S2 Ep 1 – The Art & Science of Winning Work with Sara Miller


Welcome to Season 2 of A Legal High. Thank you to everyone who subscribed to the podcast in Season 1 or who wrote us a review or shared or commented on the podcast on LinkedIn. You helped other like-minded professionals find and join our community of listeners.

In this podcast, The Art & Science of Winning Work, Graham interviews Baker McKenzie’s Pitch and Pursuits Excellence, Senior Manager – Asia Pacific Leader, Sara Miller.

Sara shares her insights on:

  • The difference between business development, proposals, bids, tenders and pursuits
  • How to learn best practice in pitches and pursuits
  • The nuances of working on pitches and proposals in different cultures
  • How legal firms will win work in the future

About our guest, Sara Miller

Sara is Pitch and Pursuits Excellence, Senior Manager – Asia Pacific Leader for Baker McKenzie, based in Singapore. She has extensive experience in pitch and pursuits on both the client side and working for professional services firms. Sara is the Offshore Chapter Membership Leader for the ANZ chapter of the Association for Proposal Management Professionals. When she’s not busy working winning work for Baker McKenzie, Sara is a history buff with a special interest in the Roman Empire.

TRANSCRIPT: A Legal High with Sara Miller

Graham Seldon: [00:00:03]

Hello and welcome to A Legal High – the podcast that takes a high level view of what’s happening in the law firm sector and the opportunities and challenges facing business development, marketing and communications professionals. I’m your host, Graham Seldon, and I’m a Director here at Seldon Rosser. We specialise in recruiting, business development and marketing experts for law firms across the Asia-Pacific region.

Graham Seldon: [00:00:32]

In today’s episode, I’m joined by Sara Miller, who is the Asia Pac Leader for the Pitch and Pursuit excellence team at Baker McKenzie, based in lovely warm Singapore. Sara has nearly 20 years of experience leading business development, marketing, communications and pursuit teams for consulting, engineering, architectural, financial and now legal services firms both in the US and Asia Pacific. She’s also had experience working on the client side, managing spend and RFPs in local government. This gives her a unique view on how to win work and demonstrate value for clients across B2B services on a local, regional and global scale. Sara is the Offshore Chapter Membership Leader for the ANZ chapter of the Association for Proposal Management Professionals. So in a nutshell, there’s nothing she doesn’t know about proposals, bids and tenders. Sara, welcome to A Legal High.

Sara Miller: [00:01:29]

Thank you, Graham, that’s very kind of you.

Graham Seldon: [00:01:31]

Sara, you’ve had very varied career to date. Could you just tell us a little bit about your career journey and what brought you to your current role?

Sara Miller: [00:01:42]

Sure, Graham. And I’ve certainly had an unconventional career, if you look at where I started. When I was growing up, I actually wanted to be a Roman history professor, which is probably not something most people aspire to at a young age. So I moved in the late 90s to Edinburgh and started a PhD and Roman history (so I used to be fluent in Latin). I’ve even done talks before on what we can learn from the Romans in helping us win big global legal panels. I think yeah, there’s actually a lot we can learn from them. I tell people to have a career development plan, but then I guess be ready for opportunities or challenges or roadblocks. And as they arise, I think we need to be very agile in today’s world. And that’s certainly been true for me my first Friday in Edinburgh, I met my Australian husband watching the Tri Nations rugby in a pub. So over the next, I guess, five years, instead of working on my fluency in Latin, we moved back to Seattle where I was raised. And this is, of course, when the dot.com crash, hit. For those of you who may remember that far back. So kind of that was a very immediate hurdle, I guess, in my career. But I’ve been quite lucky in that I’ve done a lot with journalism, PR, communication, marketing, working my way through university. So I’m very lucky to be able to sort of launch a new career starting from the bottom in business development and marketing for engineering and architectural services firms in the States. And that’s quite a big market in the US. So we would even have a professional services association for engineering and architectural firms.

