A career in bids

Bid roles are so important, not just for the business you work for but for an individual’s career development too. Deborah Fleming, Business Development Director at Walker Morris, believes that working as a specialist bid manager is often a missed opportunity and there are misconceptions about the role that can put people off this very rewarding career. Deborah’s first bids role was for Eversheds as a Bids Co-ordinator. Through her career she has had roles in both bids and general business development (BD), working in a number of sectors: energy, utilities, public sector and financial services. How did your career develop into bids? Most law firms (and other professional services businesses) over a certain size now have a specialist bid team (of varying size) that typically sit centrally rather than being aligned to a specific practice or sector group. When I started, however, those teams generally didn't exist. I actually started life as public sector BD co-ordinator, which meant, obviously, I got heavily involved in bids. It developed from there really. I've now been in and out of both specialist and broader roles in BD and marketing for knocking on 20 years. When working in a specialist bids role, though, I deliberately always tried to expand my reach into the business as I didn’t want to work in a 'bid bubble' – this has meant I've developed commercial, pricing and contract management skills that I wouldn’t necessarily have needed in a general BD role.

Understanding Bids

What are bid roles? A bid team works with the business to win work from new and existing clients. They're responsible for helping to advise on whether a mandate is work the business should and could win, and then positioning the firm to win it. Successful Bid Managers within those teams are very commercially-focused individuals. They need to understand in depth the requirements of the client and the firm they work for.  A bid is probably the most targeted piece of marketing a firm will ever do. I feel really passionately that a true bid management function is not a document production team. Why bids? It's fast paced, demonstrably valuable and very visible. You work directly with Partners, right at the coal face of the business. When you're part of the team that wins a £10m panel bid, there is nothing like it. It also, if you're doing it right, makes you one of the most visible people in the business. If you're responsible for pulling together a firmwide proposition, you need to know your firm inside out. You need to get out there and understand for yourself what expertise we have, what added value we can offer, what technology we have, what CR we do…when you hold all that knowledge, it makes you incredibly sought after within the business. How can you be successful in a Bid Management role? A Bid Manager should add commercial insight. A Bid Manager should not be someone who takes a back seat and produces a document. You need to take control of the bid and own it. Be confident and make it clear from the start you are on the team to play an integral role in winning this work. You also need to be someone who can persuade and convince others to deliver. You need high EQ – to develop the ability to read a room and understand the motivations of the people on the team producing the bid. You're often bringing together a group of people who don't know each other that well and asking them to deliver a winning bid together in a very short timeframe. Turning that group into a high performing team – quickly – is crucial. A great way to be seen to add value is to advise the firm why it wins and loses work. Data analysis is key to success – and really interesting. I remember doing some analysis for a firm I worked with and noticing that we were winning everything up to £100k and then over £1m, but losing in between. We didn’t understand why, so dug deeper and uncovered some specifics about the type of work that typically fell into this fee band. Once we knew the problem, we could develop a proposition to tackle it, which ultimately saw an increase in instructions in this area. A great bids professional will always be in demand, not least because there aren't many of you. You can build a high-profile role and shape it as you want – for example, broadening it into pricing, or pursuits. Find the thing you're interested in – or that no-one else knows. I mentioned that I started my career doing public sector bids. This could have been really boring, but I decided to develop my knowledge in public procurement. I was then able to position myself as someone that didn't just churn out PQQs (Pre-Qualification Questionnaires) – I had specialist knowledge that was valuable to the firm. Why would some not choose bids? Unfortunately, if you start your career in a broader business development role the idea of being a specialist Bids Manager doesn’t always appeal. These broader roles lead to being spread thinly. Delivering on a bid is part of a busy role. If not managed properly they can be last minute and really stressful – and they can just be an inconvenience, pulling you away from the other stuff you're supposed to be doing. It can also seem, when you're in a junior bids role, that it's just a lot of form filling. That's certainly how it felt to me. But, as I said earlier, my way around that was to understand the procurement system and learn how to play that game. There's as much value in that as coming up with a beautiful document for a major corporate (who, incidentally, are also becoming much more procurement driven now too – it pays to learn that stuff!) There will be times when it is full on. There will be horrible bids. But the benefit of a bid is that it will always come to an end. Yes, they need to be delivered within a certain time frame and that pressure is often exciting and stressful at the same time, but you know it will end. Can you work part-time / flexibly? There are very few if any part-time/flexible bid roles. That’s mainly because of the number of deadlines and the very short timelines. It is quite hard to leave and pick up a few days later. It's not impossible, but it does make life harder. Are you seeing an increase in bids roles? Yes, because clients are buying more services via bids. There is an increase in clients using sophisticated procurement processes particularly in regulatory industries and among PLCs that need an audit trail. How do people get into bid management? I fell into it without any formal training upfront. Quite often an individual will have started out in general BD and marketing roles. Some might have project management backgrounds. I've also seen procurement people move into a bids role – poacher turned gamekeeper. Candidates that we recruit for these roles will usually be educated to degree level or have equivalent experience, and there is plenty of formal training and professional qualifications to gain once you're into it. APMP is a good one.

Becoming a Bids Manager

Lastly, what are the main skills a bid manager needs?
  • Commercial awareness - you need to totally understand the needs of the client.
  • Resilience.
  • A high degree of organisation – when you're looking for information liaising with various stakeholders, undertaking research, identifying budgets, and so on, you need to be able to keep a lot of plates spinning.
  • Financial awareness – to come up with a proposition that is attractive to the client, and delivers the required commercial and profit returns for the firm.
  • The ability to lead and motivate a team, and the communication skills to bring together a wide range of stakeholders by the deadline.
  • Editing skills. You often need to turn what a fee-earner says or writes into something that is understandable for all. Editing 1,000 into 500 words is no mean feat!
It's a really broad skillset. Bid Managers have excellent project management skills, can lead teams, articulate proposals, understand business needs, develop commercial propositions, and build relationships. And love a deadline! Deborah will be presenting at the PM Forum in September 2019 on ‘Making your contribution to pitches meaningful and exciting’. In this, she will explore the myths surrounding the ‘pitch grind’ and explain how you can add value to every stage of the bid process. Having chatted to Deborah for this piece, it is clear attendees will be in for a treat, following which you’ll all want to work in bids! Click here for further details of the event and to book your place.