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The Perils of Hiring a Federal Business Development Executive to Save Your Company

Want to grow your federal contracting business but don't have the time? Hiring a rainmaker could make it worse. 

Crisis Just Ahead sign with a bad day

“If we could just hire one really good business development person I can stop doing all the BD work myself and we can start growing again.”

We cannot tell you how many times we have heard this when working with small and medium sized businesses.

steve pimpo and bill rosselloThis guest post is by Steve Pimpo and Bill Rossello, principals and co-founders of Greenhouse Consulting, a Washington, DC–based firm that provides management consulting services to help companies grow or prepare to sell.


These companies have either stopped growing or have “hit a wall” and think that if they could only get that superstar “BD” person, that would solve their growth challenges and free up the owner from the burdens of handling every proposal and every meeting himself.

We call it the “Messiah Approach,” when a business owner hires and counts on that new BD superstar to save the company or drive the company's growth.

Here’s how it plays out.

The CEO hires a BD professional, or perhaps a former executive from the industry who has “been there, done that.” His resume speaks to years of BD or industry experience and he interviews well. (Why wouldn’t he? He’s a BD guy).

The CEO pays him a hefty salary and signing bonus. The job comes with some nice perks and benefits (perhaps not available to others in the company). The CEO announces the BD hire’s arrival with fanfare and external announcements. The expectations are high and the pressure mounts from day one.

The new hire does not go through the normal “on boarding” process and he reports directly to the CEO. There is an assumption that he is experienced and does not need much guidance. Perhaps he is allowed to skip the orientation process afforded regular employees.

Worse than that, he really does not understand what the company sells and has possibly never sold or delivered those services.

From the very beginning, he lacks the context and information needed to succeed at finding new customers or focusing on the right contract opportunities, much less closing deals.

He begins to realize that there are many things he does not know about the job, the company, its products and services, the culture, the staff, and the “way we do things around here.”

Because he is so senior and enjoys this new “celebrity” status, he is just expected to know. It just does not seem right to ask the staff. He may not have a peer. He is not comfortable exposing his lack of knowledge to the CEO.

It gets worse. The new BD hire receives little guidance or direction from the CEO and unclear goals. “You know what to do; get out there and make it rain!” He tries his best to engage his network and former colleagues, but finds it is not as easy as everyone else thinks to quickly develop new business and win new contracts.

Not being familiar with the internal processes and without proper training or resources, the new BD hire begins to feel frustrated, anxious, guilty and scared. He has nowhere to turn but knows that the expectations are high to produce, and to do so in a big way!

Time passes, and the business owner starts feeling frustrated too. He gets angry and feels embarrassed that he put himself out there with the celebrated new hire. The company just shelled out a lot of money for him, foregoing other needed investment in the company and perhaps even putting employee rewards at risk.

After a year, things usually go one of two ways. The BD hire quits in frustration, thinking the situation is untenable; or the CEO decides to cut his losses and lets him go. To the owner, it was an expensive mistake: a waste of time and money and a bad decision that the entire staff has witnessed.

Six ways to avoid the “Messiah Approach”

  1. Do not hire on appearances. Most senior BD candidates interview well. They have been selling themselves for a living for a long time. That does not mean they will be successful in your business. Conduct interviews with much greater rigor than you would any other hire. Get your other key people involved as well, affording you more opportunity to uncover potentially fatal flaws.
  2. Do not assume the candidate already knows what you need them to know. Work with your senior team to define the demonstrated knowledge, skills and network that the ideal candidate should possess. Make sure the candidate truly understands your business, your market, and your products and services before you hire him or her. When he comes on board, let him go through all of the training and onboarding that other new hires experience.
  3. Beware of the Job Hopper. Make sure he or she has a demonstrated verifiable BD track record and has not had a series of one-year gigs. So many candidates have a history of failure masked behind a great appearance, personality and gift of gab. Did they really lead the sale of several large contracts or were they a small part of a team effort? How did they count sales dollars at the previous employer, single count, double count?
  4. Spend a lot of time with the new hire. One of the best ways to help someone go from being “unconsciously incompetent” to “consciously competent” is to spend a considerable amount of time with him or her over several months. Demonstrate several times how to sell the company and its products and services to potential customers. After that, have regular meetings, weekly for a while, to make sure it is working. You may not feel like you should have to do all that, but you do.
  5. Be patient. When you started the business, how long did it take you to land your first big contract? Think in those terms about how long your new hire will need to assimilate and be successful.
  6. Grow your own BD people. We are often astonished that CEOs do not see that the talent is already sitting right there in the company. With the right mentoring and training from the CEO and other experienced company leaders, your own mid-level staff can rise to the occasion. Think about it. They already know the company and its products and services. They have investment in the company and a sense of pride in making it successful. They know what makes the company special and can convey all of that to customers.
The Principal and Founder of Artillery, Douglas Burdett is a former artillery officer and Madison Avenue ad man. He also hosts The Marketing Book Podcast, where he interviews authors every week about the latest in modern marketing and sales.

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