as a client adviser – you’re just another expert for hire. With it, you are able to inspire both respect and loyalty from your clients.”

What about the independence piece of the equation?

When we are independent, we take the position that is in the best interests of the client. Sometimes, that is not what the client wants. They may have seized on another approach which they love, but which we know from our expertise is not the right solution for them. We are much more persuasive in that discussion if we are courageous in our approach.  Patrick Lencioni, in Getting Naked (Lencioni 2010), talks about the debilitating impact on our effectiveness when we fear losing the business.  Someone who is independently wealthy does not fear the loss of an individual deal. Think about the last negotiation you were in.  When you knew you had another alternative, you could be more assertive in the bargaining, and your counterpart in the negotiation always seemed to sense that.

Acting from a spirit of financial independence frees us to “give away the business”, to consult first, and sell later.  Demonstrating that generosity (both in tangible and intangible ways) builds trust and loyalty.  By going to service first, we are demonstrating what we know and what we can do in an immediately valuable way.  We are building credibility in our expertise.


“Consulting is a relationship business. A special product may make you competitive. Differentiated services may make you distinct. But only carefully crafted relationships will create a breakthrough firm.”  (Weiss 2003)

Three great reads: 

Jagdish Sheth, A. S. (2000). Clients for Life: how great professionals develop breakthrough relationships. New York, Simon and Schuster.

Lencioni, P. (2010). Getting Naked, a business fable about shedding the three fears that sabotage client loyalty. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Weiss, A. (2003). Million Dollar Consulting: The professional’s guide to growing a practice. New York, McGraw-Hill.



Leaders, Flex to Your Teams

Isoflex_400Shelly was a senior sales executive, with over 30 years of selling experience in the energy segment. She valued her style as an activist leader, and her ability to leverage years of experience to help her teams beat their objectives.

She had recently taken a position as a global vice president of channel sales, responsible for expanding her company’s partner network.  Because her role was new and important, she had been able to recruit a “dream team” of sales and marketing pro’s with strong track records for building new business quickly.

But…  she was beginning to get disturbing feedback.  Her team had begun to quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, go around her, and complain about her overbearing style, and her limiting of their independence.  Six months after being hailed as the sales leader who would take her company to new levels, she was facing almost a complete rebellion from her team.

What was going on?

It’s no secret.  North Americans and Europeans prefer extroverts as their leaders.  While about half the general population have a natural preference for introversion, over 90% of leaders display extroverted behaviors in their leadership style. That implies that a very large proportion of introverted leaders are flexing outside of their natural behavior to meet the cultural bias for an extroverted style.

While the bias for extroverted leadership is clear, research is telling us that extroverted leaders often run into trouble leading teams of proactive and innovative people.

In a study published in the Harvard Business Review, Adam Grant, Francesca Gino, and David Hoffman discovered that in organizations where the employees tend to be more passive, extroverted managers excelled, generating about 15% higher than average profit.  (Adam M. Grant 2010)  In contrast, in organizations where the employees were more proactive and independent, extroverted managers didn’t fare as well, generating about 15% lower than average profit. 

Net-net, naturally introverted leaders who can flex to a more integrated style are more likely to succeed with highly proactive teams.

Why would that be?

First of all, natural introverts have more practice in being flexible with how they interact with others.  For most of their life, they have had to integrate extroverted behavior into their consulting and leadership style.  (Cain 2012)

Introverts tend to better listeners, and have less personal need to be perceived as the one with the answer.  As a result, they are more likely to accept and act on the ideas and recommendations from their teams.

Introverts tend to be more willing to take a little more time with their decisions, and wait for more information (including input from their team on the best way forward).

“Wait a minute!”, you might be protesting, “You’re saying that it’s always better to be an introverted leader, rather than an extroverted leader?”

No, that’s really not I’m saying.

I’m saying that research on personality type suggests that the most effective leaders are those who are aware of their natural preferences, and who can make an intentional decision to flex to a different behavior set, better suited to the situation in front of them.

A short aside:  There is no such thing as a 100% extrovert or a 100% introvert.  All of us have a mix of preferred behaviors which fall into both camps.  If the mix is more heavily weighted to introverted behaviors, we are called an introvert.  If the opposite is true, we are called an extrovert.  But we are always a mix of our preferences.

