EPISODE 319: ICF Public Sector Leader Mark Lee Details How BD Professionals Can Help Their Customers Grow Without Needing to Meet Them in Person

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Sales Game Changers LIVE Webinar sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales and hosted by Fred Diamond on January 27, 2021. It featured ICF Public Sector Leader Mark Lee.]

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MARK’S TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “It’s really important for salespeople to understand their organization’s North Star. What is it that they do better than anybody else and why do you want to work there? If they really understand that, the interactions with the clients are going to be more meaningful, they’re going to be more impactful and then you’re going to position that team for success.”

Fred Diamond: Mark Lee is the public sector leader for ICF, he touches all aspects of the business portfolio from overall strategy to business development, finance and more. His clients providing advisory and implementation services in areas including health, technology, cyber security, communications and social programs. Tell us what ICF does and then let’s get cranking.

Mark Lee: First of all, Fred, it’s really great to be here and thanks for the invitation. ICF has been around for about over 50 years, last year was our 50th anniversary which in public professional services is pretty unusual. The company has worked in the public sector as well as in the commercial sector. It’s largely in heavily regulated industries, energy, environment, we also have our marketing communications business that works in the commercial space, we have a Europe and Asia business which is largely like our public sector business here but just a little bit smaller and then there’s the business I lead which is the biggest chunk of our revenues. A lot of that works really split between technology and domain expertise and then the domain, health, as you mentioned, services, housing, child welfare, lots of things like that, marketing communications. It’s pretty diverse business.

Fred Diamond: Give us your definition of business development, if it differs from sales at all. I’m just curious here just to set the groundwork. Usually we have sales leaders from companies like Red Hat, SAP and Dell on the show. Tell us what BD is from your perspective and how it might differ from sales if it does at all.

Mark Lee: My definition – which I’m not sure you’ll find in a textbook anywhere – is business development includes sales but sales is one part of it. I usually think of sales as the upfront part, that’s the finding, qualifying of the opportunity, identifying the client, understanding their needs and figuring out what that need translates to them too in terms of professional services which is what we do. Then there’s capture which depending on the opportunity may be a defined person that does that or it could be part of it, a salesperson also does capture. Then there’s the proposal, actually putting it into whatever it is that’s going to end up getting the sales at the end of the day. In some cases, think in the commercial sector, that’s all one person and it can happen in 24 hours but in our world, the bigger captures, bigger sales opportunities, 12-18 months isn’t unusual and the bigger they are, the more specific each of those functions are.

Fred Diamond: Mark, you mentioned in your introduction the company’s been around for over 50 years. Again, we’re doing today’s interview in January, it’s 2021 or as some people call it, the son of 2020. We talked before the show about the world being different and every day we do a webinar which we convert into a Sales Game Changers podcast from the IES. A company that’s been around for 50 years, talk a little bit about how that has helped your company make the shift when the pandemic kicked in into this new world. We’re going to be talking about your and your team’s relationship with your customers and your leadership of your BD organization but talk a little bit about what it means to be a 50 year old company and how those relationships have been helpful or how they changed over the last year.

Mark Lee: I can only talk to a little over 22 years of that. I think that part of any company that is around for a while regardless of the market is knowing who they are and having a set of values that are what we refer to as non-negotiables. Around those values, the company continues to evolve over time with the markets, with our clients. Part of how you survive is not losing sight of those values and I think with what we’ve dealt with in 2020 with COVID and then all the issues around George Floyd’s murder, it was a year that that engagement with our staff was harder than it’s ever been and probably more important than it’s ever been. I think we spent a lot more time communicating, connecting, trying to listen a lot which has been key. I think that’s also exactly what makes a good salesperson, the same kinds of things that we have to do in a leadership position to help our staff through the kinds of changes we’re dealing with are the same things that our salespeople have to do in helping their clients navigate through change. That’s a big part of what we do in professional services. It’s been an interesting year for sure.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk specifically about BD. Again, we were talking a little bit before about how you would see people on your team sometimes 4, 5, sometimes 6 times a day and then you would meet at various places. Obviously we can’t do that right now, people are looking at the screen and people are having limited if no human interactions besides with their family. Talk about how the pandemic has specifically shifted your BD efforts and some of the things that you’ve put into play. You still have to be successful, you still have to get deals, you still have to help your customer, so let’s talk about that.

