• Whitney

The secret to a strong business development team


Even before I started working in business development, I knew it was going to be hard. I attended a women in international development events my graduate school hosted and spoke to a woman who worked adjacent to business development. She told me outright that I should expect to spend about two years on a business development team - at that point I'd be burnt out on business development and make a move into program management work.

I wonder what that woman would think knowing that more than ten years later I'd still be working in business development.

It's a pretty typical refrain. Business development professionals in this sector are overwhelmingly women. They are expected to travel, to work late, to work weekends, to work constantly. It's hard work, requiring both strategic thinking and the ability to attend to the finest detail. Most of the time it includes managing people who are more senior than you, who don't work in your department, and have lots of competing priorities. I don't blame that woman for thinking that the most anyone could last would be two years.

Yet here I am.

The secret? Boundaries. Working in business development, more so than other fields, requires a constant and diligent fight back against the work - fighting to claim back every inch of your life outside of business development for yourself. Without clawing back those boundaries - knowing when to work the weekend and when to take the afternoon off - I honestly would have burned out long ago. It's not impossible for every business development team to stay sane.

Yet instead, we repeat a refrain that two years in business development is about all anyone can take. And it holds true. Most business development teams, especially at the big firms, see two years as a right of passage. If you put in your time and work like a maniac, sure, you'll be burnt out, but you'll also be very likely to be promoted. So young people spend two years learning the ins and outs of business development - a niche and incredibly valuable skillset - and then they burn out and jump ship to learn how to manage projects. This leaves the business development team in a constant state of turn over, cycling though young professionals and leaving a bad taste in their mouths.

The secret to building a strong business development team isn't complicated. You have to be willing to break this cycle. Business development teams need to establish their own boundaries - and they have to be modeled from the top down.

I recall very clearly when I moved from a supervisor who spent the weekends with her family to a supervisor who spent the weekends bombarding me with emails - even when no proposal was live. I lasted about a month of responding to every email before I turned on her. It was never going to last, it was just unsustainable.

Senior business development leadership need to set the expectations clearly. Model the behavior you expect to see from your staff. If that behavior is exhausting you, it's exhausting them to. This is not easy. Too often, senior business development staff are under tremendous pressure to deliver results. Yet I'd rather see them investing the time in strong strategic planning and bid prioritization, rather than over-committing their teams and trying to provide every service to every department.

Model boundaries. Reinforce boundaries.

Your staff will see it, they'll be happier for it, and you won't have to train someone new every two years. Everyone wins.

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