The Integrity Talks

BPC Europe 2023: Compete at the levels of ideas, not people

The Integrity Talks

APMP asked me to participate in the BPC Europe 2023 edition in De Beurs van Berlage in Amsterdam, not because I have decades of experience in bid and tender management. The only activity that I have conducted in this domain is training bid and tender professionals in writing effectively, including the usage of persuasive language, and a whole list of other secrets. Methods to steer on the best possible business outcomes, long before the era of AI and bid and tender SaaS-solutions existed.

The team asked me to lead a session in this community because I am a gatekeeper of morals, ethics, and integrity. APMP asked me to lead the discussion on winning in business with integrity.

Putting the human factor first

After having run an agency in local and global PR, marketing, communications, and networking in all areas of the world that are Dutch, English, and French, and in certain business areas such as IT/tech, finance, and professional services in all sorts of flavors for over eighteen years now, I decided to align my personal work and mission as a writer and speaker much more with my work in the business world. This made me take action towards a more integrated career, and towards putting to good use all the knowledge in the domains of psychology, philosophy, and spirituality that I have horded since 2012. Name me a tool, method, and system, and I’ll tell you all about it.

Moreover, (a small but significant part of) my personal history showcased a lack of integrity within closed-up communities, leading to relevant activist and whistleblowing activities. My work in the business world showcased a lack of integrity within organizations, as highlighted quite often in the public debate as well. Cases of power structures, different mechanisms or patterns, and of abusing reputation and stakeholder management for all sorts of purposes. Think of ‘washing’ of all sorts of matters, (network) corruption, and more. Likewise, think of all sorts of milder issues, such as unhealthy rivalry between businesses, including bad-mouthing competition, and telling lies to win in business. Both aspects came together.

Both led to the platform called The Integrity Talks, and a community of many top decision-makers in different industries with an interest in integrity management in the broadest sense. It led to my offering for individuals and teams.

Knowing the industry of risk, governance, and compliance and my own industry well, made me focus on a section in the area of prevention. Thus, the part before matters have actually gone terribly wrong within an organization, and should be investigated. The maturity of integrity management can be observed through the lens of the new laws on whistleblowers and confidential advisers, and through the many discussions that we finally dare to have on all sorts of business ethics related matters.

Yet, ‘the great’ in my domain have always put the human factor first, including relationship management. This means that, as a lover of investigations of people’s intentions, attitude, and behavior, I am able to work with a targeted group of people, who are curious about deep, free, and critical thinking. In other words, as I prefer to call it, people who are ready for mind building.

People who are open to improvement, hard conversations connected to inner work, and to becoming more aware of their power to choose wisely. People who can be found on the scale between the dark triad on one end, thus the most painful ones that we have to deal with in society, and the brave ones with a solid moral compass and speak-up mentality on the other end.  

Humanity and integrity are intertwined

In the past months, I have been researching a new, ‘essayic’ book on living a life with integrity, thus according to a personal blueprint, and on how to deal with the many gray areas of our time. Gray areas fostered by matters related to for example AI-disruption and ESG. Yet, if I’ll go ahead with the plan, the book should focus most on the simplest, daily interactions between people, and the many choices within a business context. Choices that reflect the relationship that people have with themselves and with others. Choices that have to do with willpower.

As the owner of The Integrity Talks, I zoom in on the empowerment of the individual within an organization, and not so much on the leaders only. The C-suite and the board get enough attention and suitable offers to their personal development needs. Oftentimes, those leaders are even part of the problem themselves, as the many cases of terrible integrity breaches in the public debate have underlined over and over again. And because there are enough managing consultants out there focusing on abstract constructs, such as a non-toxic company culture, made tangible.

Besides, I don’t believe that the top-down-approach or abstract-ecosystem-approach, such as the so-called shift in culture and mentality, is enough. I believe that organizations have become ecosystems in which the personal growth of individuals needs to be prioritized. That people can only change intentions, attitudes, and behavior if their willpower is strengthen in a manner that fits them best, not if their willpower is coerced whatsoever.

If people do not live a life with integrity, thus from the inside out, the outside will reflect that back to them, also in a business context. Because how can we expect the outside to match us well, if we lack matching to our own blueprint? Besides, we should never match a collective, business blueprint while neglecting to match our own.