In Shelly’s case, her team wanted less direction and teaching (her natural extroverted behaviors), and more thoughtful discussion about their ideas and their recommendations for how they could achieve their goals.

Here are some tips for flexing to what your team wants and needs from you as a leader:

For leaders who are natural introverts:

Take advantage of your natural tendency toward individual dialogue to hear your people fully.

Give yourself enough time to reach a joint assessment of a situation and the optimum path forward.

When appropriate, flex to more assertive behavior when dealing with your senior leadership, sources of resources, and customers who you know expect that from you.

For leaders who are natural extroverts:

Be aware that your preference for independent thinking and directive communication will probably not be well received by independent thinkers.

Develop your effectiveness in having one-to-one conversations.  Ask open ended questions, actively listen to the answers, and provide enough feedback so that your teams have confidence that you understand and agree.

Be willing to make an intentional decision in the moment to flex to a less directive approach with proactive teams.  Give your proactive team members room to assert their ideas and opinions, and engage in a more collegial discussion with them, as compared to a more traditional manager-subordinate discussion.


Leadership success is less about being an extrovert or introvert than it is about being able to adapt to the behavior that is most effective in the situation, time frame, and team that you find yourself acting and leading in.

Success is about being able to flex smoothly to where you need to be.

Thanks for reading!  I’d love to get your help to continue the discussion with your comments.

End Notes:

Adam M. Grant, F. G., David A. Hofmann (2010) The Hidden Advantages of Quiet Bosses. Harvard Business Review

Cain, S. (2012). Quiet:  the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York, Crown Publishers.



The first question: What do you really want? (What is compelling you to act?)

Line of ForceI was frustrated.

Over several meetings, we had come to a detailed understanding of the learning outcomes the client hoped to achieve in a series of workshops on relationship building skills.

I had been able to draw strong lines between the pains they were feeling and the workshop designs.  We had talked in depth about how the programs would improve the outcomes her sales force was achieving.

As we wrapped the last meeting, the client seemed poised to close the engagement, and just asked for some time to review the proposal with the VP of HR.

And that was the end of the road….

Several months later, despite multiple attempts to revive it, the discussion had gone cold.  The client wasn’t responding.  The opportunity was dead.  Stone. Cold. Dead.

What had I missed?

One of the gifts we give our business colleagues (note that I didn’t say “prospect”?  See note below.)  is clarity about what they want, a realistic sense of where they are, and well their current actions are working for them to close that gap.  The transition of this opportunity from live and engaged to cold and dead, made me question if we had been as clear about the opportunity, and whether the benefits were as compelling as I had thought.

Question One:  “What change do you truly want?”

“What will be different?  How will you know?  How will the firm’s position be different?  How will your stature and success be different?”  Probe around every dimension of their future vision that you can think of.  Probe around the emotions:  “How will it feel to be in this future vision?”  (See my earlier blog article around empathy and emotion.)

Question Two:  “How well is your current approach working for you?”

This simple, open question lets them tell you in their own words, what their current state is.  If you have done your homework, you already have a working hypothesis of their business issues.  This hypothesis will serve you later as you probe around their initial answer.  But what you don’t know now is the inside story, the business impact and the emotional impact on them and other key stakeholders.

Question One minus Question Two equals The Gap

That gap between desired future state and their current state and current efforts provides the business case and emotional energy (think compelling event) for what they must do to bring the change to life.  Without that emotional energy, they won’t have the courage and the will to win (or even engage) the internal battle for funding, project priority, etc.

Salesmen, beware!

When we are helping clients articulate their future vision, it is too soon to reveal the future you hope for them, and your recommended path to get there. Once you assert your value proposition and unwrap your solution, you have ended the discovery discussion.

In my situation, I began to question whether I had moved to the close too quickly.  Or perhaps I had failed to accommodate the visions of other individuals who had to agree with the need and the value proposed.

True advisors have the patience and discipline to divorce themselves from their favored outcome and path at this point in the discovery.  They must trust the client to envision the outcome that’s going to work the best for them.  Further, they must trust themselves and their solution enough to believe that, at the right time, they can describe a realistic path that will be simple and compelling.


As advisors, we use questions and dialogue to help our clients develop greater clarity on both current state and future state.   By doing so, we earn their trust.  That trust gives us permission, later, to help them inform, or even challenge, their vision.  Once the vision is clear, then we can help them evaluate a number of possible paths forward, including that offered by our solution.

