The essential skills needed to expand a business into a new market – Toni Cowan-BrownFeatured

I have been staring at this question for a few weeks, trying to come up with a suitable answer yet unable to put pen to paper. It’s been hard mostly because the skills I come up with, although they are crucial for the job I do, don’t feel essential in order to get the job done at the highest level. Anyone who has ever been tasked with expanding a business into a new market will know that many skills are required to get the job done. In my case, I have been the VP of European Business Development for a SAAS company that sells leadership software to NGOs, campaigns, presidential candidates, political parties, tasked with our EMEA expansion.Then it hit me empathy and active listening are two skills that are crucial. I realized this when a small NGO decided to go on a somewhat ill-informed twitter rant about the company I work for, specifically trying to shame (and name) some of our customers and ecosystem partners that use our software. This is not unusual for any company when they are expanding into new markets, as any newcomer creates interest (or so you would hope) and curiosity. In our case, we often find ourselves on both sides of an argument, a referendum, or even an election…all very divisive, so that curiosity spikes. And on top of that the rapid evolution of technology “stands in stark contrast to the lack of political change.” (David Runciman, 2014)When you go into new markets, word of mouth (WOM) is golden. It will help you expand your customer base, grow interest, create solid referral programmes, help with your story… and the list goes on. It’s what I believe has allowed us to be so successful building our brand and business in Europe. Now here is the thing, WOM brings great ROI, but it needs to be nurtured and protected at all costs. In my opinion this is done by building very thoughtful relationships that are also long lasting. It’s far more valuable than any marketing stunt or PR, especially when the latter is done alone. There is also no instant gratification with WOM, this is one reason why few people actually do it these days. (note: I do absolutely believe that both a good PR strategy and a good marketing plan are key, but more often than not WOM is under-utilised, which surprises me as it’s so valuable and powerful).In situations like the above, where someone is just trying to do their job, yet simultaneously embarrassing your customers, and publicly coming to false conclusions that could be damaging to all parties, you need more than your standard - yet extremely valuable - skills. Many skills such as diplomacy, patience, awareness, efficiency, leadership are needed in my job as VP, of European Business Development (edit: now VP, Strategic Partnerships). That being said, none are as essential as deep empathy and active/reflective listening.In situations like the above, the desired outcome is one where both parties can accept new and different perspectives on a complex topic to which they have emotion-based relationships. This acceptance requires the opposite of the closed mindedness we often encounter in business strategy. Whereas with PR and marketing you are trying to get your key messages out there, with empathy you are truly trying to understand the people who sit on the other side of the proverbial table and it requires the following - empathy and active and reflective listening.Empathy. It’s being able to put your differences aside, and try and understand where the ‘other’ person is coming from; it’s trying to put yourself in their position by understanding their frame of reference.To many, empathy seems like a skill that is easy to develop and benign, but it’s rare to come across true empathy. I have seen sympathy and a myriad of versions of so-called empathy, which in most cases are sympathy disguised as empathy. If you are wondering what the difference is between the two, Brene Brown does a great job explaining the distinction in this video previously shared by Abadesi.Active and reflective listening. Active listening is often used when trying to solve conflicts. It requires the listener fully concentrate on the speaker, understand, respond and then remember what is said. Reflective listening is where the listener repeats back to the speaker what they have just heard to confirm both parties understand. As you can imagine both of these require a fair deal more from you than our standard passive listening.Active listening has taught me to put aside my core beliefs, and as a result, strong emotions, and make room for questions to better understand the person sitting opposite me. By doing this, I have over time become more educated and knowledgeable on a myriad of topics, which in turn has served me in many other situations where I might have not previously had knowledge. I am more open and tolerant than I have ever been, able to fundamentally disagree with someone's belief or policies and remain respectful of our differences, and I’m able to truly listen (and understand) rather than think about my counter-argument.I have used these skills in my past two positions and have reached out to nearly every single person that has ‘attacked’ me personally or the company I work for because they had questions or doubts about what we are trying to do, and I have offered the possibility of dialogue. Not everyone accepts this invitation, but among those that do, 90% of those conversations have resulted in what I consider to be fruitful exchanges. Some have become customers, ecosystem partners, consultants, or even friends. These skills are essential to succeed in my job, and more importantly have made me a much better person. And when I come to think of it, the one thing we all want is to be heard and understood. Sometimes the most subversive thing you can do is open a dialogue with those who disagree with you and talk with them rather than simply at them.The filmmaker, Deeyah Khan, has mastered these skills and put them to incredible use in these two documentaries - the White Right: Meeting the Enemy and Jihad: A Story of the Other.Toni Cowan-Brown is Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at NationBuilder. As a member of NationBuilder’s Leadership Team, Toni is responsible for devising and implementing the company’s strategies that drive business and revenue growth through strategic partnerships. Prior to this, Toni was the VP of European Business Development at NationBuilder for four years where she looked after European expansion and business. NationBuilder is the world's first platform for leaders.Toni was named by The Drum as one of the UK's 30 under 30 in digital and is a regular guest on BBC London radio.
Hi Toni, thank you for sharing your story and discussing two "soft skills" that can often be overlooked. I've seen through practice that both of these skills are extremely important and should be seen as skills that can continue to be honed, rather than characteristics of an individual.
This often gets overlooked as being so critical in a professional environment. I could take everything you said and apply it to most things in life!