Mindfulness for Business Development
Developing a mindfulness practice will help you perform your best in business development.
The work of business development at a digital agency consists of getting the right people in the room to ask smart questions and plan projects. You’re both an individual ushering prospects through the sales process and part of a broader team. You need to lead, motivate, and ultimately be self-aware enough to get out of the way to let your team do their best work.
I’ve found three things to be perennially true about business development:
- you have fast deadlines often set by others (prospective clients), not you;
- your decisions impact your company’s bottom line;
- you must present and speak confidently, effectively, and extemporaneously
No pressure, right? In short: there are instances of notable stress and little time for distraction.
There are moments of mixed success in sales - sometimes you strike that balance and win the deal, and there are other times you misstep, and walk away with a lost opportunity. The process can be alternatingly exhilarating and inspiring, tiring and stress-inducing.
In my time as a strategist, I’ve found that one of the best things I can do for my performance is to practice mindfulness. Which is to say, I meditate. A lot. And if you’re in sales, you should too. In fact, the Harvard Business Review includes mindfulness as one of the core elements in its overview of emotional intelligence for the workplace.
Below, I’ll outline three skills you can develop through mindfulness that address each of the challenging aspects of business development:
- managing anxiety,
- practicing self-compassion,
- and building resilience.
Given practice, you can find yourself growing in confidence and improving in your business development role.
It’s easy to imagine all the ways a pitch could go wrong. In fact, when preparing for a presentation, many people make a mental list of everything that could go wrong as a way to guide their preparation. Yet following a failure-avoidance checklist is a sure way to fray nerves and lose sleep leading up to pitch day.
Mindfulness, the practice of being attentive to the present without judgement, helps to alleviate that anxiousness throughout the preparation process. Meditation exercises work to build the mental muscle to focus on the here and now and be attentive to what your body is telling you.
Let me give an example: as you put together your presentation deck, you may find yourself unable to focus on how to introduce your approach to a potential client. Instead of concentrating on that portion of the pitch, you’re jumping around, determining what slides to include and whether a team member has enough information for their part of the presentation. What usually takes an hour with your anxious brain takes three.
Taking a more mindful approach to the same situation, you prompt yourself to step away from the activity of putting the deck together for ten minutes, sitting quietly, and stilling the mind to only take in the sensations around you. It may seem counterintuitive – you should be working tirelessly, right? – but with a moment to bring together your thoughts and take note of your physical state, you may notice that the mind slows from racing from one thought to another to hold attention on one thing at a time.
The same holds true right before the pitch. A sense of nervousness before a high-stakes presentation is not uncommon or abnormal, and in fact, is healthy. But it can get in the way of your best public speaking self. Taking a moment to pause, scan the body for tension or excitement, and bring attention to your breath, allows your body and mind to be aware of how you’re feeling and, over time, accept it.
Mindfulness is not a matter of calming yourself down, but rather seeing and accepting your mental state. That self-awareness in turn gives way to releasing the resistance of how you should feel (not nervous) to how you actually feel (nervous). The simple act of getting rid of the resistance makes way for better public speaking. In fact, research shows that anxiety reappraisal, noticing that you respond similarly to excitement as you do nervousness, can lead to stronger performance.
It’s no secret that people in business development are driven. While quotas and team goals are motivating, it’s usually that inner voice that drives us to be better (or more likely, to want to be the best). We are our hardest critics and frequently feel the loss of a deal deeply. After a few missed opportunities, it’s easy to get into a cycle of negative self-talk.
Another area of mindfulness centers on the feelings we have toward others we deeply care about. These “loving kindness meditation activities,” as they’re called by practitioners, remind us of the love and hope we have for those around us. Taken a step further, they can be a way for us to extend that same kindness to ourselves. Research shows that these exercises bear results: over an eight week period, those who practice loving kindness mindfulness experienced less distress and cognitive resources,
Here’s an example of how to apply meditation for self-compassion: after flubbing part of a pitch, you experience a series of thoughts of how often you fail, why you’re not great at public speaking, and how you let the whole team down again. You feel terrible.
With self-compassion mindfulness, take this moment to pause and reflect on how you would treat yourself if you were your own best friend. The same thoughts and feelings you’d have toward someone you love can be extended to yourself.
Practicing self compassion via mindfulness builds over time, cultivating responses after failure that help in keeping perspective and motivate self-improvement, not self-flagellation. It is compassion, not criticism, that motivates us to grow.
Let’s be real: like our habits of self criticizing, there will be moments where we feel like throwing in the towel on a lead, on a client relationship, or on a career in sales altogether.
Perspective is key in building resilience. When we become aware of thoughts and feelings we can objectively step away from them, and see them to be impermanent. Resilience helps us to bounce back from setbacks (and the emotions that accompany them) and, if things don’t go according to plan, make another plan.
A study in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences highlighting the link between mindfulness and resilience found that “Mindful people … can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down (emotionally).”
Starting a Mindful Practice
For those who like to read, an introduction to mindfulness as a way of life can be found in Jon-Kabat Zinn’s book Wherever You Go, That’s Where You Are.
If podcasts are more your thing, I recommend:
- The Mindful Minute for getting started
- The Tara Brach Podcast for building your practice
- Ten Percent Happier for understanding the science and benefits of mindfulness.
Meditation isn’t a cure-all. I’ve been practicing mindfulness for the majority of my time in business development and over that period, I noticed how it has been a boon for my performance. Yet some days are better than others. The practice of mindfulness has given me a growing awareness of myself, which has made me a more resilient, present worker and colleague. I look forward to continuing my journey with meditation and I hope you find some of these practices useful for your own life and work.