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"Must Win" vs. "Work / Life Balance"

Updated: May 12, 2022

It's hard being a proposal professional.

According to a recent study (2020), a stunning 88% of proposal industry professionals report that work has impacted their mental health (31% greater than the general workplace) - and that data was from before the pandemic.

It's no wonder we're now experiencing "The Great Resignation". I think we've reached a tipping-point in our "win-at-any-cost" sales / work culture. To which many of our colleagues said "Nope. I'm out."

I can't tell you how many deals have come across my desk where leadership made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that each one was a "must win" opportunity. As if I was the sole person responsible for the win or loss. How many of us have:

  • Worked all-nighters or until the wee-hours to get a proposal out the door?

  • Had to include weekend hours in the response schedule to meet all the deadlines?

  • Made a mad dash to hand-deliver a proposal, barely making the deadline?

  • Worked sick?

  • Worked on proposals while in the hospital?

  • Worked while in active labor, about to give birth?

More than a few... But why?

"Taking One for the Team"

For me, I've done those things because I didn't want to let down my team.

I have a friend who is about to have a major surgery, to which her doctor has advised her to take four weeks off to recover. Because her team is so "underwater", she feels that she can take only one week off and can work from home the other three weeks. This will absolutely affect her ability to heal, but she feels this is the best choice for her work situation.

As a society, I think we've engineered a work culture that puts the company first and ourselves second, disguising it as "teamwork".

Olympic medalists Kerri Strug and Simone Biles

I'm reminded of two very different women that we see as heroes.

A Tale of Two Olympians

At the 1996 Olympic games, Kerri Strug severely injured her ankle after an awkward landing from the vault. She continued to perform a second vault – on her injured ankle – and nailed the landing on one foot, before collapsing in pain.

That iconic moment helped Team USA earn their first-ever gold medal in women’s gymnastics. Strug was a hero who put the success of her team before her personal health and wellbeing - and that's what she had been trained to do. At that time, the gymnastics organization pushed athletes to practice on broken bones and injuries.

In 2021, Simone Biles withdrew from the team final, citing her mental health. Her decision to pull out was supported by her coaches and the gymnastics organization that had overhauled its leadership since 1996.

Biles said she was feeling the pressure of expectations, of winning gold medals and performing perfectly. Strug tweeted her support and that she could relate.

A Change in Values

What I think is interesting, generationally speaking, is the shift in what we value most.

I think it's clear that Gen-Z values their health, their wellbeing, their homelife above all else - which I greatly admire. As a 90's kid myself, I can see how my work habits have historically been more reflected in Strug's story - putting others and the idea of "achievement" first.

It's not "selfish" to put yourself first - it's sustainable.

(Side note: I also think that if Biles had come first, we may not have celebrated Strug in the way that we did in 1996.)

Lessons for Leadership

So how do we make sure we're not losing employees to attrition - either from sudden resignation or slow burn-out?

Get to know them! You have to know your team to know what they value. When you know what they value, you know what motivates them. Motivated employees are engaged employees, and engaged employees are generally more satisfied and less likely to make a move.

It's also important to understand what our employees and teammates value most so that we can lead effectively across generational differences. A team with different values will have different needs. It's important to get to know your team so that you can know what they're focusing on and how you can best support them to achieve their individual goals.

This includes recognizing situations where proposal managers and writers are consistently having to "take one for the team". While it may be commonly accepted in our industry, it only ever leads to burn out in the long run.

Instead, let's make sure we're taking the necessary steps as leaders to ensure individuals aren't in a situation where they are chronically sacrificing their wellbeing for the sake of others on the team. This looks like:

  • Staffing appropriately (using consultants when you need to)

  • Implementing bid / no-bid processes (targeting the most winnable pursuits)

  • Streamlining internal processes

  • Cascading important information to the team regularly (transparency builds trust)

  • Collecting and reporting operational efficiencies data to identify trends and gaps

  • Measuring proposal manager / writer satisfaction after a bid

  • Encouraging open communication

  • Advocating on employee's behalf

  • Recognizing individual talent and efforts (not just when you've won a contract)

If your company says that they value "work / life balance", make sure the company's actions show it. If you have proposal managers and writers working in unhealthy ways, it's in your best interest as a leader (and at the organizational level) to address it instead of celebrating, ignoring, or worst of all, expecting it.

This is what, in my opinion, The Great Resignation is trying to show us is no longer acceptable and serves an overdue opportunity to remedy what ails us.

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