Most companies assign whoever’s available to the role of proposal manager. Often it’s the future project manager, someone with a technical writing or editorial background, or an ambitious administrative assistant. Excellent proposal managers can come from these and other backgrounds. But so can failures. We’ve identified seven key things to look for when selecting someone to manage a proposal effort.
It’s worth noting that experience with the customer and technical experience with the offering aren’t on our list. That’s because they are not what separates a great proposal manager from a bad one. They are “nice to haves” and not “need to haves.” If you want a great proposal manager, you have to learn to look for other things.
But first, there’s something critically important that you need to do: Define the role.
Who has the final say regarding the outline, process, offering, pricing, bid strategies, and text? Those are often split between multiple people. Do you expect the proposal manager to write some or all of the proposal or participate in final production? Will they be creating the proposal or managing others who will create it? Do you want someone to take orders or give the orders? Do you know how to prepare a winning proposal or do you want someone to take the lead who does? Do you want someone to follow your process or do you want someone to create the process?
A lot depends on whether you see the proposal manager as someone who pushes paper or someone leading you to the win. Whatever you do as the executive sponsor, don’t leave who is responsible for what up in the air. If you delegate figuring out what roles people should play or expect the proposal team to just know it, what you’ll get is a portion of the energy that could have gone into winning spent on indecision, turf battles, and petty squabbles that could have been avoided with more clarity. Below are eight things you should pay attention to before tossing your proposal manager to the wolves.
Instead of making a long list of everything a proposal manager needs to know or tasks to be capable of, like you might see in a typical position description, we prefer to focus on just the key things that drive everything else. There are a lot of different things you could look for in a proposal manager, but if you get these things right, most of the others will fall into place.
- Do they understand what an RFP compliance matrix is, and have they ever created one on their own? If they do, you’ll get someone who knows how to flow the right information to the right sections of the proposal to make it easy for the customer to evaluate. If they don’t, you’ll just get someone who tries to do a good job, but may create a proposal that looks good but is in reality difficult for the customer to evaluate. Creating a compliance matrix often involves judgment calls. It’s not something you can do just by following procedures. Experience making those judgment calls can help a lot. If you don’t know what an RFP compliance matrix is, select someone who can explain it to you. If you do know what an RFP compliance matrix is, select someone who can explain how to make the right judgment calls to your satisfaction.
- Can they articulate what a quality proposal is and what is required to create one? If you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, you’ll never get there. If you define a quality proposal as one that “wins,” it won’t provide any guidance regarding what to do to win. If all you do is focus on RFP compliance, it’s not enough to win. You want someone who knows what it will take to win and who can build the proposal around it.
- Have they ever participated in a proposal review? Participating in proposal reviews is a great way to learn what not to do. Making that a requirement for new proposal managers is a good way to keep your organization from repeating mistakes of the past. Knowing what you are looking for as a reviewer is good experience for being able to deliver it. A potential future proposal manager's comments during a review may be the best form of interview for the position possible.
- Can they help the proposal team do better than mere RFP compliance? You’ve got the RFP. You know what to do to comply with it. And so do all your competitors. To be competitive you must go beyond simply responding to the RFP and you need a proposal manager who can guide the proposal team to do that. Ask the candidates you are considering what can be done to exceed RFP compliance. See if they understand that it doesn’t have to increase the cost of what you bid. See if they understand that it has more to do with calling out the value in what you intend to offer and linking it with superior results.
- Do they understand what it means to write from the customer’s perspective? A good proposal describes your offering to the customer. A great proposal is about the customer and the decision they need to make, and not about describing yourself. To get from a good proposal to a great proposal, the proposal manager must understand how to guide the writers to reflect the customer’s perspective instead of simply being descriptive.
- Can they manage staff who don’t report to them? A proposal manager usually operates with one hand tied behind their back. Often none of the staff working on a proposal report to the proposal manager. And yet the proposal manager still has to get results from people with conflicting priorities, deadline pressure, and other stresses. It requires a certain gravitas that not all managers have. It can be the difference between proposal failure and proposal success.
- Can they articulate exactly what they will need from you? A proposal requires involvement from the executive sponsor at key points. A good proposal manager must set expectations and not be afraid to involve you when that is what’s required to achieve a winning proposal. If you can’t discuss it before they take on the job, then you can’t count on it under the pressures of proposal development. If they don’t push a little, negotiate well, and end with clear expectations, you might want someone else as proposal manager.
- Does their style of management fit your corporate culture? Are they too authoritarian, or not authoritarian enough? Do your people need to be forced to excel or inspired to excel? Do you need a teacher or a doer? Which will be a better fit: a leader, a manager, or a coordinator? Do you want a change agent or a facilitator? What is your tolerance for proposal risk and how does that impact your choice of a proposal manager?
The nature of your company, offering, culture, and the resources available have a lot to do with what kind of person you need as a proposal manager. But if you want someone who has a chance at succeeding, the questions above will help you find the right person, regardless of their background.
Should you promote from within or bring in outside expertise? How much experience is enough? What can you afford? In general, we don’t see the correlation between experience and capability that most people seem to rely on. We prefer to hire based on talent instead of experience. However, the talent to be a great proposal manager is different from the talent required to be a great project manager, salesperson or administrative assistant.
Take a look at the list above, and consider which ones you can skip. Which ones can a proposal manager lack and still be successful? Which one are the most applicable to your environment? Skip all the ones that you feel are unnecessary. Then see whether you win or lose.
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The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is an expert at winning in writing. He is a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant.
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