Master of one versus jack of all trades. Depth versus breadth. Specialist versus generalist. Which is more advantageous in proposals? My immediate answer (as it often is when faced with a tough question) was “It depends…” Now I’ve given it more consideration, I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. This article examines reasons for industry specialisation and generalisation and explores ways to get the best of both worlds.
Reasons for industry specialisation
- Enjoyment: You may relish niching down and being seen as a subject matter expert (SME) in your industry as well as in proposals. Perhaps you have a strong preference for either project management or writing, so you gravitate to industries with a clear delineation between proposal roles (e.g. defence). You may enjoy the crossover between proposals and marketing, so you choose to work in an industry that values multi-skilling (e.g. architecture, engineering and construction). The balance between proposal volume and timelines can differ according to industry. You may prefer lower volume and longer timelines (e.g. government contracting) or enjoy juggling multiple quick burn deals (e.g. tech).
- Pay: You may opt to work in an industry that pays a premium for proposal professionals (e.g. legal). Customer industries can also affect remuneration. For example, the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) Compensation Report shows that proposal professionals specialising in US Federal Government proposals make more money than those who work on bids for state and local government, commercial, and non-profit customers.
- Opportunities: Having a professional network within one industry may mean you’re notified of “hidden” job roles (those not officially advertised) in that space. You may be more likely to be considered for lateral moves into adjacent roles in sales and marketing.
- Speed to value: Your onboarding is accelerated and there’s less need for your manager to credentialise you to others. You’re seen as credible due to your combination of proposal and industry experience. When joining a new company, you know what you’re signing up for in terms of cultural alignment (e.g. if you work in a professional services industry partnership model, you may expect stakeholder sign-off complexity and a focus on risk mitigation).
- Less reliance on technical SMEs: You’re able to write more proposal content yourself. You use SMEs to validate and edit your work. You understand industry nuances, trends, and the competitive landscape and incorporate this into your work.
Reasons for industry generalisation
- Enjoyment (again): You appreciate variety. You may be naturally curious and love to learn a little about a lot of topics. You welcome opportunities to speak with technical SMEs who are passionate about their chosen field. You like unlocking answers by asking the right questions in the right manner at the right time.
- Necessity: You may need to shift industries during times of economic uncertainty. For example, layoffs in tech in 2022-2023 have driven proposal professionals to consider other industries that are perceived as being more stable. If you’re a contractor/consultant, being industry agnostic can mean a bigger pool of prospective clients.
- Fresh perspectives: You can provide new insights, challenge assumptions and overcome complacency. Just as proposal skills are highly transferable, lessons learned from one industry can be applied to others.
- Role requirements: Industry experience may be less relevant for a Proposal Manager than a Proposal Writer as subject matter knowledge may have more of an impact on content than on process.
- Ability to simplify the complex: Great proposal professionals put themselves in the shoes of the client evaluation panel (which often includes non-technical stakeholders). When you don’t have industry experience, you’re given more leeway to eliminate jargon and other barriers to comprehension.
How to get the best of both worlds
- Recruitment: If you’re a hiring manager, assess the composition of your team rather than one vacancy in isolation – does everyone need to have industry knowledge, or will you benefit from a mix of specialists and generalists? What other experience is valuable to you? For example, geography (regional/national/international experience), company structure (corporate, partnership, start-ups), and bidding structure (Joint Ventures, consortia). Do you require particular experience for a limited period? Consider hiring a contractor/consultant. If you’re a jobseeker, determine how best to present your experience – this may be a skills-based CV/resume as opposed to role-based. Discover what your value proposition is and have your elevator pitch ready for interviews.
- Onboarding: Audit your current onboarding process – is it fit for purpose for both specialists and generalists? Ask team members who have recently joined to provide feedback. Create a “cheat sheet” of key industry terms and acronyms as well as a company-specific induction. Consider the industries of the customers you submit proposals to as well as the industry your employer operates in.
- Ongoing knowledge management: Overcome information gatekeeping. Involve all team members in updating your content library. Develop a Frequently Asked/Unasked Questions wiki to minimise the risk of “I wish I had known that before…”. Use generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) for rapid research – prompt it in the same way you would interview a technical SME. Pair specialists and generalists to collaborate on proposals and conduct lessons learned sessions afterwards.
- Networking: Attend both industry and proposal events. You’ll meet people who help you to apply a different lens to your day-to-day, and who may open doors in the longer term.
NB: Ceri used generative AI as part of article planning. However, the only AI-generated content in this article is the title.
This article was written by Ceri Mescall.
Ceri is a Work Winning Consultant based in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. She’s trusted to sustain, elevate, and transform bid and proposal functions. Over her 17-year career, Ceri has enabled clients to secure almost $1 billion in sustainable, profitable work. She’s one of only 22 people globally (out of 13,000+ members) who holds all four main APMP certifications. Ceri is also an APMP 40 Under 40 Award winner (2019) and an APMP Fellow (2020).