By framing our prospect as a colleague, more than a potential buyer of our stuff, we are less likely to trigger the emotional resistance we all have, to being sold something.

This is much easier to say, than to do.  Credibility as a colleague means that we really do understand their business – lots (probably years!) of experience and personal homework on their industry.  Hard as it is to come by, that core business acumen is at the foundation of our power as advisors.

I never said this was easy.

Reframing – Deliver Your Feedback with a Twist!

manhattan-with-a-twist_600There is a traditional Taoist story of an old farmer who owned a horse, which he used for transportation and for working his fields. His neighbors thought him quite wealthy because he owned a horse.

One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe”, the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses. He was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

At each turn of the story, the wise old farmer knew that whether the new event was good or bad depended entirely on a future context of what would happen next.

Imagine a situation where client brings you an issue or an opportunity. Through your feedback and questions, you help them pick it up, turn it over, look underneath it, look behind it, and help them develop a complete picture of the opportunity, and to gain a variety of perspectives on how best to approach it.

Great advisors do just that by assisting their clients in evaluating their existing context and envisioning new perspectives that could dramatically change how they might interpret and act on future events.

This act of helping clients conceive such a new context is called “reframing“. It literally means helping the client create a new frame of reference which will enable them to create a new set of possibilities for action. It is the ability to put a commonplace event in a new frame that is more useful, effective, or enjoyable.   Why is this so important?

Reframing can be the pivotal element in the creative process.

When an advisor incorporates reframing into a client discussion, the advisor is helping the client see their own experience and resources from a new perspective. That new language enables a new solution. That is vastly more valuable to them than being handed a solution based solely on the consultant’s experience. Because the new frame is a refinement or extension of the client’s earlier work and insight, they will be much more motivated to embrace it and implement it.

So, then, what do great advisors need to deliver a successful reframe? What might we hear to gauge our level of success?

We need the depth of experience, knowledge and insight to help them explore what different frames might exist and how the available options might be different under those new frames. “This consultant had a broad understanding of my industry, and our challenges. His questions and responses reflected that depth.”

We need self-awareness of our own frames, biases, perspectives, and favored approaches. With that clear, we need to check our biases at the door. We need the patience to engage with our client in a process of curiosity, dialogue and discovery, before we drive straight to our preferred frame.  “I did not feel this consultant was being honest with me. From the moment she walked in here, she was pushing for her solution.”

We need to be able to ask powerful questions that enable our client to see their existing frames and assess how well those frames are working for them. “She asks lots of really provocative, relevant questions.”

We need the active listening skills to reflect back what we see and we hear in a way that helps the client become aware of their own existing frames. “When he feeds back what he heard, I see my questions and ideas in a new light. His feedback always produces more thought.”

Epilogue: In his outstanding book, Clients for Life, Jagdish Sheth sums up the power of framing this way:

“Framing is the essence of synthesis. It organizes and explains complex phenomena by reducing them to a few simple dimensions. A good frame (or framework) highlights the most relevant aspects of the issue or problem shows how they interrelate and then connects to your overarching purpose or goal.”

Wouldn’t you like to give that gift to your clients?

Bullet-Proof Your Self-Confidence by Noticing Your Self Talk

SelfConfidence_600I had just been promoted to my first sales manager position. Among my competitors for the job was a salesperson with an impeccable sales record, and who prior to selling, had been the field support engineer for our manufacturing division. On paper, he was entirely better qualified than I was. To make matters worse, he now reported to me. He was clearly having a problem with the decision, and the tension was palpable. It was getting in the way of our mutual success.

We had very different styles, and to be honest, I found his entirely annoying. (As I was to find out later, so did the manager that promoted me.)   Yet, even as the victor, I would imagine arguments of every sort with him, in which I would create the position I thought he would take, and then mentally argue energetically against it. I would find myself being quite distracted by the back-and-forth of these imaginary arguments, and I could feel my own tension build.

Who was the loser in these imaginary debates?

Clearly, me. I was wasting my intellectual and emotional energy fighting an argument that only existed in my mind.

Here are some ideas that will help you become an astute observer of yourself, and to turn the observations and conclusions you make about yourself into ones that build up your self-confidence, not tear it down.

