Law firms are using a number of different ways of improving the business development skills in their practice groups, particularly during this downturn. But are some training formats better than others?
Sherwood PSF Consulting ran Breakfast Workshops with speakers from Linklaters and BLP to explore potential developments to help training become more effective. We recognised the following ways of getting more bangs for your buck from training investments in BD skills:
- Better links between the classroom and the real world
- More effective on-the-job BD coaching
- Better use of technology to support learning
- Training BD staff to be trainers
- Better links between BD and other business support functions
- Creating a BD training faculty
- Involving partners in BD training programmes
We describe these approaches in more detail below.
Better links between the classroom and the real world
One of the biggest criticisms of management training is that it is often too far removed from the real world. The role-plays perhaps aren’t realistic. Or the models or frameworks aren’t presented in a way that shows they can work in a professional context (ie there are insufficient links made to what the professionals do in their jobs). It is important to ensure that sufficient time is built into programmes to ensure the professionals can reflect and ask questions about relevance, but we believe some of these criticisms are well founded.
To overcome these challenges, Sherwood has developed some protocols for significantly enhancing the linkages that are needed to the real world, as follows:
- During the programme, participants work, wherever possible, on real life issues (eg real client relationships) rather than hypothetical ones that the trainer invents.
- Before attending, participants meet their supervising partner to have a structured conversation about the specific role the individual will have in the practice group. For example, a programme on client management would encourage a discussion as to which Client Team the associate might work with.
- After the programme, the participants are encouraged to meet up again with the partner. They are encouraged to talk about what they learned (good for consolidating what they have learned) and what challenges or support they need.
- As a follow up, sessions can be arranged (which some trainers call ‘action learning sets’) to allow participants to revisit the points raised in the programme and they can be offered further suggestions for implementing their action plans.
More effective on-the-job BD coaching
Fee earners spend something like 7 hours earning fees each day. Even with the professional bodies requiring Continuous Professional Development, the amount of time professionals spend on training courses is very low. So the firms that can equip their senior professionals to ‘coach’ the juniors on-the-job will reap significant rewards. But few firms have cracked this. Delegation is too often poorly done. At one end of the spectrum there are still examples of files with ‘post it’ notes saying ‘please fix’ being left on desks. In contrast, there are times when senior competent managers are over-managed and left demoralised because they are given no responsibilities or few opportunities to show initiative.
A handful of firms are pioneering the introduction of external coaches to support and challenge heads of departments with a view to a coaching style cascading through the practice groups. Some senior business support professionals are also starting to use external coaches. This must be a good thing.
There are also important opportunities to integrate classroom BD training with better one-to-one coaching before and after programmes, perhaps using supervising partners, external coaches or involving senior members of the BD function in a coaching role.
Better use of technology to support learning
Interest in using technology is fuelled by the following drivers:
- The need for consistent messages to be delivered, which is particularly difficult for firms with many offices
- Professionals looking for training to be delivered when it’s needed, rather than when the next course is scheduled
- Allowing professionals to learn at their desks in their own time, thereby reducing travel time and costs
It is clear to us that there are some exciting developments in the use of technology to support learning. Some firms are investing a lot in this area, either by developing their own e-learning programmes or by buying or adapting off-the-shelf products.
Several comments were made at the Sherwood Workshops about the need for an integrated intranet with useful learning material from Learning & Development, Knowledge Management, Business Development, etc all available in one location.
Training BD staff to be trainers
External trainers should have all the skills for designing the BD programme and engaging with the group (assuming you’ve picked the right people!). But their biggest weakness is their relative lack of knowledge of the firm and its internal systems, procedures and what changes to these are being considered. So, on a business development programme, it can make a big difference if a member of the Business Development function co-trains with the external trainer to help build links to internal issues.
For this to work well, particularly if BD managers will be running small group discussions or role plays, they will need some training or facilitation skills. We have found BD managers more than willing to attend our Train the Trainer programmes where they learn the skills needed to deliver effective training on BD courses.
