Winning the Business

Leading Beyond the Process

Recognizing leadership as a proposal manager’s most significant role

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Many proposal managers fall into the trap of overly relying on their proposal development process to deliver proposals. The key element missing here is leadership—the ability to motivate a team to accomplish the mission. Of a proposal manager’s many roles, being a leader is the most important. The process is there to guide the team; the proposal manager is there to lead the team.

Purpose of the Process

Every organization has a proposal development process. These processes can range from the simplistic to a suite of processes with hundreds of steps to guide teams from original identification of the opportunity through the release of the RFP and to final submittal. Processes do serve an important function, but as someone may or may not have said, “I have never seen a process write a proposal.”

To help illustrate this, consider the following scenario starring Blue, a seasoned proposal manager who has just accepted a position at a new company.

Of a proposal manager’s many roles, being a leader is the most important. The process is there to guide the team; the proposal manager is there to lead the team.

Problems with Leading by Process

After hours and hours of human resources’ mandatory training, going over dozens of slides, forms, and rules, Blue finally made it to the office. He was met with smiles and handshakes, and the next item of business was another indoctrination. This time, the slides, forms, and rules were a well-documented, 326-step process to producing winning proposals. Blue dove in and recognized gate reviews, color teams, and other steps in place to check quality and give senior leadership the opportunity to identify risks and change strategy if needed.

Blue also recognized something else he had seen before—a culture of relying too much on process to lead a proposal team. The problem areas that surfaced immediately were inflexibility and lack of motivation in the proposal team.

The inflexibility reared its head during a review. One of the reviewers couldn’t connect remotely to the review tool and had to be on a plane in two hours. According to the process, all comments were to be entered into the tool to automatically populate the comment matrices and the outbrief. In reverence to the process, the reviewer was given no avenue to comment. The proposal manager had become so rigid with the process that an opportunity to collect valuable feedback was lost.

More disturbing was the lack of motivation in the proposal center. Authors and subject matter experts dragged themselves from required meeting to required meeting, where the proposal manager kept to the process, reading slide after never-ending slide from the required templates. All the team members wanted was the chance and time to actually develop a solution and write a winning response. Adhering to the process and measuring only by its outputs had turned an army of enthusiastic problem-solvers equipped with ideas into a rabble of weary meeting attendees.

Leading Beyond the Process

After two short weeks, Blue had seen enough and took a stand. He used the process to its full capabilities, embracing the structure it provided, the visibility given to senior leadership, and the built-in quality checks. But Blue also did more. He motivated the team through the trials and tribulations of the effort by being enthusiastic and having the courage and flexibility to get the job done while maintaining the spirit of the process. The flexibility allowed the team to meet the deadlines while taking into account the variability that occurs on every proposal. Blue got the most out of the team by accommodating its needs while still providing structure and leadership. The results were a team providing innovative solutions, powerful discriminators, and a solid proposal.

As Blue rode into the sunset to deliver the winning proposal, there was a voice riding the wind saying, “The process supports the team, but the proposal manager leads the team.”

Rick Vien is a proposal director in Summerville, South Carolina, for BAE Systems, a global defense, aerospace, and security company. He can be reached at

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