Relationship advice for contract managers

Problems can begin soon after a contract award. Our experts offer advice on how to stay on track from the start.

Companies wait in suspense for months to hear who wins a contract that’s vital to their portfolios. They’ve invested a lot of money and time into getting each piece of the bid correct. In the end, for one company, it’s good news. The press releases go out and work gets started.

But the work, in fact, can begin too soon, former program managers and experts say. Any miscommunication between the contractor and the program manager from the start of a contract can cause problems to brew.

The world of procurement hinges on how the two interact. It’s so important because too often, the two sides don’t know what each other wants or expects. They may not even know what success really is, particularly on cutting-edge projects.

“There’s got to be a meeting of the minds,” said Jaime Gracia, president and CEO of Seville Government Consulting, who works frequently with companies in the early stages of contracts.

The contract may have just started, but the manager and the contractor might have already taken different paths to get to the goal. And it’s happening more often.

“I’m seeing an ugly trend,” despite the administration’s efforts to stop it through contract management, Garcia said. Busy managers hand things off to companies to take care of. There are too many contractors and managers who don’t sit down with each other in the beginning.

Starting at the award, the contractor and the program manager have close ties. Audits are soon to follow from the inspector general’s office, and possibly the Government Accountability Office or even congressional staff. Even more, transparency is a factor as more data is going online for the public to see. The contractor and managers need to be on the same page.

“Like it or not, once the contract is awarded, they are partners with industry,” said Elaine Duke, former undersecretary for management at the Homeland Security Department and now president of Elaine Duke and Associates LLC.

Contractors in charge of the program and the government managers need a kick-off meeting, experts said. In that meeting, the future of success is laid out.

“Just because you won the contract you still may not understand the performance goals,” said Fred Schobert, former Networx program manager at the General Services Administration and now owner of Acquisition Advantage LLC.

Employees these days complain of too much work and so little time to work. They don’t have time for another meeting. It’s not an excuse though.

“It’s a valid reason, but sorry, I don’t buy it,” Gracia said. He believes a successful contract is worth more than the time for an extra meeting.

The meetings don’t have to be formal, and they don't have to be long. It depends on the contract. Oftentimes, a firm-fixed price contract won’t have a long, drawn-out meeting. The project is generally clear. More in-depth discussions are needed for a cost-reimbursement contract, which holds a lot of risk for both sides.

The meeting also allows both sides to talk about and prepare for what’s ahead.

“You’re thinking out all of the many scenarios that may arise during the life of the contract,” said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge office at Deltek's FedSources business unit. He managed several Air Force development and production programs for command, control, and communications systems at the USAF Electronic Systems Center.

These experts had more suggestions for a good running start on a contract and ways to avoid litigation for bad work.

1. Learn about the program manager’s expectations and goals. Contractor and customer need to figure out milestones that point out progress. Schobert said contractors should be thorough and careful in doing so.

“Your clients may not really understand them themselves,” he said.

2. Establish goals for the program that deal with cost, schedule, and performance with top management based on the contract’s requirements.

3. Get agreements in writing to be clear on issues.

4. Build a solid team in order to meet all parts of a contract. Schobert said look for disciplined coworkers who can deliver their tasks on schedule. More specifically, have a strong financial manager and strong contract specialist. He said that’s often overlooked.

5. Arrange a schedule for meeting regularly, whether in person or otherwise, whichever fits the circumstance.

6. Meet the points of contact in the program manager’s office. Contractors need to develop more than arm’s length relationships. It’s also important to know the chain of command in the program office. Duke recommended getting to know the lower-level employees, who often work on day-to-day operations. They may be able to take care of smaller concerns. The boss doesn't need to bothered.

7. Realize that bad news doesn’t get any better with age, Bjorklund said. Delaying bad news doesn't help relationships. A program manager—or anyone, for that matter—doesn’t want to be blindsided with problems.

“Small problems, if you wait too long, become big problems,” Duke said.

8. Grow tough skin. Contractors need to learn patience, and when people get upset, they should take the high road, Duke said. In other words, act like an adult in tense situations and don’t retaliate for what is said.

9. Don’t take comments personally.

“Zone out for a few minutes and let them vent,” Duke said. Once they’re done, “then begin to engage to accomplish things.”

10. Finally, learn from the mistake that were made. Deconstruct the steps that led to the collapse in the contract after it’s happened.

“We don’t need a crystal ball,” Gracia said. “We know it’s happened; now we need to know how to fix it.”