Mo Bunnell: Effective Tools for Changing Habits


For a long time, Mo Bunnell carried around an 1899 silver dollar that had once belonged to his grandfather. If you’d seen Mo’s daily ritual of clutching the coin in his palm every morning and then slipping it into his pocket, you might have guessed he was superstitious, or that he had a touch of OCD.

Hardly. Mo’s daily silver dollar ritual was a deliberate act that helped make him the successful sales consultant and entrepreneur he is today. “In the mornings I used to pick that coin up and think of the most proactive thing I could do that day,” he says. “Then, I didn’t allow myself to put it in my pocket until I knew what that thing was –and I couldn’t take it out again until I’d done it.”

That’s not superstition; it’s discipline. Mo continued this practice until he no longer needed the silver dollar to remind him. Fast forward to today: committing to and taking at least one proactive step every day is an ingrained habit.

Putting research into practice

According to Mo, not many professionals treat sales like a discipline. And that’s a shame. “There are lots of MBAs in strategy or operations or general management, all kinds of things where they treat it like it’s scientific,” he says. Yet, there are very few schools where you can get an advanced degree in sales or business development. While that baffles Mo, he doesn’t sit around wondering about it. Instead, he consults and trains sales leaders in exactly that through his consultancy, the Atlanta-based Bunnell Idea Group. “We’ve done research into different disciplines: Why do people do what they do? How do buyers think about money? How do people make decisions?” While there’s plenty of research on these topics, he says, it wasn’t in one place until the Bunnell Idea Group put it there. They call it the GrowBIG® Integrated System. “We found the research and synthesized it,” he says. “First we track people who do business development the right way; and second, if you’re managing a business development force, how do you get the behavior change? How do you unlearn the old habits?”

The answers may come as a surprise: Unlearning old habits and adopting new ones is a low-tech effort. But it is an effort. It’s as simple as taking a silver dollar out of your pocket and holding it in your hand until you come up with one proactive task for the day. The challenge is sticking with it. Mo recalls a recent final approval meeting with a C-suite team. “They’d vetted us, audited us and validated us. We were a good fit.” The head of the client’s team wanted Mo to give an hour-long presentation. “They were expecting cool, sexy apps, webinars and videos,” he says. “But through a series of questions we guided them to the idea that none of these things come close to the power of the people in the room sticking with the program and not getting distracted by the next shiny object two months later.”

Mo’s group often works with individuals who are struggling with the “seller-doer model” – high-end professionals such as attorneys and senior-level marketing people whose jobs involve some aspect of selling and some aspect of doing. In that role, he says, it’s easy to become reactive, not proactive. “We build systems around remaining proactive,” he says.

For example, a high-end litigator at a prestigious law firm wanted a version of Mo’s silver dollar ritual. “She doesn’t travel much,” says Mo. “Usually she’s at her desk, looking at a computer screen all day.” Again, no flashy app was required, just a customized post-it note with the firm’s name on it on her computer. Before she began work each day, she’d write down her proactive commitment on the post-it, and she couldn’t throw it away until she completed the task. It was a simple solution that required a sustained effort and some coaching. She stuck with it, and eventually, she no longer needed the note, but her proactive business development became routine.

Good values and applied math

Mo’s early influences help to explain his belief in finding the right method and sticking with it. Growing up in rural Indiana, in a town of 80 people, “I saw my parents work really hard, and today I feel uncomfortable when I don’t have a lot to do.” Both of his parents were teachers, and his dad coached basketball and also owned a restaurant. From fifth grade on, Mo worked there on weekends and during summers. “That’s the mid western work ethic,” he says. “You give it your best shot and you always have a helpful mindset.”

Mo’s second influence was his early career as an actuary. Becoming an actuary takes about 10,000 hours of study over eight to 10 years. It requires the work ethic Mo learned as a child. And it can help to build the discipline required to lose the old habits and acquire new ones – like taking a proactive step every day.

At the time Mo became an actuary he worked for Hewitt Associates – “an awesome HR firm,” he says. As his role changed from technical to business development, he assumed he could read a few books that would teach him how to be a better account manager. “But all the books were soft,” he says. “You know, treat the customer right and business will come. Or cheesy sales books on doing whatever you can to close the deal.” Mo sought mentors, and he began writing white papers for himself as a way to learn how to have a great first meeting, how to do long-term planning for a client, how to add value and create a buzz. “Eventually,” he says, “I was asked to give a talk about a white paper I’d written that I’d accidentally left by the copy machine!”

As Mo’s knowledge and experience evolved, and he began to share his methods more widely, he formed three basic principles of business development around which he has built his behavior-changing techniques:

  • Work with the right clients. “I think it’s really easy to be reactive and go after the companies we know,” he says, “but it’s better to do a hardcore analytical process about who we should go after.” Here Mo walks the talk: he won’t take on a new client until he knows it’s a good fit.
  • Lead with value. “Most people lead by begging. ‘Did you get my emails? Did you get my phone messages?’ Instead, we ask, ‘what can we build that will make people want to talk with us?’”
  • Put your best and coolest resources up front. “Give bite-sized pieces of expertise away so that people will want to work with you,” says Mo. “Give to get. After lead generation, you want clients to want you around. If you give away bite-sized pieces, they’ll want to be around you more and more. Unfortunately, most people do the opposite!”

According to Mo, people get excited about developing the tools his firm provides because they see that the tools will help them. The problem comes about four weeks in, when they fall back into their old routines. “They’ll be getting ready for a client meeting and they’ll do the same boring pitch, the same ‘pillars of our business,’ the clients’ logos – the same things the buyer saw in 10 other sellers. You’re talking about you instead of them; you’re not leading with value.” The trick, he says, is to stick with the tools, practice the rituals and build new behaviors.

Mo’s got a program that does just that – one that keeps front line managers in the trenches with their teams, shaping those behaviors to the right ones. “You do that by sharing data, sharing leading indicators, using give-to-gets, doing the weekly planning, using lead generation techniques.”

Changing habits takes time – two or three months of one-on-one coaching, sometimes even longer, before the sales person no longer needs to take that metaphorical coin out of his or her pocket every day. Ingraining new habits is a long, unglamorous slog. But once it happens, once the seller “owns” the right behaviors, everything changes. Mo Bunnell doesn’t just teach this; he lives it, day in and day out – giving to getting, sharing his expertise and teaching sales leaders about how to lose old habits, gain new ones and GrowBig® – one silver dollar at a time.

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