Put differently, if an individual chooses to live according to a personal blueprint, it will always be a win-win for the individual and the collective. See, integrity and humanity are intertwined. There is no true integrity without humanity, and the other way around.  

This is why laws and regulations, or business processes, guides, and codes of conduct tend to be so very limited, and sometimes even irrelevant. Those building blocks tend to neglect the discrepancy between the collective frameworks, the individual blueprints, and how each and every blueprint can be integrated to the best of our human abilities.

In short, I believe in the smartest, optimal humanization of organizations moving forward, not only to provide an answer to the many gray areas of our time, but to have relational attachment with each other, out of the purest intentions – just because we are humans.

Bid and tender management

With this long introduction in mind, let’s talk about bid and tender management, and about BPC Europe 2023.

To prepare this session, and mostly to facilitate the discussion that we will have on 10th March 2023, I talked to different sorts of bid and tender management experts in the Netherlands. Experts in the private and public domain, and experts that act as intermediaries between companies, to support the bid and tender management processes. The last group provided the most interesting answers to my questions. I did look into some tech vendors in this domain, but I did not ask them for their input. The conversations led to a couple of thoughts that will underline the current sentiment. Let’s jump right in:

The Netherlands turned out to be the worst performing country in the European Union when it comes to transparency in public procurement. More than sixty cents out of every euro that the Dutch government pays to private parties remains ‘invisible’. This is an outcome on the back of research conducted by an investigative journalistic player, called Follow The Money.

Unlike many other countries, the Dutch government does not share much more than the upmost essential information in the process, as required by the European Union. Sometimes, that information is even false. To tackle this issue, the government launched a website, but the processes remain ‘a black box’. It is exactly the issue of black boxes versus transparent paths that the suppliers and bid and tender professionals that I spoke with recognize themselves in what they do.

There is an interesting dynamic. The domain of bid and tender management as we know it exists for a reason, namely to lead these processes by law and regulations, and to provide equal opportunities and fair outcomes. To simplify: to have professional, just, and cost- and time-effective ways-of-working in place.

Yet, these processes dehumanize businesses so much so, that the frustrations tend to rise with all those involved. Mostly, the intermediaries supporting clients with their bid and tender management processes were very frustrated because of the lack of relationship management, and tailored – human – possibilities to interact between contractors and clients. Let’s unpack that.

Trust instead of mistrust

Especially the intermediaries complained about the fact that there is no mechanism by which the client and the contractor can approach each other naturally, and can lead each other towards improvement. The interaction stays extremely static because if a personal meeting would take place, the processes would be seen as fraudulent, even when that would not be the case at all. Likewise, even when parties would have the best of intentions, the reputation damage and other possible losses would occur. There is no room left to deal with the gray areas that the fixed framework of bid and tender management processes presents.

“Why does almost everything always have to be in writing, and via requests, or questions and answers? Why is it often the case that as soon as the market cannot agree with a contract form or with the conditions, the client makes absolutely no effort to adjust or solve the issues? Don’t we want to achieve the best result together?”

Valid questions I got from the professionals I spoke with. Many of them were convinced that all the bid and tender management processes benefit the interests of clients most, not the contractors. The experts highlighted the current state of distrust as a consequence of the root cause of a lack of communication. The clients want to protect their legal – thus contractual – interests at all costs. The same goes for the contractors, who invest so much time, money, effort, resources, and intellectual property in the process, that they feel trapped in a vulnerable and disadvantaged position no matter that.

This results in a contract and in terms and conditions that are not acceptable to both parties. Yet, the clients will always have more than enough alternatives, so why would they actually change the constructs of their way of doing business? There is always a contractor who will agree to whatever (and however) the client wants. Sure, the contractors will also try to represent their interests, but they will always be at the mercy of the clients instead of equals.

“If you cannot pick up the phone and simply talk about each other’s interests in the quotation phase, how can we find the right balance? Only after? Through lawyers and painful actions? Is that how we want to continue working in this field? Wouldn’t it be better, in the interests of all parties, if these discussions would take place beforehand? Wouldn’t all parties benefit more of open and constructive ways-of-working, without a project having to be agreed on, thus to start already?”

The questions make us wonder whether this domain might be overly mature indeed for new and slightly more flexible contracts, based on trust instead of mistrust.

In short, most of the bid and tender management professionals I spoke with want the discussion on 10th March 2023 to be about exactly that kind of flexibility. But before we will see each other at the event itself, let’s flip the coin for one moment.

