In today’s competitive business world, where markets are morphing and some are shrinking, where there are fewer and fewer large “game-changing” opportunities, where companies look for adjacencies to their core businesses and strategy – there is nothing, and I repeat nothing more important than strong leadership when competing. When I say leadership in this regard, I mean leadership from the very top of the organization. Competitive procurements (or often called “captures”), whether in the government or commercial customer space, can be difficult, stressful and very investment intensive. If there is not strong leadership from the top and a culture of leadership by example, there is a strong likelihood the team will lose or make a potentially serious business mistake. This post reflects a few very significant lessons learned during my 17 years competing in the aerospace and defense industry.
During my career I have had the fortunate opportunity to lead or support a number of competitive captures and proposals. I have seen numerous examples of strong leadership from the top that eventually led to success and I have also seen examples of weak leadership that ultimately spelled doom for the proposal team or its Pwin (probability of win). Again, when I am speaking about leadership at the top, I am not speaking about the capture team leadership or capture executive leading the proposal team, as that person must lead and be a strong leader or they will surely fail. I am speaking about the C-level suite of executives who either find themselves too busy to really engage with the capture team and the team never sees them in the proposal center; or who are truly engaged and visible to the capture team, providing their experience, support and leadership. Either scenario sends a very strong message on how important this opportunity is to the company.
As an example, I worked for a very large prime Tier 1 aerospace and defense company on a major competitive proposal that was worth billions of dollars of new business for the company. We were competing against two other companies of the same stature so winning this could be a defining event for each of the companies involved. During the 24/7 life of working on and writing this massive proposal over a six month period, we never once saw in our proposal center the senior executive business leader directly responsible for this business – not once. What made this even more interesting was that his office was less than a half a mile down the road from our proposal center, so it was not a geographic location issue. This was noticed by a number of members of the team and it sent a message that this effort and the team were not that important to him or his business. Obviously this was not the best example of corporate leadership. Fortunately for this executive, we did ultimately win this opportunity but it was only due to an extremely strong capture lead, a very focused team of mid-level leaders and also significant oversight of the proposal by other leaders even higher up in the company. The prolific writer and speaker on leadership, John C. Maxwell, would maintain in his “21 Laws of Irrefutable Leadership,” that the “The Law of the Picture ” was instrumental in this case. People do what people see: when leaders show the way with their right actions, their followers copy. Followers are always watching the leader. More than anything else, employees want leaders whose beliefs and actions line up with one another. Or as we all know the classic phrase – leadership by example. In this situation, we lost considerable respect for this leader. We had difficulty understanding why this individual could not even spend 30 minutes with the team considering the importance to his business.
In another example of a failure of leadership, we were involved in a proposal and strategy review for a critical competitive capture affecting three large companies teamed together. The lead company, or prime contractor for this team had brought in a consultant with significant experience in the procurement and previous efforts with the customer. Unbeknownst to all of us, he had not been vetted fully through the prime’s corporate oversight process and due to his past role in the government, he was deemed by the customer to have given us an unfair advantage in the proposal, which ultimately led to our being disqualified from the competition. This was an extremely discouraging series of events and also a waste of corporate proposal resources. One could certainly make the case that we did not have the right senior level leadership engaged on this effort or this would have never happened – especially considering the companies involved and its importance to each of our businesses.
In another example of how critical leadership is to competitive captures and winning, I also had the privilege of being on the leadership team of a highly competitive multi-billion dollar procurement where the entire team learned from a truly exceptional and experienced capture leader who exemplified all of the traits required for winning. He truly exemplified John Maxwell’s ” The Law of Victory,” where leaders find a way for the team to win. Competitive procurements are much like the stress and dynamics of combat, where you focus continually on both yours and your competitors strategy and tactics, studying the enemy (competitor) and analyzing his direct and indirect moves and strategies to win, working to counter his efforts. In this difficult environment, victorious leaders have one thing in common: they share an unwillingness to accept defeat despite the difficult challenges. In the Law of Victory, the alternative to winning is totally unacceptable to them. As a result, they figure out what must be done to achieve victory. Losing is unacceptable, passion is unquenchable, quitting is unthinkable, commitment is unquestionable and victory is inevitable. In The Law of Victory, the leader embraces the vision and approaches the challenges with the resolve to take their people to victory. It takes a real leader to provide the motivation, empowerment, and direction required to win. In this particular competitive capture, we did win this award after more than three years of refining our strategy, working with the customer, composing a draft and final RFP (Request for Proposal) and overcoming a protest by one of our major competitors. We had continual C-level engagement and support on this effort throughout the process. Competitive proposals are difficult and without strong leadership at all levels of the company, there is a significant likelihood that you will lose or at a minimum greatly lower your Pwin. The intangibles of great leadership become much more tangible in the the competitive proposal environment. Our company owed a significant debt of gratitude to this particularly capture leader and the proposal team. Also, it was such a highly competitive and difficult effort that we needed (and had access to) the experience of the entire leadership from the CEO on down. This win helped redefine the company’s business in this market for many years to come.
In the competing and winning lane of business there is no room for an absence or paucity of leadership. In fact, this area of business is so difficult and so critical to future success that it demands the strongest attributes of leadership, at every level. You don’t want to be in the category of “those that wonder what happened” if you are a leader in business and involved in a competition. The leaders in my first two examples were in that category and it negatively affected their organizations and businesses in multiple ways. Live the “Law of the Picture” and “The Law of Victory.” You will never regret it and it will help define your company in one of the most difficult areas of business – competing and winning.