I asked Liz Skarlatos, Lohfeld Consulting Group Principal Consultant, who she would be if she were a character from popular fiction. She replied, “I aspire to be Princess Leia. Mainly because she’s spunky, feisty, and a leader. She was respected. There were women heroines before her, but she stood out. She wasn’t afraid to take a stand. I always loved that character—just not the hairstyle!”
Liz may say she aspires to be Princess Leia, but her interview revealed to me that if the federal proposal arena is Star Wars, then she is Princess Leia. Liz is a top-notch capture manager who takes a stand for her captures and knows how to avoid common pitfalls so nothing gets in the way of her mission. Read the interview below to get her perspective on capture, and see for yourself how she embodies her icon. You’ll also get her perspective on trending mistakes in capture management, her recommendations for senior capture managers and consultants, and her tips for career development.
JQ: What appeals to you most about doing capture?
LS: I intensely love strategic collaboration. There are swim lanes across a capture, of course, but the magic comes from working with different levels, skills, and functions, seamlessly.
JQ: What’s a role you enjoy even if it isn’t your primary role?
LS: I’m never that far away from the evolution of the solution. I’m willing to do research, do the reading, and come up with some questions. At a gate review, I want to be able to circulate evidence early to prove there’s something behind the value proposition.
JQ: What are the top trending capture mistakes you see small businesses making?
LS: Pursuing too many opportunities—including blue birds—and not qualifying carefully; not down selecting to the best opportunities that fit the company’s strategy, goals, and competencies; and submitting bad proposals that can leave a negative impression.
They also have to think strategically about business development (BD) infrastructure. They can’t depend exclusively on one person to be Chief Cook and Bottle Washer. They need to hire strategically to enhance their infrastructure (BD, capture, proposals, recruiting, etc.). They should think about what’s a wise investment as part of annual planning and use occasional consultants to fill in gaps as they grow.
JQ: As small businesses grow their proposal departments, what’s top priority?
LS: One of the best investments is a good technical writer to allow the CEO or the other do-it-all person to be more strategic and work on customer relationships. Next is a really smart subject matter expert (SME) that can be a go-to solutions lead.
JQ: What are the top trending capture mistakes you see large businesses making?
LS: Believe it or not, large businesses are not all that different from small businesses. I see a lot of big businesses going after too many opportunities because they are tempting targets in a highly competitive environment. They may have some of the core competencies required, but are not supporting that particular client mission, don’t have client relationships, or don’t have the time to grow those relationships and influence the acquisition. They are managing too many other fires and then are surprised when the acquisition comes out in an unanticipated way—shaped by the incumbent or other insiders that were focused like a laser beam on that opportunity.
Lessons learned from wins and losses need to be more broadly shared, and actions should be taken to correct processes that aren’t working and are affecting win rates, but are so institutionalized they are never fixed.
JQ: If you were giving a capture master class, what’s a complicated or nuanced aspect of capture you’d like to share?
LS: You have to aggressively drive the solution. A lot of people would say, “Isn’t there a solution lead that should be doing that?”, but the capture manager must embrace the idea of working closely with a solution lead—almost be their partner—to get it nailed down.
Also, a capture manager needs to be unafraid to take a stand and ask, “Why are we pursuing this?” You need to provide evidence and not be overruled. All kinds of politics go into people opposing a no-bid, but part of the capture manager role is being an honest broker. Your best leadership is going to appreciate an unhindered capture manager who gives honest opinions.
JQ: What are your top recommendations for the professional development of a capture manager (e.g., reading materials, classes, associations, etc.)?
LS: At the end of the day the best thing is being involved in mentoring. Take a rising star along with you to develop call plans and attend bid boards so they can understand the kinds of questions leadership will ask. Even seasoned capture managers can benefit from mentoring when they’re onboarding with a new organization and a different culture. Peers and their support really develop a capture manager.
JQ: What’s your top tip for other capture consultants?
LS: Ask for the important information you need, just as though you were an employee and not a consultant. Sometimes there’s a firewall about what information they’ll give you, especially if it’s highly proprietary, but sometimes they’ll open-up more than you expect. Have a checklist of what you need, and see about getting access to the proposal library, capture plans, and strategy documents for other opportunities with the same customer.
If you’re not in there every day, communication is even more imperative. Talk about objectives, goals, and respective swim lanes. Ask for a jump office, when possible, so you are close to the action.
I also try to maintain my relationships with industry. This is very important in a capture role, as you can be called on to provide ideas for teaming or to participate in competitive analysis.
JQ: Moving on from serious topics—what do you do for fun?
LS: My secret vice is going to Cabo once a year. I bought a timeshare with girlfriends—the silliest investment, but the best decision. I’m also a culture vulture, so I go on day trips, attend shows, see museums. I did a day trip recently that traced the escape route of John Wilkes Booth. It was fascinating.
JQ: Favorite restaurant in the DMV area?
LS: One of my all-time favorites is a little restaurant in downtown Fairfax called Villa Mozart. It’s in a little house, and parking is impossible, but it’s delicious, northern Italian food. It’s a good spot for right before a show at George Mason.
JQ: What’s your go-to energy booster during crunch time on a proposal?
LS: Believe it or not, sometimes it’s as simple as turning your computer off, getting on a treadmill, and clearing your mind. Your mind is blocked with a problem or frazzled with people, and I just get on a treadmill or get outside and yank weeds in my garden. Do I do it all the time or as much as I should? No. You get frantic and think you don’t have time, but there’s always more time than you think.
By Julia Quigley
With a Master’s in Rhetoric and Composition, Julia Quigley has created proposal writing strategies and conducted training to help subject matter experts understand how to respond clearly and compellingly to solicitation requirements. Prior to joining Lohfeld Consulting Group, Julia managed proposals for small and mid-sized federal contractors and taught persuasive writing classes at Texas State University. She applies the lessons she taught as well as lessons learned to all her proposal and training projects.