Sara Miller: [00:03:16]

So a lot of them would run into partnership models. So really fascinating. Loved it. And I’m over the next five years, again, I was lucky that I was able to work my way up quite quickly in a really interesting environment. And pursuits had always been a very big part of that, of course, when you’re going for those really big PPP projects. So I got to manage I think teams of up to 20 sub consultants, developers, architects, engineers.

Sara Miller: [00:03:41]

So you get some really great skills that I guess stakeholder management working in that kind of environment. So I guess it was really, really lucky. So I guess at that point I moved to Australia permanently. And I just landed in Brisbane at that point and this is 15 years ago, there just wasn’t a really broad career path then and BD in marketing or architectural engineering.

Sara Miller: [00:04:04]

And that’s completely changed now. There’s so much opportunity in Brisbane. But again, this is this is a while ago. So my husband was in, I guess, a remote mining town flying in and flying out. So I thought I’d try to get some experience there with some of the big mining companies. So starting to look at more, I guess, corporate exposure. So I moved up to a very small town of 8000 in the Central Owen Basin, which was quite an adventure for someone like me, having grown up in Seattle working for high end architectural firms. And then, of course, the GFC hit. So I guess that was kind of again, sort of a second big hurdle in my career that kind of forced me down a different path. But it worked out, I guess really well in that that’s something I’ve really learned, I guess, from the variety of my roles is that, you know, every job is an opportunity. It’s not just a job. There’s almost always an angle, some development you can get. So I ended up instead of working for a big multinational as I planned, working for a local council up there, and I actually got to manage, as the client working for government, in their project management space.

Sara Miller: [00:05:13]

I got to manage the spend, so I got to help select consultants. I ran the RFP and developed them. And I guess getting to be the client side in an area where you’ve been selling for so many years was just such a great experience. So again, a role that wouldn’t look glamorous on paper, but I’ve gotten so much out of that that I’ve taken away for the rest of my career. But I did, I think, two years in and quite a small, isolated town. I did have an encounter with cane toads in my house and I thought, that’s it. I need to get out of here. This is enough an adventure for me and the economy began to pick back up again. So again, I kind of went back to where I’ve been planning on going with again, trying to get experience with a big multinational. And General Electric had a proposal and pursuits its role going in Melbourne. So. again, I think proposal management was not really a career back then. So it’s very difficult for them to find anyone that had the skill set.

Sara Miller: [00:06:10]

So even though I hadn’t worked in finance (it was a billion dollar commercial finance business) because I had that proposal skillset, they were willing to take a punt on me and let me, you know, move towns, move industries, move businesses. So I’m very lucky. They’re very happy there for five years. And anyone who gets a chance to work for General Electric. So much great development. I know they say change quite a bit who they are on Asia PAC, but really such a great learning environment. But I woke up one morning and they’d announce that they’d sold, I think, 50 billion of commercial finance businesses in Asia PAC. So again, they’re kind of always looking to reinvent themselves. So again, I took that as an opportunity.

Sara Miller: [00:06:55]

I thought ‘What am I enjoying in my current role and what would I like to do?’ And then I decided that Singapore I’d really like to do more regional work, kind of build on what I’ve been doing at GE and I applied at Baker McKenzie and I think three months later I was in Singapore. So it all happened quite quickly. So again, I think proposal management in this part of the world, there is a real problem with supply and demand. If you think back 15 years ago, there wouldn’t have been any proposal management jobs in the ICON job alerts or 10 years ago or even five years ago. And now we’re really saying a lot. So I think things are shifting, but proposal management has really allowed me, I think, to travel. And then I guess, again, Graham, it’s worked out really well for me that I do find everyday, you know, my current role is different. I’ve got access to senior stakeholders. I get to mentor, I get to coach. I’ve got to be a good project manager, researcher, stakeholder influencer. I think every day is different. And so I feel quite comfortable that, you know, though there’ll be a lot of challenge for me ongoing in this role.

