When we’re children we’re often asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I don’t have kids of my own, but I can only assume most of them don’t respond with “I want to write and manage federal government proposals.”
Yet I found myself doing just that once I graduated college—feeling comfortable with the logistical minutia of proposals such as writing and organization, but not fully realizing the “what” and “why” behind the job.
How I Landed My First Job in Proposal Management:
I was serendipitously thrown into the Government Proposal world when looking for an internship one summer between Undergrad and my Master’s program. I was born and raised in Northern Virginia, so I knew the term “Government Contractor” was the responsible designation for many of the high-rise building in and along the beltway. The companies were plentiful and so were the opportunities for “analyst interns”—a seemingly catchall term for a hungry young person willing to learn on the job.
That’s just what I was—an ambitious and eager college kid and back in my hometown where an abundance of proposal terminology flows from one person to the next as easily as common greetings.
I stumbled into a job as a proposal intern at a government contractor where the “baptism by fire” methodology reigned supreme. I didn’t mean to make a career out of proposals, but for someone with a technical writing background and a flair for rhetorical inquiry something just felt right.
The longer I’ve worked in government proposals, the more I’ve come across recent graduates entering the workforce. I see them struggling with connecting their majors to our industry, especially one few outside of the D.C. Metro Area see as a “real” marketplace. So how do people find themselves successful in Proposal Management if there are no designated scholarly tracks?
In my mind, all roads lead to proposals. It is a unique career path that can be reached from any direction.
If you're interested in proposal management as career, these are my recommendations to you:
1. Stay Goodbye to Swim Lanes
Staying in your lane might have its place in the world, but not in proposals…especially when you are first starting out. Offer to perform elements of writing, managing, strategy, and reviewing/editing. Everyone has something of value to offer a proposal effort—it’s just about raising your hand.
2. Focus Equally on Technical and Soft Skills.
Technical skills are important, but I’d argue that “intangible” soft skills are even more so. These are things like leadership, communication, and organization. For example, being able to use the Adobe Creative suite (technical skill) is great, but useless in a work environment if you can’t organize your files or field instructions and edits (soft skills). Proposals at their core are all about organization and holding a team accountable for their deliverables, so reciprocate by being punctual and prepared.
3. Work on Messaging.
Any company out there is nothing more than a collection of people working towards a common goal. The same goes for proposal writing. In an artifact that is usually worked by multiple Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and quite possibly multiple technical writers, consistent messaging is key to developing a winning bid. Focusing on honing your communication/messaging skills will not only help you in your daily proposal operations, but also in defining that golden thread which ties each section of proposal writing together.
4. Never Take Anything at Face Value.
When I was in my Master’s program I taught an introductory writing class, and the first thing I would tell my students was to question everything…even me. Push back. Ask questions. Expect more. This is especially important in proposal development, where the bulk of document review time is spent roleplaying as the skeptical Source Evaluation Board (SEB). Reviewing a proposal is not always about being an expert on the content—it can be just as imperative to have someone with an incredulous eye who can push the writers towards critical analysis of the text.
5. Get to Know the Industry Lingo
Landing your first job in proposals is all about knowing the jargon, colloquilaisms, and of course the acronyms. This starts by looking for the right title to apply for (Business Development Analyst, Proposal Coordinator, Federal Bid Writer, Proposal Analyst to name a few) and ends with a common understanding of acronyms (RFP, IDIQ, SOW, etc.). These terms can be learned on the job or in advance from a reputable proposal industry source such as the Association for Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) offering training, glossaries, and materials. Each region has local chapters, for example ours is the Washington D.C. chapter.
The author, Lisa Shea Mundt.
People come to proposals from all walks of life with varying backgrounds and skillsets, and maybe that’s why I love this trade. If you are looking to join us, start small by heeding my advice. After all, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”