[IMGCAP(1)]My wife’s grandfather was a wonderful man. In addition to being a surgeon of great renown, he was full of homespun humor and advice.

He repeated one such piece of advice each time we drove him by our ever-expanding alma mater: “Whenever they call asking for money, I’d suggest giving some. The more you invest in your alma mater, the more valuable your degree will become.”

It’s stuck with me not only because he’s right, but also because you can apply that line of thought to issues like succession and exit strategies for your firm. When I engage in planning workshops, the subject of succession and exit strategies is front and center in the long-term vision of the firm: forcing current partners to look at potential future partners and consider their ability to grow the firm and fund an exit.

Often, the current partners aren’t inspired. They aren’t able to predict if the talent tasked with bringing in future business can be relied upon to expand the coffers and keep them full. At the same time, when pressed, the firm partners can’t look around the table and pinpoint what made them more entrepreneurial and better able to find new business, or got them to where they are today. The talk quickly turns to acquisitions, fold-ins and a search for new ideas.

I won’t suggest those aren’t effective strategies. The problem of finding and developing talent is an age-old one, and it’s silly to think that articles, seminars, workshops and assessments can turn a super competent junior associate into a firm’s number one rainmaker. That said, these transformations occur and I’m convinced that everyone has an innate ability to assist others in making good decisions, can be naturally persuasive under the right circumstances, and can develop new business as a consequence.

Consider focusing on surfacing these hidden talents in addition to the other growth strategies you employ.

I have three practices you can implement today to surface the hidden talent in your firm. 

1. Clearly describe an ideal future for a partner, but do it in the right way.

Why would an associate want to be an owner? Chances are, your junior members have heard rumors of the joy of partnership and can make assumptions, but rarely does anyone sit down and formally explain anything. If they do get an explanation, it has two features. One, it’s only with associates who are deemed to have that “certain something” putting them on track to partnership. Second, the description is heavy on logic because that’s a comfortable place to communicate from.

Here’s the thing: If you’re going to uncover hidden talent, the operative word is hidden. You don’t know where it’s hiding. If the vivid description of future partnership is going to motivate your associates, you need to describe it to everyone. Plant the dream in their brains and let it work on them. All of them.

As for how to describe it, logic alone won’t release hidden talent. You need emotion. You need to describe the ideal future in ways that inspire. It’s emotion that moves mountains and shakes the trees.

Not sure what I mean? Look at a partner you’ve known since the beginning and think of their growth. The challenges they’ve overcome by immersing themselves in complex client issues. The leadership they’ve developed in the community. How they’ve become a deeply trusted advisor. Their ability to contribute financially to important causes. The pride they have from taking loved ones around the world. Those are the images of a strong, clear vision of the future your associates need to hear about.

Your job is to describe what it looks like, feels like, sounds like, and even smells like. The clearer that vision, the more likely it is to bring talent to the surface.

Start by describing the benefits of being an owner that aren’t purely financial and describe them to every associate on your team. 

2. When it comes to selling activity, encourage your junior partners and associates to use their particular character strengths.

In my work with talented rainmakers, I am delighted when I find them to be casually clueless about how they got to where they are. Sure, they can describe a hodgepodge of tactics and techniques and maybe even describe a process that they adhere to, but these descriptions don’t hold up to scrutiny. Your associates hear such descriptions and mentally run them against the highlight reel of what they’ve seen and heard to find that they don’t match. Here’s why that happens.

If you’re going to uncover hidden talent on your team, you have to be open to this universal truth: your associates are human and they won’t do things they don’t want to do. Especially if they have to do things in a way that doesn’t let them apply their strengths, their self-identified strengths. If someone is inspired to do the work to get the rewards of partnership, you need to encourage them to get there in a way that uses their strengths because doing so has been proven to increase job satisfaction and overall well-being. For instance, if an associate self-identifies a strength as “industry, diligence and perseverance,” then encourage them to apply that strength to consistent business development activities and to continuous self-education on business development tactics. If they self-identify as strong in “leadership,” encourage them to seek business development opportunities by looking for places where they can apply that strength shoulder-to-shoulder with future buyers and influencers.

The main point is this: Business development activities come naturally to a few of your associates and are viewed as abhorrent to many of your associates. Humans are natural persuaders; just think of clever five year olds manipulating their parents at bedtime, but when there are quotas and dollar bills on the line, we freeze. By focusing on how to apply self-identified strengths to business development, you’re giving your associates options. You’re exposing them to the truth that for as much as we study sales and marketing, we’re all a little casually clueless as to what works and why. They’ll find their own way and be successful if they stick to applying their strengths.

3. Watch for opportunities to build business development momentum.

This last point is the glue that ties the Ideal Future and Character Strengths together. Let me explain. Your firm’s future clients will come from your people getting into a large number of conversations about a client’s desired outcomes. And those conversations won’t come from a marketing campaign, a sporting event, a published paper, or by simply sitting next to the right person at a charity dinner. Those tactics help, but ultimately your future partners need to be having the right talks with the right people. The more outcome-related discussions they have, the more successful your firm will be when it’s time for you to exit.

These kinds of business discussions are often outside an associate’s comfort zone. It’s been proven that new tasks outside of our comfort zones are not only mentally draining, but physically exhausting too. It takes much less effort to be on autopilot and repeat familiar activities over and over again, which is why we drift into autopilot behavior. At the same time, humans are incredibly fast learners. Once we have attempted a new task, our next tries are a little bit easier and easier, and so on. That progression gains momentum until we can put that previously exhausting new activity on autopilot.

The question is: How do we build business development momentum? You can start today by asking questions they’ll need to have answers to when they’re partners. Start simply: “Do you find it easy to describe the client’s business?” or “If the client asked you for a recommendation about [big problem], what would you say?” As you listen to the answers, ask two particular follow-up questions with this structure: “how” and “what” followed by action verbs. Like “How would you get better at doing that?” or “What has to happen for you to be prepared when they ask for that advice?”

Those questions, applied consistently over time, will have a particular effect on your associates. They will force their brains to come up with answers, which at first will be taxing, but the more it happens, the more momentum builds, and the more likely they are to have outcome-oriented conversations with clients.

And the more likely you are to uncover hidden talent in your firm.

Your future firm, the one that pays you a premium upon exit, will have a predictable revenue stream that is not solely dependent on senior partners bringing in new business. The way to get there is to unearth hidden business development talent in your associates, developing them into future stars. That uncovering process starts with an emotionally charged vision of the future, encouragement to apply self-identified strengths to business development activities, and steadily building momentum through open, action-oriented questions.

As my wife’s grandfather said about investing in your alma mater, investing in your most junior associates will pay dividends down the road. Start preparing for your firm’s future, today.

Greg Chambers is the founder of the sales-and-marketing consultancy, Chambers Pivot Industries LLC. Greg helps entrepreneurial companies create sales-and-marketing practices they can get excited about and are a perfect fit for their cultures.

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