Surviving a Dysfunctional Government Contract Proposal Environment

April 27th, 2015 | Posted by Sarah Jones in Guest Blogs

This week on NVTC’s blog, Jim McCarthy of member company AOC Key Solutions Jim McCarthy of member company AOC Key Solutions shares suggestions for not only surviving, but also thriving amidst the occasional dysfunction in government contracting.

When you win, government contracting is among the most satisfying of careers. Unfortunately, the crucible we call a Proposal Center can, at times, degenerate into a witches’ brew of dysfunction. One where there exists a dark confluence of long hours, suboptimal working conditions, relentless deadlines, hidden agendas, political infighting, rampant egos, intractable issues, morose review teams, cranky bosses, and cold pizza. No wonder proposals sometime magnify the worst in us. But, when handled correctly, dysfunction can also spark the finest in us. Here are suggestions for not only surviving, but thriving, amidst the occasional toxicity endemic to Government Contracting.

1. Be a Part of the Solution, Government Proposals are hard enough. Commit from day one not to be part of the problem. Be part of the solution—a breath of fresh air in the war room. Offer constructive suggestions.  Be a problem solver, not a problem compounder.

2. Regard It As an Opportunity to Learn. Get metaphysical. Discern why you are going through this time of adversity and testing. What lesson are you being taught? Be open.

3. Remember the Mission. Your company is bidding an important contract. By helping it win, you help your company help others. Take solace that you are part of something worthwhile that matters.

4. Focus on Positives, Not Negatives. Radiate enthusiasm. Don’t be a black hole absorbing all light and energy from the proposal. Count continuously the things going right.

5. Help a Colleague. Make it about others, not you. Volunteer. Help those sharing the foxhole with you. Look for another person—perhaps younger than you, and commit to making him or her a success. Helping others animates even the most grueling proposal.

6. Support Your Boss. Under pressure? Imagine what confronts your leader. Help ease the hard times squeezing the boss. Be loyal. Give the boss the benefit of the doubt. Speak highly of him or her.

7. Don’t Take It Personally. Problems are endemic to life, business, and proposals. Check your ego at the reception desk. Be objective rather than internalizing the dysfunction.

8. Examine Yourself First. Before playing the blame game, reflect on how you may be part of the problem. Anger, resentment, frustration, and finger-pointing are infectious. Often, we are most critical of others in the very areas where we are weakest.

9. Change What Is Under Your Control, Accept the Rest. Stress and worry contribute not one iota to solving anything. Fix what you can. Change how you think about everything else. Shifting one’s attitude typically brings about altered behavior.

10. Watch Your Mouth.  Don’t whine, gossip, backbite, nitpick, rumor monger, second-guess, engage in character assassination, question another’s motives, or utter any comments that erode the sense of the proposal team. Don’t pour gasoline on the fire. Bad karma in a proposal center eventually dooms your efforts.

11. Take the Pause That Refreshes. As you near a crescendo or breaking point, leave. Take a walk. Grab a cup of coffee. Sit in your car. Breathe. Use a quick break to center yourself. Once renewed, rejoin the fray and redouble your efforts.

12. Maintain Work Life Balance. You cannot perform your best when you feel your worst.  Diet, exercise, spirituality, family involvement, quiet time, hobbies, reading, healthy sleep habits—first take care of yourself. Only then are you equipped for the proposal grind.

13. Set a Good Example. People are watching you. You are either a good role model or a bad one.  It really does come down to the choice you make.

14. Sweat Not the Small Stuff. And, as author Richard Carlson says on occasions, “it’s all small stuff.”

15. Invoke Your Pressure Release Mechanism.  Tamp down on the valve to discharge steam when needed.  Keep your outlook positive, not pressurized. If you don’t have a release mechanism, find one.

16.  Act Gently and Cultivate Empathy. Never pile on. Don’t tread on those are already weighed down. Lighten another’s load. Observe your teammates, allies, critics, and rivals–you may think you know what they are going through, but you don’t. Like you, everyone is on a private journey with rocky patches. Everyone stumbles—if not today, then soon. Be an encourager.

By applying these suggestions, you emerge from adversity, stronger, more resilient, and better equipped to handle the next challenge. Surely, it will come—not if, but when.

Jim McCarthy is the Founder & Principal of AOC Key Solutions, a proposal consulting firm dedicated to helping companies win government contracts. Mr. McCarthy’s career spans over 30 years of proposal development, market strategy, and oral presentation coaching to federal contractors. Learn more at


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