Graham Seldon: [00:07:59]

Thank you so much for sharing your career journey, because often we have resistance from people looking to stay in bid management roles because they think they’re boxing themselves in. But actually listening to you, you’ve had one of the most dynamic and interesting careers of any of your peers who may have been a more generalist business development and sales. It’s taken you around the world. And I think but both because you you face every job with opportunity, but also because your skillset is in high demand, as you’ve just said. So. I think  it’s fantastic to hear from somebody who has really had not just a interesting career, but a career that has actually gone up. And, you know, you’ve stepped up every time you’ve had a different job, you’ve stepped into a different industry, you’ve taken on different responsibilities. So it’s fantastic to hear that you’re still really enjoying it and that you see even more opportunity in this area of the market.

Sara Miller: [00:08:57]

Definitely. Graham, I really say watch this space in Asia PAC. And I tell people as well that even if you just dip into it as a specialist for a couple of years, that gives you, I guess again, so many great skill sets to then go back out to being a generalist again. So, yes, anyone I think that has some of the interest, I definitely encourage you to consider it, whether now or down the track.

Graham Seldon: [00:09:18]

Down the track. So let’s talk about. I’m interested to get into some terminology, and you are the right person to ask. So can you can you can you tell me what’s the difference between pursuits and proposals and bids and tenders?

Sara Miller: [00:09:33]

Sure Graham, And this actually comes up quite a bit. I always see this on Linkedin discussion groups, but I’ve never I’ve never seen results. So I’m sure I’ll probably get lots of traffic if I get this wrong. I’ll start with the first and the fourth, which are the easiest ones. I think pursuits is where we all want to be headed. So I think that’s for me, just meaning taking a more strategic mindset. That’s the opportunity. So it’s not just the document, it’s not just the RFP, but what’s the broader opportunity? And how do we start to reposition for that to influence stakeholders to be regarded favourably. But whether that’s 12 months out (for a panel) or outside of law and aviation, it might be five years out. So it’s really taking that holistic view towards an opportunity versus again, just looking at it as a document. And I think with the legal industry feeling like the big four kind of nipping at our heels to some point, I think we’re going to see more of a pursuit frame framework in legal industries moving forward. I think that just makes sense if. As our competitors change, as well as some of the threats as well, I think to a traditional legal firm something. So again, I think we’re going to go a little bit smarter about how we’re chasing cold tenders. And it’s funny, I remember when I first moved to Australia, I thought, ‘What’s a tender manager?’. To me, that was very much a construction terminology in the US & UK. So I find that very I think that’s sort of a local market term for proposal management. And then I think proposals and bids is a bit of a catch all. Bids to me has a little bit more of a I think a dollar connotation, particularly if you look at IT industries and that sort of thing. I guess proposals is just our bread and butter. You know, as far as requests for proposals go.

Graham Seldon: [00:11:16]

And in terms of you, you’ve worked and the US, Australia and now across Asia. Are there any differences in terms of how you see proposals, pursuits, tenders, all of those – all of those things operating in the different geographical markets?

Sara Miller: [00:11:34]

Yeah, I think I think there’s a lot of differences. You know, even within Asia PAC, I hear kind of Asia lumped together a lot, but there’s a lot of different know the way you would win work in Singapore is very different to Thailand or can be very different, for instance. I think in some some areas, I think it’s just because of the size of the market driving competition, you might actually see more complex processes, more complex sales process, RFP process. It’s not a good or bad thing,  it’s just more complex. And some of those markets, I think people are a bit more open to have the go/no go conversation. And for instance, I think in Australia it’s a little bit easier to have that conversation with a Partner and than some other countries that I think worked with. So, yeah, I think there’s definitely thing is, I do remind people that, again, like you have to be very mindful of cultural rules of thumb. But there’s always people we’re always selling to people, we’re working with people. And I guess the geography they come from is just one filter that you have to be mindful of and pay attention to.