First step: Learn to have an “out of body experience” with yourself.

As you are out of your own body, notice yourself, your feelings and interactions. Take on the role of a third party consultant. Don’t make judgments. Just observe. Pay attention to what is happening around you, and notice how you react. Notice whether certain external factors are triggers for repeatable feelings or reactions.

Second step: Look for events that trigger a drop in your mood or self-confidence.

In my example, my teammate would often refer to his “extensive experience” and how that drove his proposal for any given situation. I realize now, that when he made those assertions, he would trigger me into having one of those self – generated “arguments” and I would go into my head to engage.

Third step: Ask yourself if you see any beliefs you are holding that would cause the feeling you experience when the trigger event occurs.

Looking back on it, I believe that when my colleague asserted his greater level of experience, it triggered a belief on my part that I really did not fully have the necessary experience and skills to effectively lead my team. That belief in turn put me “into my head” and I would start the debate.

Fourth step: Have an open debate with yourself as to whether or not the belief is accurate.

While my colleague did have a deeper technical background and more years of direct selling experience, his relating skills were weak, and it diminished the quality of his interactions with both his internal team and customers.

I was far stronger in that area.  I later came to understand that my relational skills were what earned me the promotion. If I had been able to have that clarity at the time, I would have been much less likely to get in my head every time he made those assertions. My self-confidence would have been stronger and of course that would have driven higher performance.

Fifth and final step: Once you have established the link between the trigger event and the limiting belief, ask yourself: “What new belief might drive a more productive reaction to that trigger?”

Once you devise a better belief and a more powerful response, you can train yourself to be aware of the trigger, and intentionally choose the better response.  Like any skill, that will take awareness and practice, but it will eventually become automatic.

Epilogue: What I needed at the time was the ability to “just notice” and not go straight to a judgment.

Research has shown that self-judgments are more likely to be negative than positive. By “just noticing” and delaying judgment, we give ourselves a better opportunity to illuminate and debate self-limiting beliefs and to create alternative beliefs that serve us better and enable our success.

Five Months From Disaster to Distinction: Ten Markers of High Performing Teams

Train_wreck_at_Montparnasse_1895It was January of 1997 and I was the new commander of an Air Force deployable communications unit.  We were about five months away from a major evaluation of our operational capability.  I was still getting to know my team, our capabilities and our issues.

We were clearly not ready.  Had the evaluation occurred at that time, we would surely have failed. The implications of a failure were huge.  These evaluations were serious business, and our existence as a unit would have been seriously threatened if we failed.

Over the next several months we went from being woefully unprepared, to being conscious of our issues, to being very committed to a positive outcome, and to resolving our major deficits.  At the end of the evaluation, we had demonstrated that we were fully mission capable, and just shy of an exemplary rating.   We had passed by a substantial margin.

Thinking back to those 5 months, I watched things happen within our team that took us from being sure losers to very capable winners.

In this month’s post, we’ll I’ll review what research tells us about ten markers of highly effective teamsten things you can assess and improve as you work with your own teams.

I’ll use our near-catastrophe experience to list the ten markers and describe how they factored into our ultimate success.

1. The team understands and commits to its purpose

 Understanding our mission was easy.  These evaluations were crystal clear around the mission and performance standards.

Building the commitment to attack and overcome our myriad organizational issues was much more difficult and it didn’t happen over night.  Over a span of several months, focus, reinforcement, and some early successes helped us develop this and then take advantage of it.

2. Team members respect and trust each other

Most of my fondest memories come from this one.  As our confidence grew, people saw each other stepping up to challenges, and they took pride in each others’ stretch achievements.  90 pound females were throwing 200 pound males on their back and hauling them to medical care in emergency drills.  The more we stretched, the more confident all of us got.

3. No individual is more important than the team

As we gained confidence, there was less need for traditional military rank structure to drive decisions.  The command team had largely “checked their rank at the door”.  Communications within the team were direct and unfiltered. When external communication was necessary, we considered who we were communicating with, and we put the best person forward to handle that.

4. Leadership of the team shifts from time to time, as appropriate to drive results

Because we were making decisions at speed, we began asking the question, “Who on our team is closest to this issue?”  Their input became the first one we sought, and often the only one.  Some decisions did require more consideration and debate, but in most cases, the person most suited made the call and the rest of us moved on it.

