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Be a Better Partner, Large Businesses

The federal government has long been a proponent for the advancement of small businesses for economic growth, innovation, and a push toward equity within federal contracting. And with President Biden’s Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities throughout the Federal Government, many program offices and acquisition shops are interpreting this charge as raising targets for small and disadvantaged businesses (SDBs). In fact, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has set an ambitious goal, directing the Small Business Administration (SBA) to increase spending with SDBs by 15% by 2025.

In FY22, we are seeing awards in the $50-$100 million range and every opportunity, even if full and open, has a substantial — and growing — small business subcontracting plan. In short, small businesses now are in the driver’s seat in federal procurement.

Increasingly, small businesses now have their choice of large business teaming partners — and fellow large businesses will have to do better if they want to work with these companies.

I have worked in both large and small businesses, including my own, and there’s a fair amount of blame to share when things go south in large-small teaming arrangements. And while it’s easy to blame the small businesses who “fall down in delivery” or “can’t deliver solid proposal material,” most of the time the blame is shared by the large business partner. Maybe the large business partner didn’t evaluate capabilities correctly or provide sufficient resources through the capture and proposal phases.

Want to be a better partner? Try this.

  • Acquisition cycles are short, reputations are forever. If you leave a small business “at the altar,” squeeze outyear workshare, or renege on any of your capture promises, you will end up on someone’s blacklist. Partner for more than one opportunity, make introductions and tee up opportunities across your organization. Find the long-term potential and leverage those partnerships to grow together. That relationship building goes a long way!

  • Be transparent, always. We work in a “frenemy” industry. Sometimes we’re partners, sometimes we’re competitors. That’s how this game is played. It is perfectly acceptable to go from co-capture on one deal to saying, “No thanks, our team is locked up” on another. Be direct, tell the truth, and proceed with integrity. People will remember, and appreciate, your candor.
  • Prepare for the heavy lift. You will do more than your workshare’s worth of the capture and proposal effort. That’s not unfair, it’s reality. Large businesses have more resources, and we should share them in pursuit of winning work that supports federal customers’ missions. It’s important for large businesses to understand and admit why small businesses seek them out as partners. It’s not because the large business is inherently better at the work — whatever that work is. It is because the large business has the capacity and reach back to reduce risk in the eyes of the customer. You’re here because of your capacity — so be prepared to use it. Share documents from a market intelligence tool, whose subscription a small business can’t afford. Offer graphics or compliance support, anything to create a successful bid.
  • As it goes in pursuit, so goes in delivery. How you treat one another in the capture and proposal phases lays the foundation for how you operate in delivery in support of our customers. Respect deadlines. Offer resource support. Be flexible. That small business leader on the other end of the call is likely billing 40 hours per week, drafting proposal content after the kids are in bed, and negotiating an insurance policy while taking out the trash.
  • Partner experience matters. If a small business has a bad experience with one part of your large organization, they’re unlikely to work with your company again. If a small business has a frustrating time negotiating a Teaming Agreement with your contracts team, it doesn’t matter how good your developers are in delivery — you, as a large business, are difficult to work with. You see, you’re all one company to this small business, and if you put a small business through the paces on arduous administrative processes or terrible terms or otherwise behave badly, they can — and will — choose differently next time.

Large businesses, it’s time to look in the mirror. Are you doing right now and in the long run with your small business teaming partners? If not, you will likely find yourselves unable to pursue opportunities in your pipeline because small businesses will not want to work with you.

Jennifer Folsom is a dynamic, high-energy leader with a proven record of growing all sizes of professional services firms while growing a family. She is the Vice President of Growth at ICF, a Washington, DC- based global management consulting firm.

A human capital expert, she leverages a people-centered approach to drive revenue in organizations from start-up to Big 4. An-oft quoted expert in corporate culture, Jennifer promotes the notion that the multiple in firm valuation starts with the people. Her colleagues cite one of her greatest strengths as the “ability to cut through the noise to solve an issue.”

She’s also the mom of 3 sons, 20-year-old twins and a 14-year old-firecracker. Wife. Daughter. Sister. Friend. Yogi. Old lady soccer team player. Amateur farm-to-table chef. Vegetable gardener. Paddleboarder. Bourbon lover. Runner. Reader. Writer. Jennifer loves her work but knows that living your whole best life is the ultimate key to success.

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

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