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Are you a new proposal manager, daunted by the amount of responsibility suddenly on your plate? Do not fear! Settling into any new position requires time. Here are a few tips to help you gain confidence and own your role. (Veteran proposal managers might glean some good reminders from this list, too!)
1. Master the process.
Get your organization’s proposal management process down pat. Print or bookmark timelines, checklists, organizational charts — whatever tools you need to help you remember what to do, when and with whom, from capture to proposal kickoff to submission. Proposal management is a detail-oriented job, and the fast-paced environment in which we work makes remembering details challenging. Develop tools to help you ensure nothing falls through the cracks; this can include checklists, recurring calendar reminders, flowcharts or simple sticky notes.
2. Shadow other proposal managers.
If you can (and your supervisor agrees), shadow veteran proposal managers in your organization. A great time to do this is during your formal onboarding. As you shadow other proposal managers, don’t focus on the content of their meetings or email communications. Rather, observe and write down what they are doing, such as, “Proposal manager prompted questions about the competition,” or “Proposal manager prepared list of previously submitted proposals for team to review,” or “Proposal manager reviewed the executive summary against the evaluation criteria.” In other words, shadow the proposal manager’s role.
Then, block time to process what you observed. You might discuss these observations with your supervisor to make sure you are correctly identifying the proposal manager’s responsibilities. You might make a checklist for yourself to use the next time you are at that juncture to remember everything you should be thinking about, or you might adapt the tools the proposal manager used (such as a meeting agenda or compliance matrix) to suit your needs. You also could volunteer to lead part of a process the next time you shadow a colleague. Doing this will give you experience with pieces of the process, while having the safety net of a veteran proposal manager who can chime in with advice or course correct if needed.
3. Block out time for professional development.
Make time to drive your own professional development through internal and external resources. On-the-job training will show you what your supervisor and company expect of a good proposal manager. But proposal management is a field of practice, and there are plenty of external resources you can draw on to reinforce what you are learning or help contextualize it in broader best practices. The APMP Body of Knowledge as well as APMP webinars and articles are good places to start.
4. Delegate and prioritize.
Proposal managers have a lot on their plates, and as a new proposal manager, it’s likely you will be slower than veteran proposal managers to do research, develop compliance matrices and advise your teams. Determine what tasks you can tackle versus what a fellow proposal manager or another colleague on your team can take a first stab at. If no one else is available to help you out, focus on the tasks you must accomplish, versus those that would be nice to complete (you may want to get buy-in from your supervisor on this). It’s important that you hone your ability to shepherd teams through best practice processes (i.e., by adhering to proposal calendars, compliance matrices and productive reviews). This type of leadership is at the crux of effective proposal management. Researching competitors or editing an executive summary, however, can probably be outsourced while you learn the ropes. That being said, save colleagues’ work as models you can reference later.
Live proposals with immediate deadlines such as gate reviews must take priority, while tasks for a capture take a backseat. Regularly reassess the prioritization of your proposals and related tasks depending on new developments. Don’t forget to communicate your reassessment to your supervisor and to your proposal teams so they can also manage their time. Block time on your calendar, though, to tend to lower-tier items so they don’t eventually become an emergency. Continue to do that landscape research, lead your team through a competitor analysis or prepare for blue team review a couple months away.
Proposal managers also can fall into the trap of doing non-proposal manager tasks. Understand what your responsibility is versus what isn’t (your supervisor can help with this) and help other members of the team own those other tasks.
5. Ask good questions.
The questions you pose to your team can strengthen their proposal and make it more likely to win. In addition to checking for compliance, you should be asking “so what?” and “says who?” Continually prompt your teams to link their solution back to the client’s needs and back up their claims. You must convince the client that you are providing exactly what they need on a silver (affordable!) platter. New proposal managers are perfectly placed to play devil’s advocate and ask these questions because they themselves truly may not know the answers to them. If you feel uncomfortable doing this in a public setting, try asking in a smaller setting, such as a check-in with the technical lead on the proposal or in writing as you read through a proposal outline.
Given that in this “new normal” many new proposal managers may be starting their jobs remotely, being proactive in your own onboarding and training is even more important than usual. Communicate to your supervisor what you are grasping well and what you are struggling with, and determine whether shadowing a colleague, attending a series of webinars, blocking out time to read or doing something else can help bring you up to speed. While new proposal managers draw on many transferable skills (i.e., attention to detail, multitasking, prioritizing), it is also a learned trade that takes time to master.
Miriam Ganem-Rosen is a senior proposal manager at FHI 360 in Washington, D.C., where she oversees capture and proposal development, helping teams deliver compliant and competitive proposals to government, non-profit and private funders. Her previous experience includes international program management and grant writing.