5. Communications are frank and open, within as as well outside the team

One of our problems starting out was that there had some serious silos in place.  People were addressing their own organization’s goals first.  We broke down most of the misalignments between our sections’ goals and our unit goals.  People stopped protecting their turf and began figuring out ways to work together and get the job done.

6. The team focuses on and holds itself accountable to the targeted business results

Our leaders helped every one see the implications of failure and the reward of success down to the individual airman.  The downside was pretty scary and that provided plenty of motivation.

On balance, though, I think more people responded to their personal pride and their innate desire to succeed.  Once we began to move in a positive direction, that motivation fed on itself and the drive to ace this evaluation went through the roof.

 7. Everyone knows what is expected of them, and they carry their weight

The leadership function of a combat unit is executed by a small and dynamic team.  Roles must be clear, as there is no time for duplicated effort or unclear roles.  We defined our individual roles and expectation and practiced them at speed.

An interesting thing happened.  The one person best positioned organizationally to be our single point of communication with our remote elements had a devastating stutter.  We considered filling his role with another team member, but no one had the integrated view of our dispersed teams that he had.   He was the person we needed in that role and we all agreed he should play it.  He stepped up to the task, knowing that we as a team had affirmed that this role was his.  Much to our delight, under the pressure of the combat simulation, he completely lost the stutter and played the role flawlessly.  That was critical to our success!

 8. Disagreement is seen as positive, energizing

During our final field rehearsal, we had several days of continuous severe thunderstorms moving through our location.  We were constantly pulling our people out of the field for safety reasons, and moving them back to our quarters.  As disruptive as that was, it had the unintended consequence that we were able to use the down time to go over the last field situation, debug it, and rehearse it.  We had the urgency of our situation motivating us, but we also were feeling the team coming together.  We enjoyed the back and forth, even when it was contentious.  It gave us the chance to think and practice.  The team was gelling.

Our time sequestered waiting for the current storm cell to pass was the perfect stage for rehearsal.  We were getting fast and smooth.

9. Teams make decisions quickly and appropriately

The pressure of the combat situation would not permit us to over-analyze.  We got better at making the best possible decision quickly and then executing.  If it was wrong, we made a quick course correction.  Yet, most of our gut decisions were right, and we steadily gained confidence in our ability to make them.

 10.  Once a decision is made, the team falls in line behind it, and commits

 In the early going, we realized that after every meeting, there was a second (or, third, or fourth… ) meeting to discuss and reinterpret the decision.  We were wasting huge amounts of effort and creating serious confusion.  Because there was a lack of trust in some senior leaders, we couldn’t hold a course of action. After two or three of us noticed it and validated that this was consistent behavior by one leader, we made the difficult decision to pull him off the team.  Things settled down.


This experience was a great case study of the key elements of high performing teams.  More importantly to me personally, it was at the heart of the most satisfying professional year of my life.


Business Development: How much is enough?

SellingWhen I speak with consulting colleagues who are solo’s or small companies, one of the topics that comes up a lot is,  “how do we balance our workload between generating new business and delivering the business that we have already sold?”

When we’re in delivery mode, we often become totally consumed, and we just don’t get around to doing the routine business development activities such as keeping in touch with former clients and approaching new ones. We wind up paying the piper for that when our current work is finished and we’re on the bench until we can generate more. With sales cycles getting longer, that means lost opportunities, and big swings in our revenue production.

But how much business development is enough?

To answer that, let’s begin by considering a simple case study:

Let’s say that we offer a one-day business planning workshop and we charge $5,000 for customization and delivery. We would like to sell an additional 12 workshops each year (one a month) for a revenue increase of $60,000. How much additional selling activity should we plan for, to meet this goal?

First we need to look at our buying and selling process:

Situation: The buyer has realized they have a problem with business planning and they would like to provide some training to help their people improve.

Activity: They begin to look out through all the marketing and information sources that are available to them. They find us! They do some preliminary evaluation, most likely from our web site. That goes well, and we look like a good fit.

Positive Decision: They decide to hold an initial exploratory meeting

Activity: At the first meeting, we mutually share information about the need and our capabilities. They’re considering capability, value for money, and our ability to implement. We’re considering our solution fit, whether they have access to enough budget to pay us, and whether there is adequate urgency to the business need that we think they will make a timely decision.

