The role of business development is continuously one of trying to manage people who don’t report to you. Whether you are a proposal coordinator trying to get someone to meet a proposal deadline or a senior leader trying to get a technical team to allocate program staff to a design meeting, business development means getting people who don’t work for you to do what you need them to do.
Perhaps the most valuable (and transferable) skill that business development professionals need to learn is how to manage up and across.
When I first read the Harvard Business Review Guide to Managing Up and Across a decade ago, one particular line stuck out to me:
“When you are operating outside clear reporting lines, your colleagues may not immediately see why they should collaborate with you. That’s when your powers of persuasion come into play. It’s not manipulation. Effective persuasion is a learning and negotiating process for leading your colleagues to a shared solution to a problem.”
As someone who was, at the time, trying to get people 15 to 20 years my seniors to meet proposal deadlines and reaching funding targets, it hit me so hard. Not only the idea that persuading people was a positive thing, but the concept that I could harness that ability without suddenly aging two decades was revolutionary.
I believe that anyone can become a persuasive leader, regardless of where they are in their career.
There are a few stages to making that type of persuasion actionable though. First, you need some level of credibility. For proposal coordinators, I always suggest that their route to credibility is to be a walking dictionary about the donor guidance or solicitation. Establishing that you know what you’re talking about is incredibly valuable - you’ll be seen as someone who works hard to master something and someone who can be trusted by your colleagues.
Next, the challenge of framing shared goals can be overwhelming. Yet, in this business development professionals are uniquely blessed. We’re working toward a common goal, regardless of what colleague you are working with! Building on our organization’s success and expanding our impact are causes that everyone can get behind. Sometimes, though, you have to understand where people are coming from to frame it in the right way.
For example, one of your colleagues may have so much going on, they just don’t feel the urgency to work on what you’ve asked. I always try to ask what’s going on when someone is failing to meet my expectations. Reminding them of the common mission is a good way to focus not on what they’ve failed to do, but on how we collectively will achieve our goal.
Finally, I think that the greatest success comes from connecting emotionally with your colleagues. Too often I think we tell young professionals that they need to act like professionals - but not exactly what that means. Instead of motivating them to meet deadlines and deliver quality work, often it pushes them to hide their personalities behind formality. In some work cultures that may be appropriate, but I have found that you’ll be much more successful at managing across if you can connect with your colleagues.
This means dedicating time to get to know them, yes, but it also means being vulnerable and sharing a bit of yourself.
I knew that I had finally made strides at managing across when a senior manager I respected a lot gave me kudos in a company meeting for both my hard work on a recent proposal, but also my positive attitude and good humor in the face of a tight deadline. It took work to set my anxieties aside and show off who I really was, but I was proud to know that my colleagues were getting to know both my passion and my personality.
Managing up and across is a lifelong project.
With each new colleague or partner or employee you’ll have new lessons to learn about what resonates with that individual and how you can work together to accomplish goals. Know that whatever work you are doing to improve that skill is going to be invaluable - no matter where your career takes you.