“What do you do for a living?” is the cliché ice-breaker question. If you happen to be an academic, you might respond with some variant of “I teach”, “I lecture at university X”, “I am a professor in Y”, etc. If you are a research-active academic, chances are that you will first say “I am a scientist”, possibly then adding “I teach at university Z”. Or something like that. But this, I am sure about: if you are an academic it will not cross your mind to answer “I sell” or “I am in sales”, not even “I am in the business of persuasion” or other such formulation. Yet, I have come to realize that trying to persuade is exactly what academics do all the time (while vehemently trying to hide it!).
Academics sell, even if they don’t like to admit it. If an academic is “teaching active” she will be selling her courses and modules to a reluctant head of school, or she might try hard -on a Monday morning- to convince a half hanged-over class to invest brain power in paying attention to what she is about to talk about, e.g., Quantum mechanics, the history of the Jewish people or Byron’s poems. On the other hand, if you are a “research active” academic, then you will be peddling your ideas via several instruments such as papers, grants, keynote talks, or blogs (such as this one). You will be pushing your pro-vice-chancellor, rector or dean for research to support your latest initiative. You will be cajoling your doctoral student to perform an additional experiment, etc. And what if you are a “management active” academic? Well, I have news for you too: you are also in the business of selling although you probably know that already. You sell performance indicators, business plans, reorganization designs, etc to your peers.
Most of the sales academics do are what Daniel H. Pink, in his excellent book “To Sell is Human“, calls “non-sale sales”. Non-sales sales do not involve the transfer of physical goods but rather are concerned with moving people to part with resources they have (time, attention, energy, etc) in a direction you want. In essence, whatever you do as an academic, you spend a large proportion of your working hours selling upwards and downwards of the food chain.
A few years ago, I found myself repeating some suggestions and some advice to colleagues who asked for help improving their grants. Initially, these were junior faculty but soon I noticed that the seniority distribution of people who will contact me about their grants shifted upwards. The advice was more or less along the same lines for everybody. Hence I decided that it would be good to put my ideas in writing to be able to reach and help a larger number of academics.
Once that decision was taken, I soon realised that I needed to learn more about entrepreneurship, marketing, and salesmanship for at least two reasons. The first reason is that I am convinced that running a lab has a lot to do with entrepreneurship/intrapreneurship and that writing grants (the energy source fueling successful research groups) has as much to do with marketing and salesmanship as it does with good science. The second reason was that I was never schooled in sales, entrepreneurship or marketing and neither was I a charismatic, warm or easy-going person (in fact I am quite neurotic, irritable, and don’t suffer fools gladly). I felt that I needed to understand more what makes successful entrepreneurs and excellent salespersons so I can better help academics move others towards their ideas. That is, I wanted to learn what it takes to persuade better, to sale better.
So there you have it: the heretical alchemy of mixing science and scholarship with salesmanship again. “How you dare!” I bet you are screaming to the screen where you read this. Well, don’t get ahead of yourself. Let me try selling you this idea….it all starts with a story which I will tell you in my next blog.