How to go from being a Good proposal manager to a Great one
Every client I’ve supported says good leaders make the best proposal managers. I mostly agree, but I think every proposal manager (even the great ones) can improve with a little focused effort and people new to the proposal game can be VERY QUICKLY brought up to speed with the right coaching. As a company, having one great proposal manager only works when you’re very small. Once you’ve started winning proposals because of that great guy or gal, it’s time to start mentoring new proposal managers that can expand your market even further.
I interviewed dozens of the best proposal managers in the industry (I subjectively decided that best was the proposal managers that were consistently chosen in their company to manage the most proposals or proposal consultants that were consistently hired back by multiple companies) in order to distill an essence of great proposal management from them. What I found was that individual styles and preferences varied greatly, but the underlying themes remained consistent.
If you are serious about improving your proposal management skills, write down each of the 4 traits I describe below and create 2 columns: column 1 for how you think you’re currently performing, column 2 for specific actions you can take to improve your performance. When your next proposal kicks off, review this list each morning to see where you can take action to improve your proposal game.
The best proposal managers are effective communicators and they do it often, early, and consistently. Set the communication tone at your first meeting; layout the schedule for tag ups (daily, MWF, etc.), the information you want reported, and the methods of communication you prefer. This will make it very clear to your team what you expect of them daily and how often you will be checking in.
They are clear and short. As a proposal manager, you want to gather as much great information as you can from your people. Pontificating (or letting others do so) wastes everyone’s time. Instead, in large groups stay at a high level. Break into smaller groups afterwards for detailed conversations. You’re very busy, but try to really listen to your writers and subject matter experts (SMEs) to help them distill their knowledge into the form you want. Give them clear direction on what you want and then step out of the way. The clearer you are, the more the product will look like you were expecting, ultimately saving you time in the long run. This holds true in both verbal and written guidance throughout the proposal.
They pick up the phone when email isn’t working. Everyone wants to email but sometimes picking up the phone and screen sharing a document will save you days of work. If one method of communication is not working, try another one.
Praise and Consideration
People are killing themselves for you. Okay, maybe not literally but when they have to miss their kid’s soccer game to make a proposal deadline they certainly feel like it. And whether the work they deliver to you is good or bad, they still put in the time. Say thank you often and be as encouraging as you can without lying. Thank yous and positive feedback will help keep your team positive and motivated.
I still remember one of the leadership tips I picked up at the Naval Academy: the positive sandwich. When you have a piece of negative feedback or major correction for your writer, put it in between two positive statements. This way you have the person in a good frame of mind to receive the criticism, you deliver the feedback, and then you leave them ready to get back to work. In the heat of a proposal it’s easy to sllip and be short. Your proposal team will respond well to one more moment of consideration before you hit the send button.
Willing to Make Tough Decisions
Sometimes the government is slow to answer your questions and your writers need an answer to get started. This is the time great proposal managers are willing to step up and make the difficult decision. Course corrections can be made, but wasted time can never be retrieved.
In a color team review there is often conflicting guidance (not every idea is a good or actionable idea). In addition, every company has politics around whose guidance you should follow. Ultimately it is up to you to decide. Identify conflicts in guidance and sort it out right after your color team. Make the decisions as quickly as possible so your writers can start making changes. If you positionally can’t make the decision, work with the decision maker to get the answer as quickly as you can.
Take Small Bites
The joke “How do you eat an elephant?” directly applies to proposals. The answer is “One bite at a time” and as a proposal manager, you’ll be responsible for showing the team how and where to make those bites.
If you’re not a great task manager or don’t have the time to follow up consistently, assign someone on your team (a Proposal Coordinator) to step into this role. You will be free to focus on guiding the directions of those tasks because, as proposal manager, you are responsible for the end product. Breaking the process down into specific milestones based on color teams will help you determine which tasks are most effective for the different phases of your proposal.
The best proposal managers put a big focus on brainstorming and outlining in the beginning. They all have countless examples of teams that started writing before they had a plan. When I was a Navy Diver, we had a saying, “Plan your dive and dive your plan.” By following this for proposals and creating RFP-compliant outlines, I see less major rewrites and more consistency in the products sections with multiple writers produce.
Improving Your Proposal Performance
There are a lot more traits you can apply to proposals than the four mentioned here. But the only way to improve is to consciously notice your performance and practice taking new, more effective action.