Better links between BD and other business support functions
It is not always clear which department has responsibility for BD training. Sometimes the Training function has responsibility. Sometimes the BD function takes charge. It probably doesn’t matter which takes the lead as long as it doesn’t end up with either both running the show or neither! There needs to be clear responsibility and a good deal of collaboration.
HR can add a lot of value to BD training effectiveness. People learn best when they want to learn. Occasions when people are particularly receptive to learning are either when they are promoted or are given a new role, or when they are in the frame for promotion. More effective training can result if the BD function can align training programmes with career structures or competency frameworks and time the training delivery appropriately.
Training also works better when participants already have a sense of their personal strengths and weaknesses. An effective appraisal scheme or the use of 360-degree feedback can provide a foundation of greater self-awareness that can be effectively built on in any training programmes. We typically find junior professionals saying their appraisals are a waste of time because they are just told that they’re ‘doing fine’.
Again, Sherwood has designed pre-programme diagnostic tools to enable participants to assess themselves against an agreed list of skills. Participants are then encouraged to discuss this with a supervising partner, perhaps in the same meeting as the one to agree a relevant focus for the programme.
But it’s not just the HR function that can add value to training activities. There are so many ways in which business support functions can help. For example:
- the Business Development function can co-deliver training on CRM activities and can advise on good external trainers for selling skills programmes or can provide just-in-time coaching for partners or fee earners
- the IT function can work with the Training function to develop e-learning products
- KM can create learning tools with the Training function
But what we find in some firms, particularly the larger ones, is support functions not working well together. For many professionals looking for useful information to help them do their job better, there can be dozens of such sources in many different places. Not much of it is coordinated. Clearly not the most helpful arrangement!
Creating a BD training faculty
Some leading firms see the external faculty as an extension of their internal resource. One firm said: “If they are no good, our credibility suffers. Consequently we spend a lot of time kissing frogs to ensure a good cultural as well as technical fit. But all parties need to be prepared to invest – L&D, externals and the practice areas.”
External providers of training obviously want to do a good job. To do this they need to know:
- what is happening in the business – one firm, unbeknown to its training providers, announced at a partners retreat that it was trying to create a more collaborative culture, but didn’t tell the external training staff who could easily have reinforced this message on relevant programmes
- what the training function is trying to achieve – one firm was interested to improve the way it measured training effectiveness, but did not consult its training providers who could have shared their experiences of what had proved to be successful
- what messages are included in the other programmes, so trainers could reinforce key messages and avoid confusing the participants with contradictory messages.
What some firms have found helpful is to organise gatherings of the internal and external training faculty. At these events, important news can be disseminated and issues discussed.
Involving partners in BD training programmes
An obvious one this, but one that is harder to achieve than it might sound. It is relatively easy to find partners who are willing to turn up to a training programme and give a talk on, for example, why business development is important. They might even be prepared to answer some questions. But it’s not easy to ensure the messages are aligned with the programme. Also it can be difficult to get the tone right. Too often managers say they feel a partner is patronising. Also there can be problems with partners having to cancel at the last minute. Some firms that have introduced partner-led sessions on training courses have had to drop them because of the feedback.
To overcome these potential problems, it can be a good idea to have a small squad of partners who are thoroughly briefed on core messages and who are open to feedback from participants so that the sessions can be refined and improved. Quite often these sessions work well if the partner is only a few years more qualified that the participants, rather than somebody that the participants would find harder to relate to.
In summary, the challenge for those responsible for BD training is to develop a more integrated learning approach by building closer relationships between BD and the other areas of the firm that can contribute to learning. Not an easy task, but there are great rewards at stake. Of course, they’ll be learning in the process of trying to achieve it!
A final thought…..I think it probably helps to avoid using the word ‘training’ and talk more about ‘learning’. This might help others in your firm get the message and realise that it should be a team effort with the professionals themselves as part of the team.
The original version of this blog was published in Professional Marketing magazine.