Mark Lee: It’s really changed how we interact with our customers, a lot of it previously would have been at different events or going and walking the halls, not as easy as it used to be but it’s still a big part of how we interact with our clients, it just went away. I think the first months or so we were just trying to find our footing, we were wondering if our staff and our clients can be okay with us working remotely, there’s lots of other things we were thinking through. As we came through that and we realized this was going to be okay from that standpoint, we started to figure out different ways to interact with our clients. One thing that we didn’t expect which has been interesting and I think helpful is that they actually seem to be more accessible than they were before, a lot of them aren’t traveling as much.

A lot of the decision makers in these cases are busy people that are on the road a lot just like we are, they haven’t been doing that and they’ve been a little bit more likely to me, which has been helpful. The other thing that I think has been interesting is that this whole thing has humanized all of us, you’ve got kids running through the background, I hope it doesn’t happen while we’re on the phone, I’ve locked the door but there’s no guarantees [laughs]. They’ve got construction people in the house, whatever it may be, it’s just humanized everyone and I have found that our interactions – this has been first hand, even – have just been a little bit more relaxed and open and honestly, productive because some of the artifice has just been dropped. I hope that we can maintain some of that because I think it’s really helped us help our clients come up with the kinds of solutions they need because the more open they are with us, the more that we can really guide them to a solution that’s going to best serve them.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about that for a little bit, the relationship with customers. Again, we’re doing webinars every single day from the Institute for Excellence in Sales for sales leaders and one of the main themes, Mark, that’s come through is that we as solution providers, vendors or whatever it may be, we have to provide more value than we’ve ever had to provide before. There’s a couple reasons for that but the main reason is because the customers are facing bigger challenges. As we like to say, there’s three things going on with every customer in the world: getting past what COVID has done from a work-at-home, from a business perspective, two is the financial repercussions that have arisen from COVID and three, whatever the third thing might be. Something specific to your company or your industry. Your company is in the solution business, talk a little bit about how your team has come up with better solutions to provide more value to your customer to help them get through and survive and succeed.

Mark Lee: It’s hard to ignore the role technology is playing in all of this and the expectations of more for less are driven to some extent by what we’ve seen of what technology has done. We’re working really hard to find ways to let our clients benefit from the things that they are benefitting from at home or they’re seeing the private sector benefit from. We’re a little different than a lot of our competitors in that we didn’t grow up as a big systems integrator, we do more than – I won’t say ‘just’ IT because that’s a huge market – but we also do the domain side and honestly, that’s where our legacy is, more on the domain side. 50 years ago there really wasn’t an IT consulting industry. What we’ve been working really hard to do is to bring together the technology and the domain so that we can meet our clients where they are which is on the domain side but bring to them the best technologies but have part of that, they’re interacting with people that speak the same language as them.

Part of the problem with federal government with the uptake of technology has been that the CIOs have been in charge of that mission and they speak the same language as IT people. When they’re interacting that’s very easy but they don’t speak the same language as the domain folks often and even though they both want probably the same thing, they just can’t quite connect. That wasn’t as big a deal when the CIOs were in charge of providing just your laptops, internet connection and other sort of commodities but increasingly, they’re expected to deliver technology to their customers. We have found a pretty unique role in helping be that translator, that dot connector and I think that’s how we’re helping our clients, through these changes and helping them do more with less and all that because you can’t do it without technology being part of the solution. It can’t be just some brute force technology solution, it’s got to really understand their mission and meet them where they are.

Fred Diamond: We have questions coming in here. Mark, what are some of your priorities right now on the sale side or the BD side? Again, you manage the entire public sector efforts for ICF, all the various functions but let’s get specific on BD. Here we are, we’re a couple weeks into the new year, it’s 2021, we talked before the show about how there is a degree of uncertainty when certain BD and sales functions like events, for example, will get back to being part of the normal BD process. People who are great in the BD space that you’re in, they go to events, they join organizations, they spend time with people getting to know partnerships, etcetera. What are some of the BD priorities that you’re directing your team on right now?

Mark Lee:  We ended up coming out of last year surprisingly, I never would have thought in March this is where we’d end up, but we ended up having record sales in our public sector business. Right now a big focus is expanding the team, bringing on more talent and I think specifically the kinds of talent that we’re bringing in are these folks that are going to work really well in intersection of technology and domain. It doesn’t mean they have expertise in either one, they’d need probably one or the other but they are the kind of intellectually curious people that are going to do really well at exploration with our staff in terms of the art of the possible as well as with clients. We’re focusing a lot there in terms of investments hires but I think in the markets the two biggest areas are – I’m sounding like a broken record – technology and then public health. I think we have a lot of capabilities in public health, that’s probably our largest single service area and obviously we’ve all seen what has happened in the world right now because we’ve been neglecting the public health sector.

