As is likely for many proposal professionals, the RFP world wasn’t exactly on my radar early in my career. I was busy dreaming about being a book or magazine editor.
That’s because I had always appreciated the power of language. I loved copy editing and figuring out how to deliver a message in the most impactful way possible.
But a decade into my career, I hadn’t quite found the right job to harness those skills. Almost 10 years after graduating with a master’s degree in Written Communication, I was working as an office manager in DuPage County, Illinois.
I was looking for a change. So one day, I interviewed for a new administrative assistant position—and got the job. I didn’t think much of it when they asked me if I’d ever worked on a proposal. I had worked on a few in a previous position, but they were small (think $10,000 – $50,000 and three to five pages, max).
Little did I know that one question about proposals would give me an edge, opening up a whole new career trajectory.
Day One: From Admin Assistant to Daunting Debut
On the first day of my new admin position, I expected training on how to keep the office organized. But when I arrived, the company told me they envisioned someone else taking the admin role. They wanted me to move into a newly created Proposal Coordinator role instead.
I was surprised, to say the least. The proposals they wanted my support on were much larger than the ones I had worked on in the past. But I was up for the challenge, especially because it meant I could do a lot more copy editing.
After all, working with language is my love language.
That said, I had to lean on a lot more than my love of words. My manager was the only other person in the company working on proposals, and he was Swamped with a capital S. Since he was so busy, my training consisted of reviewing the company’s existing library of proposals and sitting in several kickoff meetings. They threw me into the deep end, fast. I got my first proposal management assignment soon after I started.
A decade-long learning process had begun.
Going Solo: A Tricky Lesson in Asking for Help
My proposal debut was… a little rocky to say the least.
I had to learn the many nuances of managing a proposal response on my own. I stumbled my way through everything from building timelines—and learning which subject matter experts (SMEs) needed padded deadlines—to conducting nerve-wracking kickoff meetings and getting familiar with the organization’s offerings.
My biggest mistake was not asking nearly enough questions about the process as I came up against new hurdles. My manager was already spread thin, so I didn’t want to overload him by requesting help. That meant I spent a lot of extra time trying to solve problems independently. Sure, it usually worked out, but the extra struggle and “wasted time” wasn’t always necessary.
Looking back, I’m sure my manager would have been happy to answer my questions, especially since it would have granted me more time to spend on other tasks.
It was a valuable lesson in asking for help. No matter your team’s size, you’re there to support each other. Don’t be afraid to learn from each other.
A Two-Year Journey Leads to MVP Status
Once I learned the ropes of the proposal process, I discovered an important skill: looking at the proposal from a client’s point of view.
While the financial side of a proposal is a significant factor during evaluations, it’s far from the only thing that matters. The potential client also wants to know that you’ve paid attention to the other details of the RFP. Have you included all of their specific requirements? Have you addressed their struggles and objectives?
With every proposal I worked on, I sought to keep the reader’s interest and level of awareness at the center. This perspective became a superpower that helped propel me.
Two years into my proposal career, I had twice received the “Instant Recognition Award” for my dedication to the proposal process at the company I was working for. A former colleague then referred me for a position at another company, where I became their sole Proposal Manager and earned the opportunity to build their RFP content library.
Going from a relative newbie to leading all of a company’s RFP responses was a massive moment of pride. It showed me that my colleagues had noticed the growth in my skills and put immense trust in me.
While our wins were always rewarding, I also found the losses incredibly valuable because I learned so much from each experience. I used each result—good or bad—as a chance to find opportunities for improvement.
It all paid off, and I never stopped leaning on my superpower. I worked at that company for six years, playing a significant role in expanding their public sector client list.
Thriving as a Content Manager a Decade Later
It’s been 10 years since my first day at that admin job, and I’ve come a long way. Today, I’m Content Manager, Client Communications at a global real estate investment firm called Heitman, where I earn more than double what I did in my first proposal role. Not too shabby.
Some of my primary responsibilities include ownership and management of the RFP library, keeping content up-to-date, delivering accurate and timely responses to client requests, assisting the Product Development team in the creation of new product marketing collateral and sample RFPs, copy editing quarterly reports, and copy editing internal and external facing content as-needed.
To this day, copy editing is still one of the favorite parts of my job. I’m always up for the challenge of improving upon a colleague’s writing and am grateful I get to embrace my love of language daily.
Patience, Organization, and Triple-Checking RFPs
Besides an appreciation for language and the ability to take an empathetic lens, a few skills have been pivotal in my time as a Proposal/Content Manager.
Patience is the virtue that can make or break a proposal manager. For one, SMEs are busy. They aren’t twiddling their thumbs, waiting for you to reach out with questions. It pays to send friendly reminders and learn that some SMEs will need padded due dates (with the expectation that they might not meet the deadline). Likewise, sometimes clients can take a long time to complete their evaluation—even if it means missing their own deadlines. Patience and kindness in all of those moments go a long way.
The earlier you can sharpen your organizational skills, the better. As a proposal manager, you’re the keeper of response deadlines. If you don’t keep track of them, nobody else will, which can be detrimental. You’re also responsible for organizing the documents associated with RFPs: multiple drafts, exhibits, and attachments. Proper organization is integral to responding to requests reliably and accurately.
Attention to Detail
RFPs are known for nuance. Each detail matters in your proposal, from formatting to word counts and minimum requirements. Simple things like a proposal due date in a different time zone can also significantly impact a response timeline. You’ve got to be able to spot the holes to catch preventable losses. I typically review an RFP twice upon project kickoff and at least once more before I send a proposal draft to the manager for review. More than once, I’ve caught things that I missed in the first review. Never doubt the triple-check!
Don’t Underestimate the Potential of Saying “Yes”
Everyone has a different path to proposals. Many of us stumble into this world and fall in love with its fast-paced environment or the strategic, creative aspects. If you can lean into your strengths, hone a few key skills, and embrace your team’s support, I believe your career in proposals will be very promising.
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