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Steve Varley is the UK chairman of EY. Brought up in Bury, Greater Manchester, around the corner from the town’s football club, his working-class roots provided few clues he would go on to lead one of the Big Four. He studied engineering at Loughborough University and joined Andersen Consulting (later Accenture) in 1991 as a management consultant. In 2005 he was recruited by EY as a managing partner and in 2011 was elected UK chairman. Here, talking exclusively to the BDLN, he explains why a selfless approach is the key to growth…   

Before I talk specifically about the art of successful business development, it’s important to look at a concept that’s closely linked: the idea that work is about more than just making a profit for yourself and your firm.

At EY, our mission statement is to build a better working world. There’s a lot to that six-word statement, but one thing it forces us to do is think more altruistically about our impact on the world, and more broadly than just focusing on balance sheets.

There’s a strong business development reason for it too. Because by striving to build a better working world, we will attract more clients.

The reason? Effective business development is very closely related to minimal self-interest. In fact, I’d argue that self-interest is the single most damaging thing to client relationships. In many cases it prevents them from developing in the first place.

So, my biggest piece of advice to professionals who want to attract more clients is to have very low self-interest, both personally and for your firm. It’s about the client, not about you or your firm. You must absolutely focus on creating value for them.

One of the business authors who has influenced me the most – David Maister – sums this up beautifully. He argues that your ability to be a trusted adviser depends on three things:

  • Your content and credibility (do you know your stuff and are you credible?)
  • Your responsiveness (do you do what you said you were going to do, on time?)
  • Your intimacy (do you know your client, do you know their business, but more than that, do you know them personally, and what they are trying to achieve personally?)

But – and this is the rub – those three attributes must be divided by (Maister wrote this as an equation) your level of self-interest. In other words, you could be the most credible, responsive adviser in the world, and you might know your client inside out, but their trust in you diminishes each time you notch up the self-interest.

This links with what I call the ‘karma of business’: if you do enough good deeds for enough people over time, while you might not be rewarded for any particular act – and might even go through a period when a whole string of altruistic deeds goes unrewarded – the prize will eventually come.

It’s all down to authenticity. When professionals are purely self-interested, you can just tell. Being sold to badly is an awful experience. But if someone sits opposite you and genuinely tries to help, you are impressed. And even if both parties end up parting ways without doing a deal at that particular time, but agree to call each other should the need arise, that’s a positive step.

And that’s where the karma of business development begins.

What I look for in colleagues

Flourishing in your career and becoming a good leader depends on thinking carefully about the people you work with.

It’s easy to go through your working life listening only to people who think like you because you get an immediate connection. But as I’ve matured as a leader I now purposefully look for people who are different to me and bring differences to my meetings – people who throw grit into the room. Yes, they have to do that in the right way, but a key part of being a good leader is supporting people who are different. Sometimes such colleagues can be marginalised, but they may occasionally come out with insights that revolutionise your business.

Recognising that people develop at different rates and in non-linear ways is critical, too. Some are strong starters and slow finishers. Some who you thought wouldn’t push on through the organisation suddenly, five years later, hit a growth spurt and fly up. So being able to judge – and to some extent predict – colleagues’ growth trajectories is important. It requires a constant reassessment of talent in all parts of the queue.

Lastly and probably most important for me is that word again – authenticity. I think there’s something inbuilt in human beings – we can spot when someone’s not being authentic and saying what they think is the right thing to say, rather than what they believe in.

So in the case of EY’s mission statement, business development and career progression, the importance of the twin themes of lack of self-interest and authenticity is impossible to overstate.

NB. David Maister is one author who has influenced my business thinking. Another is Mahan Khalsa, in particular his book ‘Let’s Get Real Or Let’s Not Play’. In fact, Khalsa’s book is probably the most transformative book on business development I have read, particularly the first half. It reveals the dynamic that leads to effective business development, and highlights the wrong dynamic, too.

Steve Varley was talking to John Maffioli, founder of the BDLN.