“At least we don’t carry lances”

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Jousting’s a dangerous sport. Picture your opponent galloping towards you on horseback at speed, a lance aimed at your chest. Best case, as a loser, you fall heavily. Worst case…

So, back in the 12th century, some less brave nobles decided to take the easy way out. As a Times article put it recently, they’d “…hire a jouster to fight for them who was not committed to any other master and was available to fight for the highest bidder. They became known as freelances.”

Not so different, perhaps, to today’s world of bids and proposals, where freelancers are valiantly fighting to help their clients win. Only: minus the lances…

When I set up my first bid centre at Compaq twenty years ago, I absolutely saw the value of engaging skilled external resource to complement the extremely talented in-house team I’d built. I needed people to stretch and challenge our thinking; to act as a sounding board; to bring expert experience to support us on the most strategic deals; and, occasionally, to act as extra pairs of hands.

That’s when I first worked alongside BJ Lownie – Strategic Proposals’ founder, who I’d met across the negotiating table when he’d been supporting a bid to me in my procurement days. It’s also when I first worked more closely with procurement guru Steve Mullins, bringing a buyer’s perspective to everything we did. A couple of years later, the three of us set up the SP operation here in the UK.

So, what advice would I give to people looking to make the leap from the corporate world today? First, it’s to be crystal clear on your objectives for doing so. For some, it’s primarily financial – a view that they could earn more. (Frankly, I’m not sure that is always the case, especially at the most senior levels, but it’s undoubtedly true for some).

For others, life/work balance is the driver. Over the years, I’ve taken four 30+ day holidays, something I’d never have been able to do in the ‘corporate’ world. Now, with a daughter born earlier this year, I work a four day week and restrict the amount of time I spend travelling. Or, to give an example from last December, I had the flexibility to decide that my next meetings in Manchester would just happen to coincide with the date of The Slow Show’s latest gig…

For some, it’s curiosity and variety. That’s certainly true for me. I have a very low boredom threshold. The thought of staying with the same corporation for a long period horrifies me – while others crave that security. There’s certainly the real risk in our world of what I term ‘groundhog year’, when the same contracts on which you bid three years ago all come round again.

Some want out of corporate bureaucracy. I get that too, even if Compaq was remarkable for its entrepreneurial spirit and people. (Hey, it’s also where I first met Martin Smith – now, of course, leading Bid Solutions and behind this excellent publication). And even if (when providing advice from the outside) the ability to navigate organisational politics at the most senior levels is perhaps even more a feature of what we do externally than it ever was for me internally.

Some are forced out of their corporate roles, and simply need to earn a living. And who’d deny them that?

And others see it as a great way to develop their careers. That’s certainly true for me and was my key driver. I had two work goals when I was younger. First, to run a successful business. Second, to be invited to travel the world to speak as an ‘expert’ in whatever my field turned out to be (I hadn’t even heard of a ‘proposal manager’ until I’d turned thirty). And my role at SP has let me achieve both those goals.

There are so many ways to work outside the ‘corporate’ world. Genuine freelancers, who relish the chance to work solo. Small alliances, with numerous two- to four-people bands of like-minded friends, taking on the world together. (Play buzzword bingo sometime, combining a few words like ‘winning’, ‘alliance’, ‘bid’, ‘tender’, ‘associates’, ‘creative’ and ‘success’ and I almost guarantee you’ll find a company with that name!). Perhaps combined with either of the above, getting yourself onto the books of one of the companies who maintain a list of contractors, who’ll find you work from time-to-time in return for a slice of your fee.

Our model in SP here is slightly different, I guess. We operate, effectively, as a co-operative. Our directors don’t take salaries; our shareholders don’t draw dividends. We don’t owe money to any outside investors or banks. What we earn, minus relatively lean overheads, goes to those who generate and deliver work.

With nearly thirty colleagues in the UK, we have a degree of scale: team members are surrounded by a deep talent pool of like-minded colleagues they can rely on for expertise and advice. With a methodology and tools we’ve honed over more than three decades, we can bring a degree of consistency whilst allowing creative people the chance to be creative. With a track record of delivering value for clients, being recognised in industry awards and carrying out thought-leading research, there’s a brand name that can help open doors for new work – and a wonderful community of existing clients who kindly keep asking for more! With some financial robustness, we can invest in things like professional development, running interesting events and building new tools (such as our Proposal BenchmarkerTM). We (almost) have to be careful not to become too corporate!

Whatever role you choose to take – whether that’s in ‘corporate’ life or outside – we’re all bid and proposal professionals. No better or worse than our friends who’ve made different career choices. We are united in the common goals of wanting to help organisations to win work, to develop our careers as we personally wish, to enjoy financial security, and live happily and healthily. To be trusted partners for clients, whether they be internal colleagues or the people who engage us on projects. Whatever your choice, I wish you well.

This article was written by Jon Williams.

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