The Soft Skills Proposal Managers Need Most

Jun 13, 2019

When you're managing a proposal you quickly learn, not everybody is likable. Not everybody is a go along. Not everybody even wants to be on the proposal team. So what can you do?

Use these soft skills to earn your team's respect and help lead them to a winning proposal.

Guest: Jim McCarthy, Founder, AOC Key Solutions

Listen to the episode below. You can also listen on Apple I-Tunes or Soundcloud.  

Prefer to read? Here's the transcript.

Ray Thibodeaux: Welcome to Keys to Winning, a podcast where we talk about government contracting topics, such as proposal development, business development, win strategies and more. Keys to Winning, produced by AOC Key Solutions a leading bid and proposal development firm gives you a chance to learn from leaders and experts in their field. I'm Raymond Thibodeaux, today's host of Keys to Winning.

Ray Thibodeaux: On today's podcast, we talk about something not often mentioned in the how to's of proposal management. And that is soft skills. By that, I mean people skills, the personality traits, attitudes, and behaviors that help the manager get the most out of the team. And to help us with that is Jim McCarthy, founder of Key Solutions and someone who has spent more than 30 years in the federal contracting and proposal development industry.

Ray Thibodeaux: Jim, welcome to the podcast. In your experience, you know that managing a proposal is hard enough, but proposal managers who fail to engage effectively with their teams, who are unreceptive to their team's input or even criticism, make that process so much harder. Is this where soft skills come in?

Jim McCarthy: Absolutely, that's where they come in. I'd like to make one modification to your statement, though, about use the term proposal manager. And I know that that is a term of the art in our business. But I believe what this business needs is proposal leaders. And if you began thinking about the difference between leadership and management, you'd find out that the soft skills really are what makes all the difference. And I would also say that criticism is part of the job. And you know, you've heard it before, if you're not criticized, you're probably not doing what you're supposed to be doing.

Jim McCarthy: So, I look forward to talking to you about the soft skills because I think there are many. So, let's have at it.

Ray Thibodeaux: Given that developing a proposal has so many variables with teams of writers, SMEs, and all of them under this deadline pressure. What do you see is the most important of the soft skills for a proposal leader or manager?

Jim McCarthy: Well, I think the number of soft skills is probably legion. So, we probably have to narrow them down to just a couple critical few. I think the number one skill that's needed is that the proposal manager/leader has to be the chief diplomat in the proposal center. The arbiter among factions, somebody who is constantly looking for win-win scenarios in situations. And somebody who is tactful enough to be able to tell an author that it's baby really is ugly. Or it's masterpiece is not a Picasso. So, I think that's the first major soft skill that's needed.

Jim McCarthy: Probably the second that I would talk about would be humility. That's a kind of weird word. Who wants a humble proposal manager. But the facts are that somebody who is self-critical and who is always asking questions and is willing to admit mistakes, stand up to them. That's going to earn the respect of the team. And will make a difference in the long-run.

Jim McCarthy: The third soft skill, I don't know what the right term might be. But I call it a telepath, somebody who is able to read peoples body language or facial expressions or voice tone. And in general, anticipate what is next, what has come down the road, not this afternoon, but tomorrow or next week. To always stay in front of it. Because I think that's another soft skill.

Jim McCarthy: And the fourth one, I would probably call it, I'm not sure the right term here either. But, confessor. Or maybe a psychiatrist. Somebody who is willing to listen, let somebody just sort of let their steam off. Act as a pressure relief valve. And be attentive to what the message is that they're trying to tell you.

Jim McCarthy: And I think that those four skills go a long way to essentially dealing with the various variables that you described.

Ray Thibodeaux: That's interesting. And it's a very unique way to put that, judging from a lot of the lists that I've seen of soft skills for managers in general. But I think there might be a separate list that should be specific to proposal managers or leaders. So, I like those. With proposal development being so process oriented, one would think a rigid kind of regimented manager would prosper in that kind of environment. But has that been true in your experience?

Jim McCarthy: Well, I think a rigid process oriented person would definitely survive and prosper in that type of environment. The problem is, is that we're talking that we want to win, not necessarily execute according to some pre-prescribed directive or policy. And that's where I'm afraid that people who are very process oriented forget what they're really there to do. They're there to win the contract, not necessarily to follow the process. And the minute that the process gets in the way of winning, I think it's time for the leadership to retweak and sort of recast that particular process. Because it is not helpful to winning.

Jim McCarthy: And I've seen, particularly, in some big companies whose names I won't mention. The capture manager and leadership spend as much time filling out forms and doing briefings and power points than they do on actually deciding and helping decide how to win. So, yeah, people who are process oriented will do well in a very process oriented environment. The problem is, is that's probably the wrong environment to win. If that answers your question.

Ray Thibodeaux: Yeah, very much so. One of the soft skills mentioned most often when it comes to effective managers is the ability to listen. And I think you had kind of touched on that with the confessor/psychiatrist comment. And the idea is active listening. This might be an obvious question, but why is it so important for managers to listen? I mean, in the general set up, the managers are there to bark orders. And others are supposed to listen to them.

Jim McCarthy: Yeah. Well, first of all, let me begin by saying in my experience, and that's just mine. That there's only one person in this world that I have to listen to all the time. And that's my wife. But let's leave that aside for a second and talk about in a proposal. My suggestion is that no one, no matter how brilliant they may think they are or how great they self-proclaim themselves to be, no one, no one, including the leadership and capture manager and proposal manager has all the answers. It's more likely that you're going to find the right answers in a group of dedicated professionals focused on a particular task than one individual is going to be able to come up.

