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Top 3 Proposal Leadership Skills for Technical Professionals

"I sure wish we'd turned our proposal writing draft in even later than we did...that would've really benefited the final product!", said no one ever.

We all have really great intentions when we start working on a new proposal. Frequently, though, proposal work is the first item on our to-do list that we let slip through the cracks. At first we just see our little piece of the puzzle being affected...we forget the overall team and proposal impacts that our slippage causes.

Keith J. Cunningham (author of The Road Less Stupid) recommends we consider the 2nd-order consequences of our decisions. The main concept here is that you really do have 100% control over your own actions. 

How do YOUR decisions affect the rest of your proposal team and the end product? Here are today's Top 3 Proposal Leadership Skills, specifically for technical professionals. We'll look at why these are important, and the consequences of each if we ignore them. 


#1: Share your weaknesses with your proposal team

Everyone has strengths...and weaknesses. Within the AEC industry we still seem to struggle with sharing our weaknesses. Yet when we don't, it almost always ends up hurting you and/or your team.

Let's use 3 questions Keith Cunningham crafted to consider the 2nd-order consequence of a decision to discuss this leadership skill...

What happens if you DON'T share your weaknesses?

  • What's the upside? You get to avoid feeling insecure for a few minutes. You don't have to let your manager know that you feel unprepared/unskilled to do the proposal task you've been asked to do. (Basically, only you get the benefit.)

  • What's the downside? If the team doesn't know your weaknesses, (a) you could easily be assigned the task you don't feel prepared/skilled for...and the work will be only yours to do, and (b) it could negatively affect the progress of the overall proposal. If the document is supposed to be at 50% at the next review and your part is only at 25% because you can't figure out how to do it, the entire team is going to be behind.

  • Can you (and your team!) live with the downside? You'll ruin your reputation faster by not performing well on a proposal task than by sharing your weaknesses up front.

End result? I highly recommend you share your weaknesses up-front for the best outcome. It'll likely work out better for you, and your team, in the long-run!


#2: Start your proposal assignment 2-3 days before it's due

I like these 3 questions...don't you? Let's use them again...let's say you're assigned the task of writing a long section that's 4 pages in length.

What happens if you wait until the last night before your assignment is due to write those 4 pages?

  • What's the upside? You probably only stay up late one night instead of two nights.

  • What's the downside? Due to the time crunch that was created, you probably only can write 1 to 1.5 pages of new content, so you'll likely copy/paste from old proposals to finish off the 4 pages or you'll simply turn in less content. You'll tell the team at the review that you'll finish crafting the section before the next review. 

    Notice that you didn't finish what you said you'd finish...the proposal is not to the % complete or quality level that it should be.

  • Can you (and your team!) live with the downside? You still have to "catch up" to the rest of the proposal team (meaning you still have to do the work you promised you'd do)

End result? Having 2-3 shorter work sessions provides you with a much higher chance that you'll complete your writing task to the expected completion and quality level (25%? 50%?). 


#3: If your schedule will not allow any time for proposal preparation, just say "no"

What? I can say "no"? Yes, you can! Or rather, you should be allowed that ability and honesty with your proposal (and management) team. Assuming you have a healthy management team (that's a whole other blog post!), let's do our last round of questions to look at the 2nd-order consequences...

What happens if I take on proposal assignments I don't have time for?

  • What's the upside? Your team feels good because all the work assignments were taken. (No upside for you!)

  • What's the downside? Your stress level just increased. Maybe you'll end up taking that out on your spouse or kids when you get home. You probably won't have time to get your assignment done, you'll be behind, and you'll still have to complete your assignment.

  • Can you (and your team!) live with the downside? Not well, no. 

End result? Be honest and firm regarding your availability to help. 


Being honest and straightforward during the proposal preparation process, and doing what you said you'd do to the expected level of quality are true leadership skills. With a little forethought, you can escape the downside of bad decisions and instead be seen and known in your firm as a true asset to the proposal process.



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