In my background I’ve got two degrees in public health and I’ve seen over the last 20 years the investments have not been where they need to be. There’s still been a lot of money spent on health but not necessarily on public health and we now are seeing the downside of that. I think there’s going to be a lot more opportunity there for us and I think increasingly it is going to, again, be finding that domain and that technology intersection. A lot of the problems that we’re seeing now is just decision makers don’t have the information as we’re trying to figure out how to get the vaccine into the right people’s arms, it’s a mess.  Part of that is a data issue, we don’t know where the people are, we don’t know where the vaccine is so it’s hard to match those two things up. Technology is not the only part of that solution but it’s a big part of the solution, that’s just an example.

Fred Diamond: Mark, we have two quick questions here, just a clarification question. You were using the word ‘domain’ frequently in your previous answer, we just got a couple people here who asked if you could just clarify specifically what you mean by domain.

Mark Lee: Health would be a domain, housing would be a domain, emergency management would be a domain, it’s all areas of expertise. You can think of technology as being the ultimate horizontal and then you’ve got all these verticals which are particular areas that we have people with expertise in.

Fred Diamond: Mark, we have a question here that’s coming in, this is a question that we almost never ask but just based on what you were talking about with health, obviously we’re framing today’s conversation. We’re in the middle still of a pandemic, the question comes in here from Jerry and Jerry is a frequent listener. Jerry wants to know, “How has politics impacted your sales process?” I’m not going to ask you for anything but the question is, again you’re talking about domain and again, I almost never ask this particular question because on the Sales Game Changers podcast we talk about sales process, customer interactions. The question is not everybody was on board with certain things that needed to be happening health wise, how do your people as sales professionals, how do you deal with that versus people who are on board and grasp the particular problem?

Mark Lee: There’s no avoiding it, we work in the public sector, politics play an integral part of our business but we at the same time have to survive during whatever the administration is, we can’t necessarily play favorites unless we want to be really nervous every November [laughs]. I think part of it is understanding your customer and you can care about issues without making it political. I think that certainly was a challenge the last four years and there were definitely a few issues that we thought we couldn’t touch because we felt like advocating for those particular programs or policies violated our values. We don’t define that broadly but I do think there are things that are non-negotiables and our staff would lose faith in us as leaders if we didn’t draw the line somewhere so there is a line.

Working on anything that has to do with putting kids in cages, that’s a line. We did walk away from some work in that particular area but at the same time we don’t define that broadly because we think our clients are almost all really well-meaning, hardworking federal servants that have a job to do as well. Part of our job is helping them do that so it’s hard and it’s something that we have to constantly battle with. We all have our own personal political feelings but to some extent, you’ve got to leave those at home – I guess now leave them in a different room and do your job. But again, there are things that are non-negotiables. I think particularly at a mission-driven organization like ICF, that’s what applies.

Fred Diamond: Jerry, thank you for the question. Mark Lee, you mentioned before how you’ve gotten closer with customers in some regards. Let’s talk about customer conversations right now because that’s another theme that we talk about all the time, the conversations that you’re having with your customers and conversations that you’re having with prospects or partners. Let’s talk about the quality of those conversations right now, I’m just curious, especially with a customer like yours with public sector. There’s a certain level of interaction that you mentioned crossing the line, public sector is a regulation-driven industry, there’s ways they need to engage, there’s laws, there’s rules. In the beginning of the pandemic a lot of people were saying that since we were all in the same boat, that they were a little more empathetic with their government customer. Again, you mentioned before that maybe there’s kids in the house, you have to be the homeschool teacher or you’ve got to be a camp counselor this past summer, something like that. I’m just curious on the quality of the relationships. If there is a quality – which I’m sure there is – how are you hoping to maintain that moving forward? Because it makes sales a lot better knowing that you can have comfortable conversations with your customers.

Mark Lee: That’s a great question. When we think about the quality of conversations it’s really about the openness and my experience has been part of the reasons some of our federal clients aren’t as open is because when they first get their training at federal government they’re basically taught that all contractors and consultants have horns and a tail, they just hide them really well. They come into it very skeptical when they deal with us and the more they get to know us and let that guard down a little bit, the more  they see that that actually benefits them because they’re letting us know a little bit more of what’s going on. There’s that myth busters at the federal space about all the things that they can and can’t do and what it really demonstrates is that so many things they think they can’t do are completely fine within the federal acquisition process, not a problem at all. Once they understand where the line really is and it’s not as far on the conservative side as they often think, then all of a sudden they unlock so much potential for them.