Graham Seldon: [00:12:42]

And so for listeners who are new to bid management, so perhaps self-taught, (and we do see quite a lot in the legal industry, particularly people who fell into bid management from a business development role and have always stayed in one sector, the legal industry. And I know what I would call self taught and in a way). What would you recommend are the key frameworks and steps that they should be looking at in an end to end process?

Sara Miller: [00:13:15]

Sure Graham. That’s a great question. And again, many of us did just fall into it. We speak about that all the time when you get kind of a group of proposal managers together. How did you get involved and exactly your phrase,  we fell into it. So I think in an ideal world and you’d be following a pursuit framework. So the next chasing cycle would start as soon as you’ve won or lost an opportunity. So what’s the next opportunity with this client?

Sara Miller: [00:13:40]

Can we leverage what we’ve just learned to preposition and kind of pace ourselves and be ready for it when it comes out and be viewed favorably, of course, by the decision makers. Outside of that framework, which not everyone is kind of able to implement, or does it suit every business, I guess I’d just say that proposal management really isn’t rocket science. People asked me to train all the time on frameworks or the 101s. And it’s really about, I guess, the client and being client centric. And I’d say the devil’s really in the nuances, the stakeholder management. There’s so many moving parts, short timelines, every team RFP client opportunity is different. I guess is sort of a really basic framework, you would ideally be starting with a go / no go conversation. Is it something we should even be pursuing? So that’s really a challenge, I think particularly in many parts of Asia. I don’t think this really happens. All right. But you’ll hear is best practice is that  it should be out until you qualify it in. And it’s pretty much flipped on its head here and you get in unless you can qualify it out.

Graham Seldon: [00:14:51]

That’s true of a lot of law firms, isn’t it? A lot of law firms would say that fee earners and partners would always say ‘we’re in’ until you give me a reason that we shouldn’t be in. And what you’re saying is that actually you should start the conversation with we’re out until you can convince me why we need to be in.

Sara Miller: [00:15:07]

Exactly. And it’s a lot easier to have that conversation in, say, a large engineering firm chasing a Department of Defense contract that’s actually going to cost them, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars. So they do that very well. But I think for us in law firms, it is very challenging. And a lot of what I do, I guess, is is trying to coach, I guess, BD colleagues on, you know, if it’s going to be a necessary evil, how can you kind of do damage control and how do you resource appropriately? What can you do to be efficient? How can you have this influencing conversation? So I think that’s always really important in a law firm where the RFP volume can be quite high.

Sara Miller: [00:15:46]

And I think getting getting a good brief from a partner can be a challenge, too. I think if you think our partners are incredibly busy, so it’s getting kind of the right strategic information from them is also a challenge kind of particular to us in the industry.

Sara Miller: [00:16:07]

I was just gonna say to the other thing I find is that people can be hesitant to talk to a client about an RFP. And I know again, having issued RFPs, I would have opportunities where quality and technical expertise was absolutely critical over cost and I’d have other opportunities that were more of a commodity where again, I was going for price. And the consultant who called me had that conversation about what I wanted would get it right. And the people who didn’t call me would often get it completely wrong. And have wasted their time by not submitting a RFP without taking the time to scope it with me and cover some of the nuances of my needs.

Graham Seldon: [00:16:44]

And that ties in really with where you were talking about the market going before with the pursuit process, which is that it’s my understanding, correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s my understanding that in pursuit roles, the person responsible for pulling together the bids, et cetera, is client facing has the voice of the client at the heart of the conversation is finding out more about the client, what the client needs, as opposed to a traditional sort of bid manager role where they don’t really get to talk to the clients that just there to prepare the document and make sure the documents completed on time. Is that a fair assessment of how it’s working?