To court?

When it comes to bid and tender management, contractors have leaned on certain processes passionately because people have it in them to act demonically out of their own interests. In fact, many tiny business owners like myself have experienced the consequences of these sorts of unjust practices – if they were even given a seat at the table to join in on a pitch, and to get an honorable chance at participating and winning in business. Quite often those tiny business owners were left out, for example because they cannot pay to participate, or because of their limited capacity and company structure, or because the processes turn out to make them too vulnerable in the process.

In any case, the larger entities in the market will sometimes do anything to override their competitors – because they can in terms of reputation risks, resources, and future planning. Demonic actions are what I refer to as signs of unhealthy rivalries, such as:

  • Companies that will try to dominate others by bullying.
  • Companies that will try to sabotage the reputation of others behind their back. Sometimes doing so while being friendly in their face.
  • Companies that will make fun of the weaknesses of others in public.
  • Companies that will pass demeaning comments to others, in front of higher authorities, colleagues, and other stakeholders.
  • Companies that have passive-aggressive behavior towards others.
  • Companies that will never work with certain ‘types’ of others.

To be clear, ‘companies’ and ‘others’ are people… As we all know, people do business with people. It is exactly that sentence that causes so much complication among all sorts of participating contractors, and among the clients and the contractors indeed. It is exactly the aspect of people doing business with people that make one-size-fits-all approaches ineffective in so many ways. Or as one intermediary told me emotionally:

“You know what? I actually wish that my contractors would dare to take legal actions more often towards clients. The unjust practices that we have to deal with sometimes are quite severe. But the contractors will almost never get the clients to court because they are afraid that if they do so, they will be blacklisted and excluded from future pitches.

Even though I reckon that there can be contractors out there who will represent their own interests to the extent of bending reality, for instance through facts and information provided to the client, I am sure that the amount of clients bending reality, for instance through retrieving their inquiry after the contractors have paid to participate and have done the work, is much higher.”

Whether the bid and tender management community agrees will have to be seen on 10th March 2023 indeed. Feel free to debate on the matter, starting at 10:30 CET in the Keurzaal at the Beurs van Berlage. Meanwhile, let me leave you with a couple of generic ideas on winning in business with integrity. Ideas that have nothing to do with being ‘goodie-goodie’, but with certain standards, also known as preventive soft-checks and integrity management.

Winning in business with integrity

Why not stop seeing competition as a fierce game in the business world? Why not be less brutal and KPI-driven and compete at the levels of ideas, not people? Why not stay true to ourselves, both as individuals, as well as professionals, and believe in the natural order of business opportunities?

Why not hold on to our personality – thus on the back of a personal blueprint – instead of constructing these bizarrely targeted brand images to resonate with clients like a chameleon? The intentionality of strategic forgery for business wins…

When focusing on PR and marketing efforts, why not highlight business facts instead of abusing matters such as purpose, mission (we can argue that mission is part of purpose, but that is a whole other opinion piece), inclusivity, and sustainability on a large scale the way we have been doing for decades now?

When trying to win in business with integrity, why not focus on ourselves, and not on the comparison with others in the market? Why not foster internal processes for innovation instead of worrying about others in the market? Why not stay ahead of technology, by taking a stand on what will be supportive of relational attachment and humanity, and what won’t be? Because something is cutting-edge does not mean that we should jump on the bandwagon blindly.

For instance, AI is changing this industry once more while we are busy making other plans. Shouldn’t there be a centralized discussion with other contractors and clients on what that will look like, to influence new, technological developments early on?

Why not have clients break bid and tender traditions, and have them connect with the contractors and intermediaries when they don’t have any pitches to set out? Why not proactively listen, re-evaluate, and evolve? Why not have clear, compelling, and mostly democratic values aligned to the parties involved, which are connected to joint missions instead of business wins only? Why not model those values instead of a bunch of bla, bla, without action to back it up? Or as one expert told me: “Why not commit to a respectful field in the near future?”

You tell me.

Truthful feedback makes the initiative of BPC Europe 2023 so valuable. Then doing what we say we’re going to do, and the other way around to adapt when necessary. It is nearly impossible to over-communicate when the framework has been so fixed for so long, is it? So let’s start. See you there.

The Dutch version of this article was published by Management Site.

Key takeaways from BPC Europe 2023 can be found via Winning The Business.