Sector Experience: A Blessing or a Curse?

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When planning this article my first thought was, “Did I have experience of the sector in which I started working in bids and proposals?” and the answer is a resounding ‘NO’!

My first sector was higher education and I worked on bids providing business services for small and medium enterprises. I worked successfully in this field for 12 years. For the past seven years, I have managed bids in Manufacturing with a particular focus on rail. I had absolutely no experience in either sector yet was still successful in my role.

I primarily worked on public sector tenders (both EU and UK funding) at the start of my career and have worked on commercial tenders for the past seven years (with only a tiny fraction in the government sector).

In between these periods, I worked as an independent consultant in other fields including construction, healthcare, facilities management, transport, IT, non-profit, education, and many more.  The only ‘relevant’ experience I had in any of those sectors was my spell in Higher Education. So based on my experience and my career of 24 years as a bid professional, I can confidently say that knowledge of a sector is not as relevant to getting hired as being able to do a good job.

That doesn’t mean employers didn’t ask me about sector experience. They always did. Does this mean that my CV would not be selected because I did not have the required industry knowledge? No. I was still invited to interviews without having their specific market experience and would still be offered the role.

Do I think that knowing a sector will put you in a stronger position? Yes, and no. Knowing a sector will help you navigate the jargon and politics associated with that particular field which could be an advantage. However, being a novice to the sector brings fresh and diverse perspectives to existing processes and methods – allowing you to see areas of improvement that those with prior sector knowledge may not notice.

I do not wish to diminish the importance an employee with a wealth of knowledge in a particular sector brings to a company but there is something else to consider.

In practice, specialist sector knowledge is often inaccessible. Covenants included in employment contracts nowadays practically gag you for a year or more – preventing you from working with the same clients or partners and muffling your experience of that sector for a long time. For example, there are very few train builders in rail. If you can’t work with your previous customers because of the covenant you signed, you are unlikely to use that sector knowledge!

It’s therefore inevitable that people will move into adjacent or sub-sectors to overcome such barriers or end up changing sector entirely.

I will also argue that being sector agnostic is actually an advantage for a bid professional. During my consulting years, moving quickly between industries enriched my skills because each sector approached tendering slightly differently. The learning curve when sector hopping is amazing. For example, working in construction will enhance your visual presentation skills as tenders are normally luxuriously produced, while working in the non-profit sector will teach you to craft superb social value statements.

The reason why some employers insist on applicants having experience in a particular field is because many do not understand the difference between a bid writer and a bid manager. Or they are trying to get a ‘two for one’, a bid manager who will also write all the bids. A bid manager doesn’t need experience in the sector to manage a project as they are experts in managing a process. A bid writer…well, it helps if you know the market unless you’re working in a highly technical sector. In this case the bid writer will be reliant on subject matter experts for bid content, making prior sector experience irrelevant.

This is my main issue: whenever I have recruited staff, I have recruited for talent and attitude. Sector knowledge can be gained without affecting the quality of your work. I have never regretted changing sectors and I certainly would not want to work for any employer who discounts my 25 years of experience as a bid professional simply because I have not yet worked in their sector.

Who would you rather employ? A brilliant bid professional with the right qualifications, success rate, trusted references but no experience in your field or an average employee who knows your sector?

I know which one I would hire.

This article was written by Rita Mascia.

Rita’s journey into the world of bids and proposal started while working for an award-winning language and culture business organisation. Rita is a bid professional with 21 years of experience in the public, private and not for profit sectors. Her expertise in the bid cycle includes business development, capture, bid management, bid writing, and contract negotiations. Her passion lies in leading teams to win business by producing persuasive proposals that deliver what they promise.

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