Sara Miller: [00:17:22]

Yeah. Structures will be a little bit different at different firms. But you’re exactly right about the pursuit framework, putting the client at the centre versus being about a document. And that’s one thing that I’ve really learned over the years. You know, when you ask me about process, this is that I think a lot of process can be scaled up or down. But it’s really about, I think, being confident in your skill set to see through the noise and, you know, understand what the client’s after. Ask, is this client centric? What does this mean to the client? Kind of the so what of it?

Sara Miller: [00:17:53]

I guess the other thing, too, I would tell people as well that I think you’ll see more and a pursuit versus a traditional proposal role. Is that it really is helpful in your career. If you can get some commercial acumen, figure out what the profitability levers are in your firm so that you have a voice at the table when you’re talking about pricing. So, I think in a traditional proposal manager role, I hear a lot of people say the lawyers, the technical experts, do the pricing. It’s nothing to do with me. It’s part of an overall value prop. So I think people are really missing an opportunity and typing themselves as document managers in that proposal space. And I think even if they’re not in the pursuit framework, they still could have a much bigger voice. So, again, I would just warn people to try to not be document managers.

Graham Seldon: [00:18:39]

And it’s hard, though, isn’t it, if you’re in a smaller firm and maybe you’re the only person in the firm that’s responsible for bid management. And you have no other colleagues or peers or best practice anywhere else within the business to learn from. Where would you suggest somebody who’s maybe in that type of position, where would you suggest they go to learn best practice, to talk about what’s happening in the in the market? You know, things like what? Where would you recommend they go?

Sara Miller: [00:19:09]

Sure, Graham. And I think you mentioned earlier in the intro that I actually I volunteer with the Association for Proposal Management Professionals. It’s actually a global not for profit. I think there’s about eight thousand of us globally. So looking at the art and science of winning work, the bids, tenders, proposals – all those great terms that you mentioned earlier. So as a not for profit, again, I think it’s I’ve really enjoyed volunteering with them for exactly what you were mentioning in this question that I’ve been able to bring people together in places like Singapore, Hong Kong, where teams are often just one and they’re working alone, they’ve fallen into proposal management and it can be very stressful. It’s deadline driven. I never find it easy. I never walk away from a bid, a major bid going that was really easy today. So I think that’s a really great place to start. We have networking events in a lot of major cities and people who come in from more information. We have a conference coming up end of August. So there’s actually a conference for proposal managers. Now, if you believe that every few years in Australia. But I think people are fairly chatty as well. So it’s a good time, I think. .

Graham Seldon: [00:20:27]

Is that conference in Melbourne? Did I read that?

Sara Miller: [00:20:30]

It is in Melbourne coming up August 28 and 29.

Sara Miller: [00:20:34]

Right. And then again, I guess membership is quite affordable. I think it’s AUD$150 a year, which isn’t a lot. Again, we’re not for profit. And that will give you access to an online body of knowledge. We do lots of webinars both locally and out of the US, so it can be a little bit US centric. But you know, the basics of best practice are there. And what I really get a lot out of, Graham, I guess, is that it’s people in winning workspaces from all over Asia PAC and different industries, so you’ll get, I don’t know, a Head of legal BD from Asia. And then someone who’s maybe more junior starting out a career in I.T. that they’ll get the chance to speak to each other. So I think it’s just good from bringing different points of view. And I think you can get a bit stale if you’ve sort of followed the traditional career path and you’ve always been legal. I think and moved around the same firms. I think it’s really important to get those fresh ideas and that’s a really good place to do it.

Graham Seldon: [00:21:30]

I love the fact that you use the terminology winning work because I actually see that as being a new phrase that’s going to come into legal and be quite prolific. And I like it because in one phrase it sums up how competitive the market is. It sums up that you should never take it for granted, that you’re always going to get the work from that client. And also the whole idea that you are in a team, it’s like a team sport. And so my final question to you is, where do you think the legal industry is going in relation to the business of winning work? What what are your predictions for how your area is going to look in the next three to five years in the legal industry?