Positive Decision: We mutually agree to a complete evaluation of the need and our solution. (Sales people would say we have qualified the opportunity.)

Activity: Over a number of meetings, the buyer makes a detailed assessment of our capability, pricing, and ability to implement. As the seller, we are continuing to test whether our earlier decision to quality the opportunity remains valid, i.e. solution fit, availability of budget, and likelihood of a timely decision. We know from experience this activity requires about a month.

Positive decisions: 1) The prospect chooses us. 2) We continue to believe that this is good business. 3) We execute a contract.

Disclaimer: Very few buying and selling processes are this simple or this linear. But this simple model is still useful to answer the question, “How much activity is enough”. Bear with me…

That’s nice, but how much incremental business development activity do we need?

Answer: We need to design our marketing campaign to result in six initial meetings every month.

How’d we get that?

Let’s say that we know from experience that we win about half of the opportunities that go through a detailed evaluation. That’s a probability of 1 in 2.

Let’s also say that we know that about one out of every three initial meetings results in a detailed evaluation. That’s a probability of 1 in 3.

We got the estimate of six meetings by multiplying the two probabilities from the two steps and then inverting. 1/3 time 1/2 equals 1/6. That gives us the probability of a single initial meeting turning into a contract being 1 in 6. To get one contract, we need to hold six initial meetings.

Because real world situations are messier than this example, you should probably “round up” your estimate of the initial meetings you need. Keep track of your experience and refine your goals accordingly.

And here’s the hard part!

Plans are great but we have to execute. We need to hold ourselves accountable to creating those six meetings, and monitor how well we are progressing them through decisions to evaluate, and decisions to engage.

Month after month…

Want to know more?

The smartest guy on the planet on this topic is Martyn Lewis, president of Market-Partners. If you’re interested in a deeper dive, check out his informative white paper, written from his 20 years of experience consulting on this topic: Managing the Business of Sales

Register below for our free webinar to ask your questions in a live meeting of your colleaues and share your knowledge and experience with them.

Net-net: Never, never, never stop selling. Benches have splinters…

Manage Conflict! (or it will manage you)

Met-the-enemyConflict is a fact of life for most people. In a 2008 study, CPP found that 85% of workers in the US experience conflict to some degree and 29% report that they experience it “always” or “frequently”. (CPP 2008)

Constructive conflict is well accepted as a key indicator of high performing teams. In a comparative study of five globally accepted team effectiveness models, Korn Ferry, a leading authority on leadership and talent, found that four of the five frameworks featured conflict management as a key issue for effective teamwork. (Michael Lombardo 2001)

CPP found that when employees are trained how to manage conflict, over 95% of those people say that it helped them in some way. A quarter (27%) say it made them more comfortable and confident in managing disputes and 58% of those who had received training said they now look for win–win outcomes from conflict.

41% of employees think older people handle conflict most effectively. Seven out of ten employees (70%) see managing conflict as a “very” or “critically” important leadership skill, while 54% of employees think managers could handle disputes better by addressing underlying tensions before things go wrong.

But, when it goes bad, it goes bad in a hurry.

In the same research, 27% of employees reported that unmanaged conflict led to personal attacks, and 25% of them saw it result in sickness or absence.  Almost ten percent saw it lead to a project failure.


What can consulting leaders do to model and teach this critical skill within their teams?

Here are five steps you can take now to help your teams benefit from constructive conflict and avoid the negative results of poorly managed conflict

1.  First, assess where you and your teams stand. Consider these questions and discuss them with your teams:

  • How passionate and unguarded are team members able to be in discussing issues?
  • On a scale from “exciting” to “boring”, how do team members experience their meetings?
  • Do team members prioritize the toughest issues for attention, or avoid them?
  • How comfortable are team members in challenging one another about conclusions, plans, and approaches?

2.  Communicate! Make it clear in what you say and how you act, that conflict is normal and necessary, but unmanaged conflict is costly in many ways.

3.  Teach your team to communicate. Establish rules of engagement that help teams manage conflicts in a productive way. Focus on asking great questions, and getting everyone involved in formulating the answers. Encourage the shy ones to speak up and tell the aggressive ones to pipe down. Help your team develop emotional intelligence and relationship skills. Pay particular attention to empathy and assertiveness.

