Our fast-moving, deadline-driven profession values good managers, but needs great leaders. Often, we rise through the ranks by being great at our jobs. Because we’ve succeeded so far by doing great work, it can feel easier and more natural to focus on managing how the work gets done than on inspiring, guiding, and lifting up our teams.
Great leaders don’t just manage people, plans, and projects; they create environments that motivate and inspire people to achieve common goals and shared successes. Leadership is an ever-evolving art that requires continual practice. Here are some things I’ve learned that help me stay focused on leading more than I manage.
Leading with Intentionality and Vision
Leading is an ongoing, intentional practice. It involves understanding the real problems we hope to solve, caring for the people we serve (our customers, stakeholders, and team members), and fostering a culture of shared purpose.
For capture and proposal professionals mired in day-to-day tasks, it’s important to cultivate a practice of pausing to envision our larger purpose. What impact will our proposal have? How does it align with the organization’s goals? How does it improve people’s lives and well-being? By painting a compelling vision and helping others see how their talents contribute to this vision, work becomes more engaging and meaningful. Research shows that people who find their work meaningful are more productive and proactive and are more likely to stick with tasks that are challenging.
Clarifying Expectations and Cultivating Curiosity
Most experts on leadership preach the importance of clarifying expectations. I get this and don’t disagree, but there’s a fine line between creating clarity and tripping back into managing. Aligning a team isn’t just about directing people, it’s also giving them a voice in how things are done and nurturing a sense of belonging and contribution.
The best leaders know they don’t have all the answers, so they ask a lot of questions. Genuine curiosity involves listening, being fully present, and truly valuing others’ inputs and perspectives. Curiosity can unearth fresh perspectives and innovative solutions. It also can help us uncover and understand the barriers, constraints, and conflicting priorities that may undermine success and find ways to work together to resolve them. (Maybe there’s something important and resolvable going on with that SME who chronically misses deadlines or produces sub-par content; we just need to discover it.)
The Power of Listening
As capture and proposal professionals, we’re skilled at communicating our ideas. Being great communicators is one of the reasons we get promoted into leadership roles. If we want to be great leaders, though, we must prioritize listening over speaking. Listening is more than hearing. It’s not passive. Listening is active—truly paying attention to other people’s thoughts and perspectives and making them feel heard, seen, and understood. This doesn’t mean we agree with everything, but that we intentionally invite others to contribute so that together we produce more innovation, better problem solving, and achieve more than any of us can alone.
Generosity and Assuming Good Intent
People thrive in atmospheres of trust and respect. When we assume good intent and extend kindness, patience, and understanding, especially when dealing with difficult people or situations, we foster a positive environment where different views and approaches are valued, and difficult conversations are productive and non-threatening.
In her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown defines assuming positive intent as “extending the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.” This does not mean tolerating unacceptable behavior or lowering our standards—it simply means that we avoid blaming or shaming and instead turn to curiosity when things aren’t going as planned.
In cultures where generosity prevails, people tend to be more creative, more willing to speak up, and more willing to take on new challenges than in cultures where people fear negative repercussions for saying or doing the wrong thing.
Having and Respecting Boundaries
Having boundaries and respecting other people’s boundaries is a hallmark of a good leader. Let’s be honest, our profession isn’t high on boundaries. RFPs drop and we scramble to respond in time. An executive makes a bid decision, and we adjust our plans. Flexibility and resiliency are necessary traits in our profession; this doesn’t mean we can’t have healthy boundaries. Healthy boundaries look like turning work off at the end of the day, taking PTO and truly being off, acknowledging our limits and avoiding over-committing. Setting, maintaining, and respecting healthy boundaries increases the odds that we retain great people and improves performance in the long run.
Actions Speak Louder than Words
As a profession, we’re good with words. But our behavior—not our words—sets the tone for our teams. We must model the behavior we wish to see. If we value punctuality and professionalism, we need to show up on time. If we want people to take risks, we must model vulnerability and grace in the face of failure or disappointment. If we value work-life balance for our teams, we must practice it ourselves. If we’re diligent, respectful, and passionate about our work, our team is likely to follow suit.
The journey from being a manager to becoming a leader has very little to do with titles and everything to do with actions and interactions. Leading with intentionality and vision, remaining curious, listening actively, embracing generosity, and having healthy boundaries are things that help me to live the work of leadership. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I must reset and try again. My hope is to remain open to trying and to focus less on myself and my own success, and to help the teams I work with succeed by enabling others to bring their best selves to our work.
Amy McGeady is the Senior Vice President of Corporate Strategy and Strategic Services for Shipley Associates. Amy started her leadership journey as president of the junior honor society in 8th grade. Since then, she’s been a proposal manager and writer, a proposal center director in a Fortune 100 company, a small business owner, nonprofit CEO, executive leader, and board member. She’s had the good fortune to learn from some awesome leaders along the way.