The most important characteristics needed to win proposals

There are a lot of positive character traits. But only two are indispensable for winning proposals.

1. Strategic Leadership

My favorite way to distinguish leaders from managers is that leaders determine what the goals should be and managers work to find the best way to achieve the goals. If you need someone to improve something, you need a manager. If you need someone to reinvent something, you need a leader. One is not better than the other. Both are needed for a successful organization.

But to win proposals you need to differentiate. You can’t be the best unless you are different. You won’t consistently win if you target being better than your competition. The best way to win is to start by defining what it will take to win. A manager will create bid strategies based on what you have and what you can do to improve it. A leader will start from what it will take to win and then figure out how to be what it takes, even if that means throwing out what you’ve got or changing it completely. If you’re thinking that the right approach is somewhere in the middle, remember that the goal is not to be good enough, it’s to be the best alternative anyone can offer the customer.

That means you need a leader. Not someone assigned to play the lead role. But someone who can challenge the status quo, especially if it’s a recompete. Most project managers learn to stay within the confines of their contract and preserve their resources. You need someone who can reinvent the terms of the contract. 

You need a strategy leader and it doesn’t even have to be the person in charge of the proposal. You can use a pursuit strategist, a capture manager, or even a reviewer to provide the necessary vision. One of the major differences between the way billion-dollar companies win their proposals and how small companies win theirs is that a large company can afford to bring in someone other than the current project manager as the capture manager. Small companies can counter that advantage by using a part-time pursuit strategist. 

2. Customer Empathy

You need someone with sufficient empathy to see things the way the customer sees them. You need to be able to create an offering that will delight the customer, interpret the RFP, and present things in the way the customer wants to see them. All of your strategies, the design of your offering, and the way you present your proposal should all be based on the customer’s perspective.

What is the customer going to do with the information you give them in the proposal? How do they perform their evaluation and selection? What do you need to give them to come out of that evaluation on top? What other questions should drive your efforts? 

These are what you should base your strategies on. But beyond a leader to help you get out of the box and discover the winning strategies, you need someone who can look at your strategies and your presentation of them the way the customer will to make them reflect what it will take to win.

What about other traits?

There are many other beneficial character traits like being a hard worker, paying attention to detail, having good discipline, or being honest, creative, articulate, etc. There are probably thousands of articles published on good character traits for being a leader or a manager, or on the difference between leaders and managers.

But when I look at proposal teams that are struggling and not just with resources, process, or knowledge, what I see is that discovering what it takes to win and getting in writing requires looking at the world differently. It requires starting from what it will take to win and not from what you’ve got. And it requires looking at it through your customer’s eyes instead of your own. You can follow procedure all day long. You can train your staff. But you also need to hire, borrow, or cultivate these character traits if you want to consistently win. 



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Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY.

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.

In addition, the groups Carl moderates on LinkedIn provide a place for tens of thousands of business development and proposal professionals to discuss best practices and network.
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