It was 1989 on a beautiful fall day. Bryan Keller and I were walking back to the Delt house on Ball State’s campus. Bryan and I were the President and House Manager of our Delt Chapter at the time, so we knew each other well. We started talking about our futures, what was next for us after graduation, and that’s when he asked me one of those questions that was so simple, so obvious, it threw me for a loop.
“Mo, you’ve been voted best recruiter for two years in a row. Why are you studying to be an actuary? Why are you not going into sales like a lot of the other guys?”
I was stunned. I didn’t have a good answer. His question made me think.
I loved the math of being an actuary. I loved that it was hard. I loved my friends in the actuarial science program who I studied with every day.
I also loved solving people problems: asking people what their goals are, helping improve them, and figuring out how to meet their needs.
In fraternity recruitment, I was selling Delta Tau Delta. We were leaders on campus, with something like three of the last six student body presidents, two of the last four IFC presidents, and my favorite: two of the last four Homecoming Kings. If someone liked the idea of developing leadership skills, I could show them how being a Delt could get them there. No other fraternity could compete on that positioning.
Back to Bryan’s question. I remember feeling like I needed to have a plan. The truth was, I didn’t have a plan. I was an actuarial science major as a Senior because I had chosen it as a Freshman. I just never thought about changing my direction.
So, in answering him, I fell back to my strength: math and statistics. With some nervous confidence, I said something like this: “Well, if I just go into a sales job, I might be good at it, but I’d have to compete against everyone else that’s in sales. They’re probably good at it too. But, if I can power through and pass all these actuarial exams, I’m sure someone has to sell actuarial services. So, I could really shine at doing sales stuff as an actuary someday.”
Bryan sounded impressed, like I had mapped this out with real statistics and a long-term strategic plan. “Wow, that really makes a lot of sense,” he said. “You’re going to kill it.”
He had thrown me a curve ball with his question. I had closed my eyes and wailed at the ball. Luck struck, and I hit it over the fence. Half astonished, I reflected on my own answer after we arrived at the house and parted ways.
It did make sense. I was really onto something and I ended up pursuing that path.
Years later, I finished my last actuarial exam. I had to take 24 exams, all with a pass rate that averaged about 35%. Few got through it. It was a hard path. It took a long time and a lot of focused work for me to succeed in getting my FSA (Fellow in the Society of Actuaries). It is a hard profession. As I increased my expertise at my craft, I landed in roles where I needed to do business development as well as provide services to my clients.
There’s a commonality across any profession that is really hard. It takes years, sometimes decades to gain the expertise needed to guide clients to the right decision. Think of the whole professional service sector – lawyers, accountants, consultants, architects, engineers, and others going through 30, 40, or 50,000 hours of schooling, training, and work experience until they’re named Partner or Senior Partner. Other industries like health care companies, outsourcers, and technology providers are all are in the same boat.
It takes years of experience to get good at a complex craft. Then one day, lightning strikes. You’re named Partner or Account Manager. Now your entire future and compensation depends not only on your experience and the service you provide to clients, but also on a new skill: business development.
I’ve found over time that the harder a profession is to enter, the more time it takes to succeed at a complex craft, the fewer professionals want to put forth the effort to become great at business development. Many will say “I didn’t join this profession to sell.” What they don’t realize is that selling is just using their big brain and problem-solving skills to design a great buying process, always with the client’s best interest in mind. Nothing more.
And there’s good news in that.
Business Development can be taught. It’s a set of skills just like your core expertise. At BIG, we’ve trained more than 10,000 people in BD skills. I’ve seen massive improvement first hand and in data. My favorite quote at the end of our classes is “Now I see. I can do this!”
The answer I gave Bryan that fall day in 1989 proved to be my path. I became an actuary, added business development skills for myself, learned how to balance the competing demands for providing services to my clients while doing BD, and I now teach other professionals how to do business development the right way. Teaching these skills to others has become my life’s passion! I love that the BD system I initially built to help me succeed in my career has helped many other people rocket forward in their professions. I’m super glad that Bryan made me think about how I could combine sales with my technical skills. It continues to be a fun ride!