Generating Courage: A Key Component of Business Development

In 2010, I moved to Turkey, a country where I didn’t speak the language, understand the culture, know anyone, or have the first clue how business was conducted. Nevertheless, I started a business coaching Turkish lawyers.

I realize this sounds insane. You may be wondering why anyone would do such a thing. In my case, my father had passed away, and creating a major life change was my way of dealing with the loss. So, off I moved to Istanbul. I found an apartment on Craigslist, enrolled in a Turkish language class and started networking. When I began reaching out to international law firms, to my amazement, I got clients much faster than I had when doing the same business in Washington, DC. Quickly, it became apparent that my rapid success was largely because everyone I met was so impressed with what they perceived as my bravery. It intrigued them, and as a result, they were more open to meeting with me and working together. This experience highlights what I call the unspoken rule of business development: the greater your courage, the better your results.

Courage and Business Development

While moving abroad is rather extreme, this rule is equally applicable to more conventional career paths. Building a book of business in a law firm also requires a lot of bravery. When you think about it, what are humans afraid of, aside from physical danger? We are most frightened of being judged and rejected. The actions people find most scary (and thus requiring us to generate courage) are the most public or the most intimate. When you write or speak to a large group, being judged is not only a possibility,  but an absolute certainty. These assessments may be positive or negative, but no doubt about it, the audience will be evaluating your qualifications, ideas and presentation style, among other factors.

Of course, that looks pretty darn scary to people, at least at first. At the other end of the spectrum, letting friends, colleagues or clients know that you are looking for work can feel like confessing a weakness or sin, even though many of the most successful rainmakers do this all the time. The ability to generate business is directly proportional to one’s capacity to take actions that feel risky to most people.

You may be thinking that this article doesn’t apply to you, because you don’t mind public speaking or asking clients for new business. However, remember that different situations are uncomfortable for different people, and no simple dichotomy defines those who are brave and those who are fearful.

Consider these examples: Richard may have to dig deep to generate the courage to negotiate with a client over money; but he may be perfectly comfortable appearing on television as an expert discussing legal current events. Darlene has to “psych herself up” to speak at conferences, but is more than happy to make risky strategic decisions about the direction of her firm. Chris’ hands shake when he picks up the phone to follow up on a lead, but he is delighted for the chance to move to a firm based in Hong Kong. Most of us would like to think of ourselves as having the courage to face challenges head-on. In some cases, the desire to see ourselves in a positive light prevents us from recognizing when nervousness or discomfort (a.k.a. fear) subverts our business development efforts. It is a lot easier for a lawyer to say, “I’m just too busy” or “That will never work,” rather than acknowledge that following up after a business lunch feels uncomfortable, and so he or she is avoiding it.

The Power of Interpretation

When does lack of skill in an area turn into a fear? Almost all of us have some natural gifts that serve us well in the area of business development, such as the ability to remember details about people’s lives and families, impeccable manners, an engaging writing style, or an ability to connect with strangers. Yet, we have less innate talent in other areas. Of course, needing practice is not the same as having a fear. Some lawyers dive in, try the new skill, learn from their mistakes and move on. Although nervousness or discomfort may arise from time to time, these people put it aside and fully engage with developing the new competence. Others get caught up in interpretations or beliefs that stop them from moving forward. Here are some fears that lawyers commonly associate with business development.

  • If my article isn’t good, my friends and colleagues will think I’m not smart and won’t respect me anymore.
  • If I ask my client to send me more work, he will think I am pushy. That will strain our relationship, and then he might fire me.
  • I might make errors in the presentation, and then everyone will find out that I’m not as much of an expert as I claim to be.
  • If I reach out to former colleagues to ask for referrals they will think I am desperate.

All of these interpretations carry with them the threat of some form of social rejection. As much as we may want to think of ourselves as independent or not caring what other people think, humans evolved to be social creatures. Without forming tribes and other social groups, we would never have survived against all the bigger, stronger, sharper-toothed animals. Wanting to fit into a social order, and needing the love and respect of others is a fundamental characteristic of being human.

Strategies for Generating Courage

If our social fears are just an inherent part of our heritage as human beings, how do we best address these concerns? How do we tap into courage in those moments when our minds get hijacked by unhelpful interpretations?

The first approach is to remember that courage is a choice. At each moment that we experience fear, we can choose whether to move forward with the brave action, or succumb to the emotion and retreat. A secondary aspect of choice relates to our overall approach to the concept of fear. People generally interpret fear in one of two ways. Some see it as a sign that something is wrong and that they are making a mistake. In response, they decide to stop moving forward. Others see fear as a sign that they are on the right track. They equate fear with growth, improvement and power; they see it as a sign that they are on a trajectory to become braver, stronger, and more capable. Needless to say, the second interpretation generally leads to greater happiness, success and satisfaction, in the long run.

We all have a default orientation to see the world one of these two ways. Nevertheless, even those who tend towards the former, less empowered interpretation are able to change their perspective. Through coaching, meditation and supportive communities, among other options, people gain more awareness and understanding of their thought processes, and can practice new habits and cultivate greater courage.

The second approach to increasing one’s bravery is to get grounded in reality. When working with visually oriented clients, I sometimes ask them to imagine what the fear would look like in the physical world. For most people, it shows up as something large and amorphous, like a tornado or a dark fog. The interpretation that goes with the fear is often, “My life will fall apart,” “I will die of embarrassment,” or something equally extreme. Of course, we know intellectually that even if we do make mistakes, our entire lives will not come crashing down around us. Yet, until we distinguish reality from the emotional turmoil, the latter typically wins out.

Therefore, it’s important to identify realistic scenarios. What is likely to be the worst outcome? You call a prospect and he doesn’t call you back? Someone asks a question during your presentation, but you don’t know the answer? You write an article and someone posts a mean comment about it? These things happen, even to renowned experts and accomplished rainmakers. By narrowing the scope of the fear to specific scenarios, we can prepare for the obstacles and inoculate ourselves from becoming too derailed by the experience, even if it does occur.

Connecting with other people about our concerns is another effective way to get grounded in reality. Feeling like we are the only ones with a particular challenge, or worrying that a mistake will lead to isolation and disrespect, is a very heavy burden and makes business development, and pretty much everything else in life, about ten times more difficult than it needs to be. When clients identify their social fears, I encourage them to share those worries with other people. Simply having a frank conversation with a colleague about one’s nervousness creates a great opportunity to connect, strengthen social bonds, and helps the individual realize that he or she is not alone.

One client, after distinguishing the root of her fear, reached out to her best friend and said, “I’m worried that if I don’t succeed in this new niche I’m pursing, you and my other friends will think I’m foolish and not really respect me anymore.” Her friend responded, “If this doesn’t work out for you, I’ll still think you are great. I will just think that the market is stupid for not appreciating you.” More often than not, the people we care most about are more than happy to offer the love and the reassurance that strengthens us and helps us step forward into courageous action.

If you are content with the results you are getting from you marketing and business development efforts, then there is no need to change. However, if you desire something that so far you have been unable to achieve­—whether it be partnership, opening your own firm, greater recognition, or more clients—you will most likely need to step outside of your current habits and behaviors to produce that desired outcome. While fear is likely to arise, it doesn’t have to stop you. Courageous action leads to extraordinary, unprecedented results.

About the Author

Anna Rappaport is a former lawyer, and the founder and principal of Excelleration Coaching, LLC, an executive coaching firm for lawyers based in Washington, DC. She is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board. Follow Anna on Twitter @CoachAnnaDC.

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