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Origination In Times of Crisis

To what extent should global events impact the way you do your job?  What are the factors you should consider when thinking about how you might return to normal?  And does normal even exist in the aftermath of a crisis?

Originating In Crisis Clifden Consulting

I’m not arrogant enough to think you’re hanging on my every word of these blogs.  After all, you’re not my mother. And if you met my mother, you’d know she’d be among the last people on earth to be interested in my professional ramblings!  But if  you did  tune in to last month’s piece, you’d have been forgiven for thinking I might have taken an odd turn.  Odder, that is,  than normal…

Maybe that’s true. This time last month the world was a very strange place.  Lockdown was imminent and the world of business was a very unusual place to be.  On the one hand, the reality of an incredibly sudden and utterly profound change was starting to feel very, very real. But on the other, the surrealism of the situation (I particularly dislike the casual use of the word ‘surreal’ in what I refer to as the ‘footballer’s context’ – but it seems appropriate here)  gave every action the feel of an absurdist party piece in a pre-season testimonial. Everything mattered, and yet our powerlessness to affect an outcome of any value simultaneously meant that nothing did.

And so I showboated my way through a stream of consciousness utterly unrelated to the chaos unfolding around us, then went home feeling slightly pleased with myself, and one stage closer to the mania that many have been predicting for some time.

But this month, with the dust starting to settle, I wanted to try something a little different, and write candidly and specifically about my thoughts for how we, as originators, might want to approach our art in these strange times.

Let’s start with the basics. If you’re anything like me, I imagine you’ve done the bare minimum of outreach, and probably none at all to new contacts you’ve not attempted to reach before.  If you did read my piece last month, you may remember I discussed how a good originator should – essentially – be able to feel their impact in a room they’re not in when their message arrives.

It only takes a fairly base level of emotional intelligence to intuit that BD in a time of global shock stands a very real chance of looking, at best, inappropriately incongruous, or at worst, calculatingly exploitative, even if that’s far from the intention.

It’s good practice anyway to read everything you write in a variety of tones of voice in order to flush out any potential for the reader misunderstanding the intention or subtext. During times of high stress, sensitivities are even likelier to be triggered. So even if you’re sensing an opportunistic window, most will wisely err on the side of caution and pass on the chance to go hunting for business, just to ensure that the far more negative and damaging downside of being viewed as callous, cold or predatory is avoided. Even if that means occasionally passing up potential opportunity.

This is advice that Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Somerset Capital Management would have been wise to heed. While there was nothing technically wrong with what they said in their now infamous mailer in the aftermath of the shutdown, there are certain things you either don’t say, or are very careful about how you say them, when you find yourselves in times of great international sensitivity.

So, frustrating as it might seem, I believe the correct play in the initial ‘shock’ phase is to down tools from a BD perspective. It feels counterintuitive, as every successful business developer backs themselves to work their way out of a crisis. But it’s important not only to pick your battles, but to pick the timing of them

If that first decision is an easy one, the second is rather more difficult, and one where you’ll really have to use your originator Spidey-senses: when has the ‘shock’ phase ended?

Sadly, this is unlikely to be tangible on a collective basis, but rather more driven case by case, dependent on specific circumstances and events.  For or the vast majority of people we might assume this will probably last somewhere between 2-4 weeks.  By that rationale we should be on the other side of the initial shock , settling in to a slightly different normal.

What, then, comes next?

Obviously personal judgement will come into this, but here are my five observations on how one might think about adapting their origination strategy under conditions of crisis:

1. It’s not business as usual

No matter how much you might want it to be, it just isn’t.  Acting like nothing has happened will come across as tone-deaf, even after the initial shock period has lapsed. You need to acknowledge that we’re living through unusual times, although I’d suggest recommending limiting what are becoming cliched platitudes such as ‘unprecedented times’.

2. Personality goes along way

I mean, it always does. But especially now. People aren’t conducting business in exactly the same way. Working from home, whether on meetings via Zoom or on the humble mobile, the line between work selves and domestic selves has been blurred. The rules have changed, all of us shifted to a kind of ‘weekend mode’ of working. That doesn’t mean people are working any less of course, but the barrier between work and home life has been lifted, and this allows the space to create more meaningful human engagement.

We’re invited into people’s homes and this changes the level of intimacy in even the most routine of business engagements, and this affects how we communicate with each other. An old boss used to emphasise the psychological importance of wearing a suit, how it impacts work thought and therefore behaviour. Now no one is in a suit, so our behaviours need to adjust accordingly.  Furthermore, whether directly impacted by the situation or concerned for its longer-term economic impact, this pandemic brings us that much closer to our humanity, and that impacts how we communicate in business – a formal (less human?) facade can feel slightly artificial. To re-iterate, this doesn’t mean anyone is acting less professionally, but there is a layer of formality and perhaps indirectness that events have chipped away at, and that in itself may present opportunity. So, to that end…

3. Can the corporate BS

 There’s never been a need to trot out the hackneyed ‘business speak’, but it’ll look even more incongruous now. ‘Business speak’ is really just de-humanising prose by design, in the (in my opinion) mistaken belief that it makes one sound more professional. I’ve never believed that it does, but it’s never felt more tired than it does now. There has always been a tendency for poor business developers to talk like marketeers. That’s not to denigrate the noble and essential art of marketing, but they’re very different things.

A marketeer is, by necessity, talking to a mass audience. A business developer should be talking to an individual. It’s always been general good practice to ditch the business speak, precisely because that’s not how actual humans talk in real life, and thus betrays the fact that the business developer is not communicating as a human with a human.  This is especially prescient now, when those defence mechanisms of formality and artifice have – as we have discussed – been breached by circumstance.

4. No one is actually in a meeting

Sure, people are in conference calls, in Zoom meetings, and may have diaries that are just as packed as they were before. But what they won’t have are the same kinds of distraction as they had before. Fewer people in and out of their office (with the exception of the occasional toddler in my case, no doubt for many of you too!), fewer unnecessary calls, less casual correspondence, and certainly less travel (the old ‘sorry, I was on a flight’ excuse isn’t going to wash these days!). Ergo, you have more windows in which to gain engagement providing your message is sufficiently tailored to gain that engagement. We’ve been surprised at the level of engagement we’ve received back from the kinds of companies not known for responding to approaches.

5. Why are you relevant?

Bringing us right back in a circle to the first point – it’s not business as usual. Your task as an originator isn’t to act like nothing has changed, but to adapt to that change and find relevance, while making sure you take into account sensitivities that may still be pretty heightened. Regardless of your particular business outlook, this is a time of high anxiety for almost everyone.  Constantly interrogate your messaging – could this be construed as exploitative, or does it motivate the recipient to reply for positive reasons? Afterall, why bother engaging with an originator when there are so many other things going on?  A carefully crafted approach can, if done well, make the situation the reason for responding, not the excuse for avoiding.

Above all, you will need to tread very carefully.  If in doubt, err towards caution and avoid appearing opportunistic.  If you pay careful heed to the four points above however, this should become naturally self-editing.

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