Legacy to Leverage: How Michael McNerney Stumbled Into a BD Career

This guest post was edited by Mark Uzunian based on an interview with Michael McNerney, Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships at Performance Horizon.

Come hear Mike share more about he’s seen BD roles evolve across companies of all sizes at at Firneo Forum on March 29th in NYC.


With a background in product management and spending much of his early career at publishing giant McGraw-Hill, Mike McNerney never saw his role at the company as business development. But with the legacy print-media products that was McGraw-Hill’s bread and butter becoming a fast-shrinking market, McNerney’s role was essentially to figure out how to grow the business any way he could.


“I eventually realized that in order to build a better product, I had to think of new way to leverage our assets,” says McNerney. “We had a very strong brand name, terrific reach, and a great audience. But we lacked the product feature set that could help us grow in the digital space. That meant that we had to attract new digital partners to build those features that we didn’t have, then negotiating the right relationships with those companies.” Without knowing it, McNerney’s job started to become what people now refer to as business development.


But What Is Business Development?


“In my experience, business development is all about helping an organization determine the best ways to create value. Another way you could look at BD is that it’s creating partnerships that create value,” McNerney says. One thing is certain: don’t call it sales. McNerney explains: “The biggest misconception about it is that it’s just another sales job. There’s certainly a sales element to business development, and that’s an important element. But you’re not always selling a product. You’re selling ideas, and that’s a little bit different.”


After spending a number of years at McGraw-Hill, McNerney received a job offer from Yodle, an up-and-coming tech startup that was going through a major growth period. A similar deja vu moment happened after being walked through the role at Yodle. “The job was going out and looking for organizations that did things that Yodle didn’t do very well, and marrying them to the things that we were very good at to create value,” he says. Even though the script had flipped by comparison to what McNerney was doing at McGraw-Hill, those relationships to business development were still very much there.


What It Takes to Be Successful at Business Development


Business development isn’t for everyone. Some days you’ll spend hours on the phone trying to work a potential partnership. Other days you’ll be working across the organization with the product, marketing, and sales teams, to figure out how to bring a product to market. A typical day doesn’t exist when you’re in the BD world, and that’s what makes it so enticing for some people.


“From a temperament and personality view, you genuinely have to like working across the functional units of a business, and collaborating with them,” McNerney says. “That’s where it differs from sales. Salespeople are hunters. The most successful business development people that I’ve seen have a completely different kind of motivation.” At the same time, you’ll be working with a number of different organizations, learning the ins and outs of their products, how they function, and be able to evaluate them relatively quickly. Are there strategic reasons to work with this company? Does it make sense to go to market together? Will this partnership actually drive additional profits? “Not only do you need the ability to make those kinds of calls quickly, but you also need the skills to do in-depth analysis to back up those assessments. This often comes down to having the ability to ask the right questions,” he explains.


Success in BD doesn’t just come down to one person, however. “Often, success isn’t tied to anything the business development person did. It’s whether or not the business itself was successful. What makes my job exciting is being able to make those connections, and to benefit both my company and our partner organizations,” McNerney says.


Tips for a Long, Successful Career in BD


Let’s say it’s the first day of your new business development job. You have some experience under your belt, but you’re hungry for more knowledge and determined to make the most impact right away. McNerney has 3 essential tips for a long career in BD:


  1. Get to know your CFO, and know them well. “At the end of the day, the CFO makes the final call when it comes to business development. They can support your ideas, and they can tank them. The more you learn about who they are and what they’re looking for, the easier your job becomes.”


  1. Get to know the 21st century equivalents of the “mailroom”. These are the workers within the organization who know everything, and know how to get things done. Maybe they’re the IT staff, the sales support staff, or the coding team. It will be different in every organization, but every company has some group that fits the description. Get to know them, and make sure they know that you appreciate what they do. If there’s some extra pizza or doughnuts around after a meeting, bring them the leftovers. Find out who those junior people in the organization are that keep the place running, and befriend them with food.”


  1. Identify your professional goals. “This is something you should do early in your career. It’s easy to lose sight of what’s important if you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve. Don’t be afraid to change those goals — what you want will almost certainly change over time — but always have them.”

Want to connect with Mike and hear more about his journey into BD?  Come to Firneo Forum, the first-ever conference on Business Development on March 29th in NYC.

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