Many lawyers struggle to learn business development skills, in no small part because they don’t embrace the need to get better at it. Oh, sure, they say all the right things, but when it comes down to setting aside time (and sometimes money) and committing to learning, applying, getting feedback, and practicing, they have lots of reasons why it can’t happen. It brings to mind the quote by entrepreneur Jim Rohn: “If you really want to do something, you'll find a way. If you don't, you'll find an excuse.”
I borrowed today’s title from an article in the March 2016 issue of Harvard Business Review, which points out that today’s pace of change forces us to understand and quickly respond to big shifts in the way companies operate. The author talks about “resisting the bias against doing new things, scanning the horizon for growth opportunities, and pushing yourself to acquire radically different capabilities—while still performing your job. That requires a willingness to experiment and become a novice again and again: an extremely discomforting notion for most of us.”
“The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” Arie de Geus, business theorist
We know from the seminal work of Dr. Larry Richard that lawyers’ low resilience score makes this discomfiture particularly acute for them.
The HBR authors identified four attributes required to surmount this:
We must truly want to understand and master new skills; see ourselves very clearly; constantly think of and ask good questions; and tolerate our own mistakes as we progress along the learning curve.
Here are some mental tools you can develop to boost all four attributes.
It’s easy to see this as a fixed, binary thing: You want to learn a new skill or you don’t; you have ambition and motivation or you lack them. But great learners can raise their aspiration level from resistance, where we focus on the negative and unconsciously reinforce our lack of aspiration, to embrace by focusing on the positive—what we’ll gain from learning—and reaping the rewards of progress. Shifting your focus from challenges to benefits is a good way to increase your aspiration to do things that are beneficial, but that you don’t really want to do.
When I discuss goals with the lawyers I coach, I ask “Why do you want that? Why is that important? What will it do for you?” Visualizing the practical result of reaching a goal makes it real, and increases their willingness to do what’s necessary to get there.
When it comes to the need for learning, assessing what we know and don’t know, what skills we have and don’t have, we come up short. In one study, 94% of college professors reported that they were doing “above average work.” Statistically, almost half must be wrong. Only 6% saw themselves as having a lot to learn. When you don’t perceive a deficiency, you have little appetite for improvement. This is known as Unconscious Incompetence.
Curiosity makes us try something until we can do it. Instead of focusing on and reinforcing initial disinterest in a new subject, ask yourself “curious questions” about it and follow those questions up with actions. You can increase your willingness to tackle necessary tasks by thinking about how you could do the work differently. In other words, shift from “I don’t like BD,” to “How might I do it differently to make it more interesting?”
Take just one step to answer the question: Read an article, query an expert, find a teacher, join a group—whatever feels easiest. Ask “Why are others excited about BD?” Seek out the answers. Find just one thing about BD that sparks your curiosity.
Lawyers are reluctant to do things they’re not good at. (There’s that resilience issue again.) The idea of being bad at something for weeks or months; feeling awkward and slow; having to ask “I-don’t-understand…” questions; and needing step-by-step help and coaching over and over is scary. However, to progress, you’ll have to accept that beginner state. The ideal mindset for a beginner is both vulnerable and balanced: I’m going to be bad at this to start with, because I’ve never done it before. However, I know I can learn to do it over time. Acknowledging your novice status will make you feel less foolish and more relaxed.
The ability to acquire BD skills and knowledge quickly and continually is crucial to success in the modern law business. Try some of these self-talk techniques to help you overcome inertia and get started.