EPISODE 036: Government Contracting Business Development Leader Raza Latif Says Eliminating Fear of Chaos Will Lead to Sales Success
Raza Latif serves as the President of NuAxis Innovations, an information technology services firm that supports a variety of major federal government clients. In his role at NuAxis, Raza encouraged and oversaw the company’s growth as it evolved from a small company of less than ten employees with one IT support contract to the mature company it is today, with more than 400 employees and a diverse portfolio of more than 30 IT service contracts.
With over 20 years of experience in the ever changing IT industry, he leads NuAxis’s Business Development and Service Delivery Teams maintaining a sharp focus on creating and delivering IT solutions for the Federal Government that maximize alignment of IT and mission objective. Raza holds a Master of Science in the Management of Information Technology from the University of Virginia, UVA, The McIntire School of Commerce and a Bachelor of Science in Electronic Engineering from the GIK Institute of Engineering.
Find Raza on LinkedIN!
Fred Diamond: Raza, why don’t you tell us a little more about yourself and fill in some of the blanks.
Raza Latif: Thanks, Fred. The one thing that always surprises me these days is the 20 years, I cannot believe that I’ve been working for 20 years. I hope I have something to show for it. I remember the time when I used to look at job openings that required 3 years of experience and I used to think “Well, this is for old people.”
Fred Diamond: Very good. Just a little disclosure to the people listening on today’s podcast. I’ve actually done some work with NuAxis over the years and you guys have really taken this firm to be a substantial player in the government IT space and I’m really excited to hear a little more of the evolution of that. Raza, tell us what you sell today and tell us what excites you about that.
Raza Latif: We are in the business of selling IT services to the federal government. It’s a pretty typical sales model. Our main business is to identify needs within the federal government for IT services and then pursue that work and win that work.
I think the most exciting thing about it is that it’s a very structured environment. For some people, this may not be very attractive but it’s a very well-defined market. I think I find that very exciting because it’s something that is very merit-based and if you check all the boxes, you do the hard work that you’re supposed to do there’s always something at the end of the rainbow.
Fred Diamond: Do you consider yourself to be a sales guy? Do you consider yourself to be a BD professional at this point of your career?
Raza Latif: I would consider myself a sales guy, specially, because I’m one of those people who, depending on the meeting, will call myself an engineer or a sales guy or operations guy and I think that’s a good mark of a sales guy, who can call themselves whatever they need to be called. My primary job is to develop business, is to grow the company and do whatever it takes, whatever role it presents in front of me I jump at it.
Fred Diamond: You have a Master’s of Science in Management of Information Technology, and your Bachelor degree was in Electronic Engineering. How’d you first get into sales? How did you make that shift?
Raza Latif: For my first job, I was fresh out of college having finished my Engineering degree. I was very interested or at least wanted to show interest in configuring CISCO routers and working on servers and all of that. I was working for the first internet service provider, actually, in Pakistan where I grew up. The CEO, it was a smaller company at that time which grew later on, said, “You know, we have enough engineers who can configure CISCO routers but we do not have enough engineers who can put together PowerPoint presentations, who can do pricing models, who can engage with people, communicate with them.”
And, I had been a debater at college and school, and I was in a band so I wasn’t afraid of meeting people. I guess, that’s kind of how I started and I never looked back. I thought that I was very, very excited when that opportunity presented itself and this was, as I said, 20 years ago and I have not looked back.
Fred Diamond: How easy or difficult was it to make that shift?
Raza Latif: I don’t think there was any shift. I think in the technology world the lines are very blurred. At the end of the day, if you’re in a commercial organization, your job is to sell solutions and when you’re selling solutions you have to have the technical background that you need. I think it actually got even more exciting because you actually saw results of what all the work that you did in terms of putting a solution together, putting a design together. Maybe it happened so early in my life that I don’t even remember whether there was a shift in gears. It came pretty naturally to me, the role that was presented to me.
Fred Diamond: What were some of the lessons that you learned from some of the first jobs that you had in sales?
Raza Latif: I think the most important lesson that I have learned and I still try to stick by is that you must have the ability to listen. As clichéd as it may sound, it’s very hard to do. You should be able to really respond to what your market is looking for.
I think the second most important thing is that every pitch that you make has to be really grounded in value. You have to be offering a certain amount of value and I’m not talking about a better price. You should have a very clear value proposition. That’s how I hold myself accountable individually in my organization as well as when I engage with my customers that ‘why would this person engage with me, what is it that I have to offer’.