They are much more successful because they can communicate their needs better, we’re not guessing while we’re writing a proposal what they really want, they can give us feedback about what they liked and what they didn’t like in a different way. I’ve seen a little bit of improvement in that, again, I feel everybody’s a little bit more human now than they were before so their guards down a little bit more. I hope that stays that way and I think increasingly it would be really nice for us to be seen by everybody as a partner rather than just a tool you’re forced to use sometimes [laughs]. I think the best, most successful leaders in the federal government do understand that and embrace it. I think they’re more successful because they really avail themselves of all the private sector has to offer. We’re not answering to everything but there are a lot of things that we can help with.

Fred Diamond: Mark, we have a question here that comes in from Nicole, Nicole is in the DC area. “Mark, how have you changed as a sales leader and do your people view you differently now than they did a year ago?” Interesting little twist on the question there. I’m just curious, we talked about humanizing, prior to the pandemic we would have done this interview in your office in a nice beautiful conference room and now we’re both in our home offices. How do you think that you’ve changed a little bit? We talked about the customer becoming more humanized, have you had some shifts there that you’d like to share?

Mark Lee: That’s interesting. I think the people that have known me well for a long time would probably say, “No, not that much.” When all this started I got together with my communications team and once we got through the immediate of, “Are we going to be able to work from home or are they going to shut us down?” That was the first question we were all asking ourselves. It was really then how do we keep our staff engaged because they’re super stressed out, they’re dealing with kids at home, a lot of them, there are all these stresses they have in their lives. How do we make them know that we are going to be flexible with them and that we understand these things and that’s okay but also that this is an organization you want to continue to work at? Because frankly, in a lot of our markets now hiring had slowed down a little bit in the spring but it was right back up to normal levels by June. There’s still a huge battle for talent, how do we help them understand that this is really where they want to be, assuming it is? When we got together, part of what came out of that is, “We need more regular interaction, we need less scripted interaction and we need more authentic, vulnerable communications.”

We started doing a really short newsletter every week, those were some regular communications so that they’re hearing from more than just the people at their house and there’s some news there. I started doing some town halls where it’s completely unscripted and it’s not filtered, some of our communication staff are a little bit nervous about that because like, “They can ask anything” and I’m like, “That’s exactly the point.” There were questions that I probably wouldn’t have preferred that they’d asked, things like, “Why can’t we all get desks bought for us by the company in our homes?” but they’re thinking it and I’m glad they asked because then it got to, “Let me explain, we would love to be able to do that but we’re still paying rent in all of our office space so there’s no new resources available. We’re trying to manage through this just like you guys are and we’re going to do what we can and we have done some things to help with that.” These things are going on in these people’s minds and this was anonymous, they could just type it in anonymously and the person who was leading the meeting could read the questions. I got so much feedback after those meetings even though there wasn’t a lot of really ground breaking information communicated about how much they appreciated it and that we were taking the time to do that.

It’s like all of a sudden I’ve discovered some untapped superpower, “Just be honest.” We’ve done that again, again got great feedback and I think probably the folks that didn’t know me as well, other than the all-hands me reading off a prepared presentation, I think they got who I am maybe a little bit more. Part of what I want them to feel like they can do is that they can call me out in a respectful way. If they don’t like something that’s going on, they should be able to raise that and if I believe in the policy, I should be willing to stand behind it and answer their questions. We’re selling mind share, that’s all we have to sell, we’re not really a big projects company like some of the other folks that you talk with so if the people don’t want to be here, we’re going to fail. That’s been a big part of what we’ve learned through all this, there’s a type of communication that really resonates at least with our staff, I think that’s probably true in an office.

Fred Diamond: On the flip side there, what are your expectations right now for your BD people? This is the way it’s going to be for at least through the fall so there’s not going to be in-person things, people are going to be home, they’re going to have to figure it out like they’ve done, most people have figured things out, schools are going back in a lot of different places like where I am right now. I’m just curious, what are your expectations of your BD people knowing that there’s really not going to be much process or logistical change for the next 6 months? Then we get to the summer, people are going to be wanting to do summer things if anything logistically changes. Of course we’re going to be improving our Zoom-ish type stuff that we do. Curiously, what are your expectations of your sales team right now?

