When is it right to complain about lack of resources and problems, and when is it a sign of a person who is less than a stellar performer, an excuse-maker, or someone already planning their retreat?

It is interesting that some of the strongest people rarely complain. Let’s take a famous example – Lt. General Ulysses Grant (18th U.S. President). He led the Union Army to defeat the Confederate Army, and his leadership helped win the Civil War. Interestingly, he was widely recognized for not complaining to Lincoln about the lack of resources (or about much of anything else). If he didn’t have horses for the cavalry, he found a way to do without – even while others believed it was impossible to fight a war without cavalry. He had his share of setbacks, but in the end, he prevailed, sometimes due mostly to his sheer determination and will. Similarly, there are proposal professionals who fight the battles and don’t complain about the lack of budget, imperfect capture, tight deadlines, or tough customers, and difficult proposal team members. They work through being sick and dog-tired. They may be controversial (like Grant), and not everyone’s cup of tea, but they get the job done. They may mention how difficult it was after the fact. They keep their sense of humor about it, and even as they tell the story, it shows that they are tough as nails.

Interestingly, the best proposal managers with the highest win record almost uniformly demonstrate the characteristics of General Grant. Our consultants, who are like this, usually only contact us for tools and templates while they are on assignment, and our customers rave about them and keep inviting them back. This is too obvious of a trend to overlook.

In contrast, I have noticed that the most outspoken proposal people are usually the ones who are the least successful when it comes to winning proposals. They focus on what makes winning impossible, and they complain. They make sure they work hard on communicating to anyone who will listen that losing was not their fault – well before the battle has ended.

But, it is easy to make an analogy that “excuse-making is a characteristic of a loser” and to use pop psychology to pass judgment on those who dare complain instead of gratefully accepting the role of heroes in their daily jobs. What if it’s more complicated than this? Over-simplifying it takes the responsibility off the generals (company management) and places it solely on the foot soldiers.

All proposal professionals know: if management doesn’t resource the proposal to win, then the chance of a win is much less likely. If no one tells management that they need to allocate more budget and subject matter experts, prepare in advance next time, or make a no-bid decision – and if no one fights these internal battles (ultimately to make the company more successful) – how will the generals know that change is needed? Is it good for the company if people keep pulling off all-nighters and burn themselves out on a routine basis? How will management become more selective in saying “no” to the wrong opportunities, so that the limited resources are better applied to go after the right ones? Is it a realistic expectation that proposal managers continue to weave straw into gold each time without complaining?

As a business owner who makes hiring and staffing decisions, I go back and forth on this subject. As a typical proposal “hero” who has worked on pursuits through meningitis and the birth of a baby, I personally have a low tolerance for whining. Yet, sometimes I question myself:  had I been more outspoken and cut myself some slack – would it have made things better for me and for others?

When is it right to complain and get vocal because it’s the right thing to do? How do you distinguish between good business sense and a performer who is looking for excuses “just in case we lose”?  Do you notice similar trends with your proposal people’s performance? Where do you draw the line to find out who is a superstar, and who is a mediocrity?

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