Game Changer: Alex McPhail, President & CEO of EXA Consulting Limited

Many years before Alex McPhail joined EXA, he founded and then later sold a company that manufactured and sold remote sensing satellite receiver ground station control systems.

“It was primarily through proposals that I won several international contracts in a market space dominated by large, multinational companies,” he said. It was then that he realized that he was on to something. That something was the impetus that drove him to become a successful complex and major proposals consultant.

Here is the full interview with Alex as Vanguard’s latest Game Changer.

What is your role in your organization today?

I am President and CEO of EXA Consulting, a strategic business development support firm in operation for over 25 years. I acquired EXA eight years ago as part of a planned effort to focus on service based industries.

What was your worst moment?

A proposal leader’s most difficult moment hits when you realize you cannot win. It’s more gut wrenching than bidding and losing a fair fight. I once advised the vice president of my client that his company could not submit a compliant proposal for a Major Crown project, and then I required he acknowledge that he had been so advised. The client made an informed decision and chose to submit a non-compliant proposal for strategic reasons. In the end, no bids were compliant, and DND cancelled the project.

What was your A-HA moment or epiphany that you think will resonate most with our reader, tell us that story?

At an earlier point in my career, I used to lead procurements inside the Canadian federal government. That perspective gave me a unique insight into leading proposals.

Most proposal writers don’t realize who their actual client is. They assume the client is the Government, a branch of the Canadian Forces, DND, PSPC, or some other department. They’re wrong. My ‘a-ha’ moment was understanding the proposal client is the group of men and women cloistered in a room, sometimes for months on end, who read every page of every proposal before picking the winner.

The ‘a-ha’ moment comes from the first-hand experience of what those evaluators go through. Presenting a winning technical solution is essential, of course, but that is not enough. The proposal must develop a rapport with the evaluation team. The ‘a-ha’ moment lies in establishing a rapport that makes an impartial evaluation committee want to select you.

Step back and analyze your journey, what is the take away you want to give to our audience?

Complex proposals are a necessary evil, but Canadian procurements have become so complex that most companies have no choice but to hire outside help. It has become like tax law, where only a few people understand it while the rest struggle to comprehend some of it. For example, my foreign clients are bewildered by the RFP’s complexity and Canada’s insatiable appetite for information – too much information in my opinion. It is not unusual to deliver 200 full binders in one proposal.

Many people don’t know how or where to start. I cut a clear path through a jungle of complexity that lets my clients reach their goal.

Simply showing them the path is not enough. Another aspect of my firm’s focus is coaching executives and cajoling and ‘persuading’ proposal writing teams. Not all of them like it – but then again, it’s necessary evil. I push senior management the hardest because they have to set the tone and pace. There is not a single day to waste, and there is no room for mistakes.

What is the one thing that has you most fired up today?

Proposal leadership is not for the feint hearted. As I say to my clients, we’re not here to make friends. But watching proposal writers change from confused to inspired is a rewarding experience. Knowing that I helped shape the winning solution is deeply gratifying.

What is the best advice you received?

Don’t insist on perfection when the winning solution is within reach.

What is a habit that contributes to your success?

Clients have called me dogged, tenacious, and relentless. I prefer to consider myself persistent and consistent, which is not the same as inflexible and compulsive. Everything I do has a purpose within a larger goal.

What people or organizations do you believe best embody the innovation mindset?

There is no lack of innovative people. Innovation dies when a monolithic culture fails to recognize and nurture a good idea that is ‘outside the box’. The most innovative organizations I have worked with designate idea incubation zones sheltered from the quarterly financial reporting imperatives. These zones, which are never called that, typically pop-up organically within a project or department. The best ideas filter to the top and take hold.

How is your organization changing the game within your industry sector?

Although EXA does not work exclusively with ‘underdog’ clients, I have worked with bidders that were on nobody’s radar to win. The bidder itself is usually a well-known company, it is just not recognized in that field. For example, I led the CC130 maintenance proposal for Cascade Aerospace, who until then had never held a major defence contract. I have successfully led major proposals with other ‘long-shot’ companies on several programs, not all of which can be disclosed.

In short, EXA has helped shape the industry through its role in levelling the competitive playing field between well-known, respected companies and new entrants that present equally qualified solutions.

What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation in your organization or industry sector?

The single largest impediment to innovation I see among our proposal clients is re-inventing the wheel. Companies designate employees to support a proposal based on their subject matter knowledge and workload availability. After each major bid, the proposal team disbands and their new skills melt away. Typically, a different group of employees staff successive major proposal efforts, forcing each team to re-learn what the last did.

What are the biggest impediments to innovation in today’s enterprise?

If innovation is a priority, then executives need to champion and manage innovation as a corporate resource. When corporate KPIs and managers’ performance assessments track quality innovation, the corporate culture shifts toward an innovative organization.

How has innovation become engrained in your organization’s culture and how is it being optimized?

We measure what works and what doesn’t work primarily through debriefings our clients receive from procurement authorities. Whenever possible, EXA attends debriefing meetings with our clients, and we identify which aspects of the proposal architecture worked, which did not, and why. We also collaborate with other proposal preparation firms in a cooperation fashion where we explore and share successful practices.

What technologies, business models, and trends will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next two years?

EXA’s technology framework always respects and works within the IT and security restrictions imposed by our clients. Consequently, we are seldom on the leading edge of IT roll-outs. EXA is migrating to cloud computing for best practice models and non-proprietary templates.

What is your parting piece of advice?

Nothing blinds you more than your own assumptions. I cringe when someone tells me ‘because we do it that way’. If you want to step up your game, challenge your assumptions every day. Deconstruct your processes, understand them, and adapt.

Author: Marcello Sukhdeo

Marcello is the managing editor of Vanguard, IT in Canada and Canadian Government Executive and the host of Vanguard Radio and WRLWND Radio podcasts. He is an avid technology and security enthusiast, who has worked on content leadership strategies for a number of industries including the public sector, life science, technology and defence.

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