Mark Lee: I think even putting COVID aside, there are two main things that I expect of all of our salespeople which is that they understand what we have to sell because any good salesperson needs good stuff to sell, and they understand how to find the clients that need it and communicate that. If those clients don’t see a clear value add then we’re not going to be successful. Maybe you make that first sale but then it falls on its face because it wasn’t really what they needed and we’re looking for long term, durable relationships. As I look at any sales talent, I’m looking for those things. At least the ICF people, and I think this is true across, they’re just dying for the weather to get better so they can get back outside doing outside networking things because every time I would go do one of the few events I would do, I would see like six of our salespeople out. They’re so happy to talk to someone because they’re all, generally speaking, extroverts – that’s not always true, but it’s usually true. I think however they can continue to connect with clients, there’s lots of different ways, we’ve discovered a lot of new ways through all of this, I don’t think there’s one solution. I’ve seen it done a lot of different ways and successfully.

I think a lot of them also have been spending a little more time – because they’re not at so many happy hours or things – understanding our capabilities a little bit better. I think they’re going to come out of this even stronger salespeople because they’re going to have a stronger connection to what they’re trying to sell and it’ll be easier to have really meaningful conversations with the clients. I think that’s another benefit that we’ll be seeing the results of here in the coming months.

Fred Diamond: You mentioned there’s a huge battle for talent. We have a question that came in here from Jim and Jim is a frequent watcher, I know Jim is in the product side. The question is, “Why should I consider a career in public sector BD?” I’ll let you answer that in two ways, one is talk a little bit about the sales career or the career of a federal BD person and why should someone look at that? Second part is why would ICF be a great place for talented BD people to come work?

Mark Lee: I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff about the public sector. You’re working on things that have a real connection to people’s lives generally and back to the public health, I went into this field because I wanted to do meaningful work. Public sector provides you that opportunity, selling, you’re on the front lines and without you there is no business. I think you’re really helping to connect people to needs that make a difference. I think that’s important, that’s meaningful work, that’s stuff that you feel good about when you go to bed every night, that’s stuff you can tell your kids that they can be proud of the work that you do. Also, I think there’s a lot of opportunity. If you look at the way the DC area has run over the last 20 years, a lot of that has been driven by the public sector opportunities with the federal government.

I don’t see that slowing down anytime soon, it’s interesting work, there’s certainly a lot of really great people that do it so you’ll get to spend time with smart, mission-driven people, who doesn’t want to do that? I think ICF, part of our value proposition – and I’m always careful about this, for the right person, we’re the perfect place. I think that person is someone who’s really mission-driven, who cares about doing meaningful work, wants to work for a company that values their employees and wants their employees to have a voice. We like a rigorous debate and we like to challenge each other and that’s part of our values, being willing to challenge each other. Part of having diverse teams is giving all those on the team a voice, I think that’s something that we really try hard at, I think we’ve been successful largely because of that. I think we’re also a growth business, from the time that we went public back in 2006 that’s been a clearly articulated goal. Before that we were certainly a growth business but to our investors that’s clearly communicated which means we’re going to invest in sales. You don’t want to go to a business that’s flat if you’re a salesperson because you’re going to be dealing with a very skimpy budget. We certainly are investing in sales, we value it, we know how important it is.

Fred Diamond: Mark Lee, I want to thank you again for being on today’s show, you’ve given us a lot of great insights. You may not be aware of this but we became aware of you through a lot of the people that we deal with in the public sector space and our members and sponsors, a couple of them specifically said, “You need to get Mark Lee on the Sales Game Changers podcast.” You and your company and your work and the public health side as well, it’s so critical right now for solutions for obvious reasons so I want to acknowledge you for all the great work that you personally have done, your team and what ICF is bringing to our country and to the world. Mark, give us one final action step, give us one final idea that the sales leaders watching today’s webinar or listening to today’s podcast should implement right now to take their sales or BD career to the next level.

Mark Lee: I think it’s really important for salespeople to understand their organization’s North Star. What is it that they do better than anybody else and why do you watn to work there? If they really understand that, the interactions with the clients are going to be more meaningful, they’re going to be more impactful and then you’re going to position that team for success. When the team is successful, the salespeople are successful. I think at ICF that North Star has always been our values – I’ve mentioned this a number of times since we’ve been talking. People need to speak their mind, they need challenge assumptions, we want to work together, collaboration is key and meaningful sales, meaningful client relationships are not just done by one person.

We don’t subscribe to the Superman model here, it’s really a team and the salespeople at ICF need to understand that. If they understand that, they’re going to have a much easier time being successful. Other organizations have their own thing but if you can understand what it is that you do better than anybody else, then you’re already ahead of the game and you’re out competing on hopefully not a level playing field, hopefully a playing field that’s tilted towards you because that’s what you want as a salesperson. I think that’s really been key to our success in that regard, I think that’s universal.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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