When I was a young analyst, the path to promotion was very clear: do a great job on projects, network internally and externally, hone key consulting skills such as problem solving and decision making, communicate clearly and dazzle clients. But, in addition to the above, there was one more item on my agenda – business development.

At the time, many younger consultants felt that they were not expected to focus on securing client work and they ignored business development work. However, “sales” and business development are different. Younger consultants should not worry about sales but they should worry about business development.

I believe focusing on business development from the early days of my consulting career helped me progress faster. Business development done right will help you advance your consulting career as well.

Business development in management consulting

In management consulting, business development (“BD”), also often called practice development, refers to engaging in any activities that create long-term value for the firm.

There is a lot of misconception that the function of business development and sales is interchangeable. In reality, business development incorporates sales related activities, but is not limited to just this one area. Business development includes all activities which help the firm build and maintain a sustainable competitive advantage.

Business development revolves around 3 elements: the firm, customers and competitors (depicted in a diagram below).

business development consulting

The three elements are linked and you have to keep them all in mind when you are trying to determine which activity will help the firm distinguish itself from competitors. This is because a lot of business development activity adds little value. You have to be very focused on knowing if what you are doing is really useful.

If we simplify it to bare basics, the goal of all business development initiatives always comes down to developing and enhancing the consulting firm’s ability to satisfy customers’ needs better than the competition. Always remember this. It should be a filter when choosing if an initiative is worth undertaking.

Now let’s look at each of the three elements.

The Firm: “The Firm” refers to all activities undertaken to build and enhance the health and performance of the consulting firm, including developing skills and capabilities internally. In management consulting, the firm’s assets are people, so developing consultants is of paramount importance.

The firm is building its people so it can better serve its clients. There is no point in investing in better painting skills, for example, if this will not help consultants serve clients better. Client needs today and in the future will determine everything.

Customers: “Customers” incorporates all activities engaged in to build, manage and leverage relationship with potential clients and current clients, including volunteering, attending events and working on proposals. As you know, management consulting is a relationship business, so the importance of these activities cannot be underestimated.

Consulting firms also advertise very aggressively. They call it recruiting and investing in new ideas and research. When a consulting firm arrives at a business school or publishes a major article, this is how they connect with clients and build their brand.

Competitors: “Competitors” refers to activities which result in outperforming competitors. This may be a mix of the points above but they can also be grouped as a separate area. For example, opening an office in a new country allows a consulting firm to jump ahead of peers.

Should you get involved in business development work?

Too many management consultants don’t get involved in business development, beyond working on proposals, because they struggle to find time. But business development work often can be the deciding factor that gets you a higher rating in performance reviews and a coveted promotion spot.

So you should get involved, as long as you can manage additional demands on top of your “day job” responsibilities.

However, be particularly strategic when selecting the business development initiative to get involved in and your role in it.

Benefits of undertaking business development work

The key benefits of getting involved in business development work include expansion of a professional network, gaining deeper understanding of the political and cultural context within the firm, earning “credits” with key people and building a reputation, as well as access to information and knowledge (summarized in the exhibit below).

business development strategy

Expanded network: One of the key benefits of getting involved in business development work, in a leadership or non-leadership role, is an opportunity to expand a professional network and to build relationship with key people within the firm. This will build up the number, and potentially the range, of the firm’s client projects for which you are considered.

You will also develop a relationship which you can leverage if you require an input or guidance as you build your career within the firm, or if you need assistance with the project.

Gain better understanding of political and cultural context within the firm: Getting involved in business development initiatives also exposes you to the political and cultural context within the firm. You will be able to gain a deeper understanding of what the firm values the most and who are the key decision makers (usually consulting partners) that you need to be on the “good books” with.

You will also gain a greater insight into behaviors considered detrimental for one’s career within the firm and into personality types and preferences of key leaders.

Earn “credits” and build a reputation: Getting involved in business development initiatives, providing you are doing a good job, will allow you to build your reputation and will equip you with additional reference points for performance reviews. Doing a great job on business development initiatives also puts you on the “good books” with key senior people.

Access to IP: People will share with you materials in the firm’s possession to help you with your business development initiative. You can use it as an input for your work and as a resource to gain deeper understanding about various concepts and ideas.

For example, when I was involved in developing the firm’s course on how to manage projects, I got access to about 10 power point documents used for similar courses.