Sara Miller: [00:22:16]

So that’s a great question, Graham. And I think, for instance, if you look at what we’re doing at Baker McKenzie, it’s a very exciting time for proposal management as we’re actually making huge investment into our team and even buying technology enablers.

Sara Miller: [00:22:30]

So I think there’s going to be more and more of that. As again, I think it becomes more of a winning work, becomes a thing to do, a career, a specialty. I think other law firms will be investing or are already investing in things like centres of excellence, technology. I think you’re going to see a lot of shifts internally. If I look way down the track on the tech side, there’s a lot going on with AI that I think can make our jobs easier and let us be more strategic. So lots of tools around improving writing. I think the RFP shredders will get better where you can kind of get a shell created for you out of a complex RFP. But I think that’s a longer term view. And law firms, of course, are a bit conservative. So I think that’s a ways off for us.

Sara Miller: [00:23:17]

I think kind of that the three other kind of big points I see that will affect us is I think being authentic about diversity is more important than ever in winning work within our own teams. I think the teams we are putting forward in front of clients. I think diversity is really important for us to think about. I think we’re gonna see more innovative legal supply arrangements. If I think back probably five years ago now, I think GE launched like Facebook were legal suppliers and you can actually comment or like someone had gone with you on an engagement. So I think we might see more innovative ways of winning work and we’re gonna have to adapt to that versus the art piece that we’re use. But at the same time, though, I know over the last decade in Australia, I saw a real shift in how clients were buying B2B services. It was really dramatic. I think there was more process more complex RFPs, focus on the supply chain risk. So we see all those terrible I.T. security questionnaires, health and safety questionnaires that often aren’t relevant to legal services and professional services. And I’ve had to actually answer questions about underwater scuba diving safety in relation to a financial service RFP. So I think, again, it just shows that they’re pushing down a sort of global risk management strategies and also trying to take advantage, I think, of volume and scale in local markets. So I saw a lot more global RFPs coming down the pipeline and they were trying to roll this out in local markets where, you know, often locally the client didn’t want to go out with the grain. They wanted to continue with what they’re doing. So I think, again, I think we’re going to see maybe some RFPs disappear as they go down a different path.

Graham Seldon: [00:25:05]

Can you see a time where clients will start to rate the service in a sort of an Uber or AirBNB sort of style where, you know, your clients will be able to go on to a platform and see what other general counsels have rated their legal service providers. Can you say a point where we get to that stage?

Sara Miller: [00:25:26]

Completely. I don’t think anything is off the table right now. It will take time – I don’t think it’s going to happen quickly, but GCs are getting younger and the ways that they’re interacting with data is changing quite a bit. So I guess if you think of them at home in a personal context, that they’re you know, they’re probably reading the news on their tablet versus a broadsheet.

Sara Miller: [00:25:48]

So I know that, you know, I’m seeing less hard copy RFP submissions and you think about the Facebook GE kind of example where, again, they’re liking and commenting on services.

Sara Miller: [00:25:59]

You know, I don’t think we’re that far away. With our more innovative clients, I mean, again, it’s not going to be for everybody, but we should be focused on our clients and their culture and what they want and listen.

Graham Seldon: [00:26:12]

So I’ve really enjoyed listening to you. This is a very exciting part of business development, this whole pursuit winning work aspect to business development is a very exciting time, both from a cultural shift but also from a technological shift. And I think what you’ve been really helpful in doing is making it attractive. I think, as I said to you at the beginning, a lot of people would look at these roles and think that they’re quite tedious and quite document project management heavy. But listening to you, actually, you’re at the winning edge of business development. So thank you very much for sharing your story. But also what you think the future might hold for these areas and law firms. It’s been really, really insightful and a pleasure having you on A Legal High. Thank you.

Sara Miller: [00:27:00]

Thank you, Graham, for your time.

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