Jim McCarthy: So, I think the notion that the proposal manager simply hands down on stone tablets that this is the way it's going to be. I think is probably the wrong way of basically approaching it. And I would say that the more experience I get, the older I get, the more I realize what I don't know. And I think that some of our younger peers and colleagues might benefit from a similar impression. And listen very actively, like you say. So, it's an important skill.

Jim McCarthy: And listening, of course, is more than just verbal. It's listening with your eyes and your ears and your heart. And trying to ... what is the real message here.

Ray Thibodeaux: That's interesting. And part of that, it's sounds from what you're saying is listening and collaboration are very bound together and that managers or leaders tend to also be good collaborators, rather than authoritarians.

Jim McCarthy: There you go. I would add to my list of soft skills, chief collaborator as well as a chief diplomat. I think that's essentially the job. The job of the proposal manager or proposal leader or capture manager is to lead and to win. And the way you do that, frankly, is by making everyone on the team heroes, so that when we win the contract everybody takes credit for it. And of course, unfortunately, when we lose a contract then it's the leader who takes the blame and the responsibility.

Ray Thibodeaux: You know, and looking at several lists of soft skills/people skills ... Are kind of interchangeable in some ways. But one of the traits that shows up is trustworthiness. And this means being transparent, being willing to admit mistakes, this strikes me as a difficult soft skill. And different from the others since we're not really in control of how others perceive us. Am I wrong about that?

Jim McCarthy: No, I think you're absolutely right. We can never, in my view, control how other people view us or think of us or regard us or anything like that. The best we can do is know that we can at least try to control how we think about somebody else. But trustworthiness is a very essential element of the proposal winning and of proposal leadership. Basically, by trustworthy, I mean not only somebody who is a truth teller and tells the truth. But one who meets commitments. One who always has the teams back if you will. And one who can dole out both praise and criticism when necessary.

Jim McCarthy: And of course, there's two types of criticism. There can be a destructive criticism meant to hurt or demean. But there can also be a positive criticism, which is meant to help and assist and grow. And of course, the former has no place on a proposal. The ladder is what the leader is looking for.

Ray Thibodeaux: That's interesting. And that takes me to the last question. And that really is about the ability to manage discipline, which I think is hard for a lot of people. Let me set that up. Almost inevitably at some point, employee performance issues or less than collegial behaviors crop up on any team, proposals or otherwise. I remember a specific example, the colleague who would blurt out some off collar remarks who made others on the team wince or quietly retreat to their cubicles. It was incredibly counterproductive. And I'm sure many managers wish this wasn't even on their radar, having to deal with those types of issues.

Ray Thibodeaux: But why is it important for managers to maintain this kind of standard of discipline amongst a team?

Jim McCarthy: Well, it goes to the trustworthiness that we just spoke about. But attacks are ... Proposals, I like to liken them to performing work in a fishbowl on a schedule, so that everybody's watching. And why it's important that there be this kind of discipline is that there's a finite end date. That date is not flexible, it can't be moved. It's not up to you whether you want to meet that day or not. It is a given. Of course, unless the government changes it. There's really no room for free agents in the place where everybody has or speaks their own mind. And it becomes a gaggle.

Jim McCarthy: If you think about it, what would ... Just think of the disaster that would ensue if we put 10 world class chefs in the kitchen and told them to go prepare a meal. The facts are that there would be nothing but chaos. So, sometimes it's helpful and important to have a little bit of friction and exchange of ideas. And I would also think that it's very important to say that if you do otherwise ... If you don't tolerate some kind of descent or some kind of difference of opinion, then I believe that you run the risk of creating this pressure vessel that will, ultimately, somehow, someway explode on you.

Jim McCarthy: So, there are some differences in the proposal business, perhaps. Not everybody is likable. Not everybody is a go along. Not everybody even wants to be on the proposal team. After all, some of them are conscripts. But the facts are that if you're humble and if you are a confessor or psychiatrist willing to actively listen to people, let them blow off steam and release that pressure. Then I think you can kind of make through it. But if in the end, you can't and somebody's behavior or language or whatever is just simply intolerable or absolutely out of place in a business and professional environment, then I think winning basically requires you to remove that person. To dismiss them. Reassign them somewhere else.

Ray Thibodeaux: This has been a really good conversation. And thank you for being on the podcast, Jim.

Jim McCarthy: Well, Ray. You asked very good questions. You make us all think. It's a real pleasure.

Ray Thibodeaux: I'm Raymond Thibodeaux, and this has been Keys to Winning from AOC Key Solutions Incorporated or KSI. The consulting firm that has helped companies across the country win billions of dollars in federal contracts. Learn more at or follow us on LinkedIn. Be sure to subscribe for more podcasts in this series. And thank you for listening.

Keys to Winning is a podcast that shares practical advice for GovCon professionals from industry experts. Topics covered include Proposal Development, Government Contracting, VOSBs, WOSBs, and more. Episodes are 15 minutes or less and are posted bi-weekly on Thursday morning. The podcast is hosted by Raymond Thibodeaux, a Senior Proposal Specialist with AOC Key Solutions.  

Raymond Thibodeaux

Written by Raymond Thibodeaux

Ray Thibodeaux is a former Proposal Development Specialist with more than 15 years of government proposal experience. He also hosted KSI's Keys to Winning podcast for several years. As a writer, Ray excelled at synthesizing ideas and strategies from client managers, engineers, and SMEs to write executive summaries, management and technical volumes, and past performance. Ray is also a former multimedia journalist who has reported for American Public Media’s Marketplace and PBS’ Nightly Business Report.

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