These documents were immensely useful to go through for a newcomer like I was at the time, as they were full of valuable information, including detailed step-by-step guides of what was expected from an engagement manager at each stage of the project.

Additionally, I was able to use the design of some power point slides in the new course and in my project deliverables, which saved me hours of time.

Selecting the business development initiative which is worth your time

When you join the firm, take some time to figure out which business development initiatives are on the go, which initiatives you think should be initiated and which initiatives you are particularly passionate about. You also need to consider who are the senior people within the firm you want to get in front of and which business development initiatives they run.

Ideally you want to pick an initiative which you can lead, which is run by a consulting partner you want to develop a relationship with, which will most likely advance your consulting career and which drives changes that you deeply care about.

Selecting your role

You can get involved in business development in a leadership role or as a team member.

I was involved in a lot of business development work in my career. Most of the time I was involved in a leadership role and each of those initiatives helped me progress further in my consulting career.

I can’t say the same about business development initiatives where I was just a team member. Some of those were advantageous and some of those were not an ideal use of my time.

Some thoughts on both options are below.

Why it often pays to lead the business development initiative

I recommend you aim to get involved in business development initiatives in a leadership role. Below are some reasons why leadership roles often pay off, even after considering the higher demands on your time.

Deal directly with very senior colleagues: Getting involved in a leadership role eats up a lot of time, but you will deal directly with very senior colleagues, often partners, so such work will put you on the map.

And if you will do a superb job, your star rises.

Bigger impact: When you are driving the initiative, you can make a bigger impact. As a leader, it is in your control how far you push the initiative.

More effective use of your time: When you are in a leading role, your time is often used more effectively than when you are in a team member role. This occurs because you are the one who decides how the initiative is managed, since you are the leader. You will also be able to make most decisions quicker because you will not need to get permission.

On the other hand, no matter how efficient you may be as a team member, if the team leader is disorganized, you will ended up being disorganized as well. You cannot really avoid it.

Allows you to showcase your leadership potential: It is also your chance to showcase your leadership potential, something that will become very handy when you will be considered for promotion.

Of course, it’s no secret that leadership roles also have some downsides. The biggest downside is that business development initiatives often demand a lot more time than initially anticipated and you, as a leader, will have to do most of the pushing.

I once ran a business development initiative that sometimes took 12 hours of my time per day, for few days in a row, with no time to even eat lunch. So I had to eat my lunch around 7pm, by which time I felt close to passing out.

And I still had to do my “day job” at night and on weekends, using every ounce of energy I had left.

This experience was really difficult and lasted for about 2 months, on and off. But I believe that work helped me progress faster in my career as I was promoted a few weeks after I delivered on that business development initiative. This was way ahead of schedule of my peer group.

When I was running another initiative, I was working on it during my vacation. And I only took 2 days of vacation that year, so I desperately needed not to work on those two days. Instead I worked on the first day while taking it as a vacation and returned to work on the second day, since so much had to be done.

These sacrifices were, of course, my choice.

The point I am trying to make is, as a leader you will have to do whatever it takes to make your business development initiative a success. You will need to work hard to create a good impression and to achieve the anticipated outcomes, so don’t get involved unless you can carve out enough time in your schedule to do an outstanding job.

I also want to stress that no amount of brilliant business development work will compensate for poor work as a consultant. You where hired to be a consultant first and foremost. Being great at business development helps significantly if you are a great consultant. If you are a weaker consultant, great business development work indicates a problem with your prioritization.

Business development in a non-leadership role

Sometimes getting involved in business development in a non-leadership role makes sense.

Non-leadership roles require less time commitment. Of course, in exchange, you will get less visibility and recognition for your efforts. But you still will get great benefits such as access to IP, expansion of your network and recognition during performance reviews.

It all comes down to evaluating the effort versus reward balance to see if getting involved in the particular business development initiative in a non-leadership role is the optimal use of your time to advance your career, if that is your goal.

The ideal type of business development work

I would say ideally you should get involved in developing new ideas and concepts, and publishing it in articles for major external or internal publications. This is a type of business development work that will carry value for your career in the short to medium term as well as in the long term, even if you leave the firm.

Additionally, this type of business development work is usually more flexible. You will have greater level of control over what is done, when it is done and how it is done, since you will be the author or co-author of the work.