4.  Focus on issues and not people. When conflicts turn personal, turn them around to return to the issues that count. Teach your teams the analysis skills that enable the root cause analysis skills to identify the most important issues.

5.  Ferret out the “elephants in the room”. Chris Argyris calls an elephant an “undiscussable”.  Undiscussable topics become that way in order to “avoid surprise, embarrassment, or threat.”  In other words, a taboo. When elephants are running free in the room, the credibility of the organization and that of any leaders within sight are at significant risk.

Help your people stop avoiding conflict and become world-class at it.  In doing so, you and your clients will get their best, and they will develop a skill that will differentiate them (and you) for the rest of their careers.

End Notes:

Argyris, C. (1988). Managing with People in Mind, Harvard Business Review Press.

CPP, I. (2008). CPP Global Human Capital Report: Workplace Conflict And How Businesses Can Harness It To Thrive.

Michael Lombardo, R. E., Cara Capretta, Victoria Swisher (2001). FYI for Teams. Minneapolis, MN, Lominger International.


Take a Walk on the Dark Side

dark-side_500It was 1998. The prospect was a three-letter giant (TLG) in the telecom segment. The opportunity was a very large desktop upgrade project, where the prospect was proposing to replace their existing desktop services infrastructure. The value of the project was multiple millions of dollars in servers, PC’s, software and professional services.

Hewlett-Packard was the incumbent provider of servers for TLG. Unfortunately, their relationship with TLG’s desktop infrastructure team had been slipping for years. The current VP of desktop operations had been developing an increasingly close relationship with Compaq. The HP team saw this opportunity as a chance to turn the tables on Compaq and win a major piece of business.

The HP global account manager called a Hail-Mary play, and lobbied hard with the HP consulting organization to fund an extensive pilot of the proposed server implementation. He hoped to win back favor with the prospect and level the field on the relationship front.

Six months and several hundred thousand dollars of HP-funded consulting later, the prospect had awarded the total hardware, software, and implementation project to Compaq. Compaq, of course, was quite happy to accept the zero-cost validation of their architecture, funded by HP.

The HP team were scratching their heads:

“Where had our strategy gone wrong?”

“How could we have avoided investing all that time and effort into this flawed plan?

The answers were painful, but simple.

1) We assumed that a technology investment would result in a relationship improvement.

2) We hadn’t properly understood the risks in our approach.

As consultants trying to advance a decision, we often let our objectivity slip when we are enchanted by the upside, the best case, the wonderful outcome, without doing proper due diligence about what could go wrong.

When we are considering a major decision, it often helps to let our imaginations run wild, in a negative way. Said another way, we need to let the teams brainstorm every possible way this initiative could fail, prioritize the risks, and then put plans in place to neutralize or mitigate the biggest of them.

Every team has some mix of optimists, pessimists, and realists.   Often times, the optimists have the most assertive personalities, and tend to dominate the decision meetings. The realists and pessimists in the group are reluctant to voice their concerns for fear of seeming negative, and allow themselves to be shouted down by the optimists.

Teams can benefit from a process, which enables the more conservative teammates to safely share their doubts and concerns, and encourages the overall team to deal with those concerns in a comprehensive way. Enter, the Black Hat Decision Review process.

The black hat decision review process is an important way to make sure that all facts, opinions, insights, and projected impacts are thoroughly considered and vetted.

Giving the pessimists and realists a forum to share their views in an overt and safe way helps teams avoid costly mistakes for the small price of some additional time and process in their deliberation of the decision. (See the previous article, “How to run a black hat decision review”)

Beyond the obvious advantage of making a well-considered decision, using this approach signals to the entire team that everyone’s opinion is valuable and will be taken into account.

Beyond the advantage of clear thinking, this technique improves the level of trust and commitment that each member holds toward the team as a whole, and their individual teammates.

Bottom line: The more investment, effort, and potential return there is in a particular decision, the more important it is to invest fully in the understanding and mitigation of risk.

When you are considering your next major decision, take the time, involve your entire team, and get all the perspectives on the table.

Take a walk on the dark side. Try out the black hat review, and see if it doesn’t yield clearer decisions, better-managed risk, and enhanced buy-in from your team. (And oh, by the way, improved probability of winning more often!)