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Should Your Next Proposal Have a Leader or a Manager?

I'm reading Seth Godin's book "Tribes." One of the things he talks about is the difference between managers and leaders. As he presents it, a manager's job is to work within the resources available to maximize efficiency and quality. A leader, however, goes outside the system or redefines it to accomplish their goals.

This explains a lot about Proposal Managers.

Some of the Proposal Managers I’ve met see their role as producing the document. They either don’t feel empowered to direct the content or they see it as someone else’s job. Whatever the contributors write is what they produce. Other Proposal Managers take ownership of the content and seek to direct the message. They’re not shy about jumping in and re-writing things if they can make it better. It’s almost as if there are two different kinds of Proposal Managers.

Seth’s book helped me understand why. Some lead the proposal, while others manage it. And the best part is that neither one is better than the other. It depends what mission is given to the proposal group, and how they define themselves. It also depends on who owns the message.

Some Proposal Managers take ownership of the message because they see themselves as the experts in communicating via writing. However, the message and the offering are inherently intertwined. You cannot develop the message without impacting the development of the offering. Does (or should) the Proposal Manager also own the development of the offering? We generally recommend that the offering be developed by those responsible for implementing it. This is necessary to avoid conflicts with the customer over expectations, pricing, and fulfillment after award.

This is where a lot of people take the easy way out and say “it’s a partnership.” They say that the Capture Manager or lead engineer develops the offering in partnership with the Proposal Manager who develops the message. If you look closely, this is just a clever way of avoiding an answer. It’s also a way of making sure that no one is accountable for it and a major reason why the message in most proposals is weak and nothing more than some ad hoc statements thrown in at the last minute by the Proposal Manager who fills the gap when nothing better is produced.

So let’s forget about how things are being done, and think a little bit about how they should be done.

We need someone who:

  • Can find and coordinate the operational staff contributing to the proposal
  • Represents the operational side of the company and makes decisions on its behalf
  • Takes ownership of what is being proposed
  • Is not just technical, but also understands sales
  • See things from the perspective of the customer
  • Can articulate the story about what is being proposed
Traditionally we’ve called this person a Capture Manager. But if you buy into what Seth Godin said about leaders vs. managers, then it’s more appropriate to call this person a Capture Leader. A successful proposal needs someone to lead the development of the offering that will impress the customer and articulate the story in writing. You can’t separate offering development from storytelling. From the customer’s perspective, the story does as much to set expectations as any blueprint or set of specifications. The story is the offering.

And the Capture Leader is the logical person to be responsible for coordinating your company’s assets to develop it. A Capture Leader might take contributions from others (A lead engineer to define the specifications, proposal writers who can suggest messages, technical staff with subject matter expertise, business developers who know the customer, etc.), but the Capture Leader makes the decisions, pulls it all together, and is responsible for the results. A good leader is a team builder, but a team without a coach is just a committee (an animal with six or more legs and no brain).

A winning proposal requires leadership and not just management. If you have the bullets above covered, then the Proposal Manager can manage. If you don’t, then someone has to lead the development of both the offering and the message. A Proposal Manager with the right skills might be able to wear both hats, but you still have to ask if you want someone outside of operations leading the future of operations.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is that you need someone on the proposal team to lead and not just to manage. If you just have managers and no leaders, then what you get is an acceptable offering, produced efficiently, that stays within the boundaries, isn’t controversial, and is fully compliant with what the customer asked for in the RFP. What you won’ t get is something amazing, based on what it will take to win instead of what you always propose, disruptive to the competition, produced by breaking the rules, using stolen resources you didn’t know you had, that the customer will have to select. This is how you win. And to get there, you need leadership.


This article was inspired by a discussion we had on LinkedIn. Click here to go there and be a part of the discussion.

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By Carl Dickson, Founder of

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