Moreover, co-writing an article with a senior partner in a set up where you are carrying all the work and the partner is providing guidance and advice, is a great way to build strong allies with senior leaders within the firm.

As I reflect on what drove the early progress in my career, it is quite clear that from all business development activities I was involved in, publishing articles was the most valuable, by far. Therefore, I highly recommend it.

While management consulting leaves little room for extracurricular activities (anything above and beyond project work), some consultants manage to carve out the time to add the extra edge to their profiles within the firm by engaging in stellar business development work.

Now is the time for you to reach a true understanding of the development needs of the firm you are working for and of how you can contribute in the way that benefits you and the firm. Then take action. If you do, you will establish a competitive advantage that may be difficult to beat.

Kris is a partner and director in Firmsconsulting’s Toronto office and leads the firm’s leadership development initiative.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: Which business development work have you found most rewarding and beneficial in building your career and why? Please let us know in the comments.

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Image from Trey Ratcliff under cc.

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6 responses to Should business development be part of your agenda?

  1. Hi Michael,

    That cuts to the issue; I can’t agree more.



  2. Hi Femi,

    Great analogy as usual.

    I will answer here and Kris will add more if needed.

    I strongly believe one should only work on business development when one understands the culture of the firm. I recall the firm trying to hire senior managers from other consulting firms. Since they did not understand our culture, they had a very aggressive / sales-like approach to business development. They were incredibly out of sync with the way we did things.

    So, if you understand the culture, go ahead. If not, support a partner on the business development but let him or her lead the client interaction. You are not expected to have relationships which lead to work at the lower levels of the firm.

    Finally, if you are not measured for sales, why do it? if you just joined the firm and do not really know what the firm is doing, what exactly are you offering the client? Does the sale get you promoted? It does not!

    If you can work on business development and understand the limitations you have, then do it. If you want to work in business development to build a relationship with a key partner then do it. If you want to work on business development to build some key reasoning skills you need then do it.

    Most importantly, if you can work in business development without hurting your primary analytic skills development, then do it.

    However, do not assume a sale will compensate for the weak consulting skills you may have. It will not.

    I would say very few consultants can do both, and if you cannot, focus on skills development. If you can, then you will have a bright future like the Fourth of July in the USA.


  3. Hi Kris and Michael,

    Great article and thanks for your commitment. The most important part of this article is the last paragraph; this is what I have always believed and great to see you confirm it. I like how you said, article writing, pays dividends in both the short-term and medium-term. In fact, I will like to say that, it has a high lifetime value. In a sense, everything you do or most things you do in consulting, you do for the firm (and this is not a bad thing; it’s a “good”). However, when you write articles – even though you do it for the firm – you will be able to draw value from it, openly, for the rest of your life. Since you can’t openly discuss client work, publishing articles is probably a worthy endeavor from a “selfish” perspective. If the articles are published in reputable outlets, that is.

    One question: how soon, after joining the firm, will you reckon that anyone starts to focus on business development? Let’s make an assumption: J just joined a consulting firm; J has never worked in consulting but has some research experience. (S)he sees opportunities for business development, in the new firm, particularly in defining a research pipeline that could potentially result in publication of articles which could re-define the firm’s eminence position in the market. J had a general discussion with a partner and realizes its a need the firm has but one the firm has been unable to commit to, on a consistent basis. J has done this before or done something similar and believes, under the right guidance of the partners, (s)he can pull this off! Dilemma is, J has listened to Michael so much 🙂 (s)he can literally hear Michael saying to him/her: “you need to focus on honing the fundamental consulting skills FIRST! And you should probably give yourself about 6 months to build a leg to stand on.”

    Could leading this project be an opportunity to build a leg to stand on? Or should J wait it out till (s)he has honed the “fundamental consulting skills?”

    I look forward to reading your reply.


  4. Thanks Nerses and Kevin.

    You are right Kevin. When the team wins, the company wins and their is more profit to share.

    When you win, their is sometimes only a short term bump in your salary.


  5. Nice article Kris.
    This piece of advice works also very well in other sectors if you understand experience by IP.
    I personnaly find very rewarding to develop my co workers’ skills and connections by giving them opportunities to do so (including them their opinion in project, working on/presenting new solutions with them,….). When tactfully achieved, everyone wins: the firm, individuals and customers.

  6. Great Article, it may well become a guide on how to progress in consulting.

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