It was 1991. A friend of mine, the Director of Sales at a national litigation support company, calls me on a Tuesday afternoon and asks, "Did you get the RFP from Honeywell?" I answered no and then asked, somewhat embarrassed, "What's an RFP?"
At the time of my friend’s call my company was two years old, still a start-up offering a new concept in legal staffing: contract attorneys. All our clients were law firms whom I had personally courted. The client engagements ranged from a single attorney to 10 attorneys. We had an earned an excellent reputation, but we were a tiny Los Angeles based firm.
So my friend tells me what an RFP is and offers to introduce me to Honeywell. I speak to Kristin the person leading the process, and she agrees to send me the RFP. What she couldn’t do was extend the deadline. The proposal was due in three days (my competition had received the RFP 15 days before). Kristin then asked if I still wanted to participate. I said “yes.”
The details of the RFP are fuzzy except for two things. First, the winning company would be charged with selecting and managing a minimum of 50 contract attorneys in significant litigation. Second, except for us, all the companies bidding for the engagement were national firms. My company was the long shot by a million miles.
Fueled by caffeine and ice cream I wrote the proposal. Now came the final step—writing the executive summary. I knew that in the summary I had to persuade Honeywell that hiring an unknown was the best choice for them. I believed it. But how do I communicate it? My mind was as blank as the page. So I did what I always do when I’m stuck, I went to my neighborhood bookstore. For me a bookstore has always been a place of discovery and possibilities—browsing the aisles and picking up a book on photography, design, or architecture—has never failed to open my mind. As I wandered to the children’s section—something I’d never done before I saw it—a tiny book mounted on four wheels, the cover an illustration of a toy train and inside the first page an illustration of the train carrying quite a motley crew.
I bought six copies of The Little Engine That Could and went back to my office to write the executive summary. In the last paragraph of the summary, I likened our company to the little engine, who, when faced with a new and seemingly impossible task, accepts the challenge with the refrain, “I think I can —I think I can—I think I can.” But, I explained, our company had a different refrain, “We know we can.”
The next morning I sent Honeywell a “special delivery” box containing four envelopes. Each envelope had a copy of the proposal and a copy of The Little Engine That Could. Early the following week Kristin called inviting me to Minneapolis to meet the selection committee. They also believed we could. We proved them right.
Fast forward 25 years and I cherish my two remaining copies of The Little Engine That Could. I know there will be one more perfect time to give a copy to someone who believes in spite of the odds. The other I will keep for myself to always remember to be both humble and bold.