Fred Diamond: Value is one of the key themes that comes time and time again through the various sales game changers podcast that we do. You sell to the government customer. Tell us a little bit more about what some of the value is that you can bring to the government customer that thousands of other IT service providers won’t do and how do you communicate that?
Raza Latif: My experience has shown me that Government Managers are basically risk managers. Government Managers will have a title such as Program Manager, Portfolio Manager or IT Program Manager. I think at the end of the day the management on the federal side is tasked with managing risks and our value proposition is really a design around that.
It’s not around technology. It’s not around servers. It’s not around products. I think our value proposition is that “We understand your risks. We have managed those risks effectively in other places and, therefore, we would like to engage with you and help you get to where you want to get to.” I think, for me, the core value that any government contracting business should be providing to the government is management of risk.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Raza Latif: At one time, have been flirting with the idea of building products. (A while ago) there were three of us (in the company) and we asked the same question. “What is one thing that we can really give a two and a half hour or two-hour session on or a lecture on?” I wanted to say product design, product development, market segmentation but it kept coming back to government contracting.
It’s an opportunity that presented itself to us, to me individually and we started learning about it and it’s almost like every deal, every contract that we win we learn something new. Sometimes we learn something contrary to what we had learned the last time so it’s a pretty interesting area.
Fred Diamond: Very good. You’ve had a success growing NuAxis into a very, very successful, well-regarded government contractor, a company that provides valuable IT and related services to various government customers. Who was an impactful sales career mentor to you and how specifically did they impact your career?
Raza Latif: I think I would say there are two. One was my first boss and one is my last boss. The first boss taught me the value of being efficient. Fresh out of college I was very focused on “Oh, yeah, yeah, I’ll take care of this over the weekend. Oh, I’ll work tonight.” And, he would tell me that “Listen, you know, it’s not about working hard, it’s about working smart.” And now, it’s a pretty common theme but for me and fresh out of college, I think it was a very interesting worldview that I kind of took it upon myself and for all the people out there, I mean you do have to put in after hour work. You do have to put in weekend but if that becomes your standard routine then there’s something that needs to be looked at. I think that’s one very impactful thing.
My last boss is Imran Akram, the CEO of NuAxis. I’ve been working with him for the last 17, 18 years and I think his impact has been that you really lead through shared values. You really lead through or motivate someone by shared worldview. I think he’s provided me a lot of respect and a lot of autonomy. Obviously, holding me accountable to certain outputs and I think that’s been really, really impactful, having that kind of a structure. I cannot imagine doing anything else or being in any other kind of an environment. Sometimes mentoring is about really letting people shine and letting them figure their course out and then you standing behind them, making sure that if they fall they’ll catch you. That’s the kind of mentor I have had.
Fred Diamond: I’m curious too since Nu Axis has had a great deal of success. Do people come to you looking for advice and mentorship?
Raza Latif: I think in the general course of things, yes, people do talk to me and I do talk, try to kind of tell them about my experiences. I think also outside the company there are companies that are smaller, that have approached me and I really like talking to them and explaining to them and once again there’s no formula here. All I want to share with them is kind of I did this and this is what happened so you better not do this or I did this and the good outcome happened and therefore you should be looking at doing that. That’s kind of been my approach.
Fred Diamond: What are two of the biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Raza Latif: Sales is pretty much the frontlines so there’s a lot of chaos that you have to deal with. Like, you price a proposal a certain way and it’s really successful and then you price it the same way thinking that “Oh, this is how I won the last one” and then you get taken to task. I think the chaos that really uncertainty which is to be expected. If you want to be a sales leader, you have to be really very comfortable with chaos. You have to be very, very comfortable with chaos, but then the payoffs are high as well, right, so you do the same thing and you get a good, good return on it and it’s euphoric.
Fred Diamond: Take us back to the number one specific sales success or win from your career that you’re most proud of.
Raza Latif: I think it was recently, we won a contract with the Department of Labor to do their entire Enterprise Service Desk. It’s a totally new requirement where we consolidated all of their department, all of their bureaus except for one under one contract. It was a very, very challenging requirement and from a sales standpoint, this was a time when I had even bigger self-doubts because we were able to win contracts within Department of Interior and we had a strategic goal that we want to get more contracts outside of the Department of Interior.
I was coming to a point where we had done enough proposals where I had started questioning myself that. “Listen, you know what Raza, you are not cutout for this. You understand Interior, you are not capable of getting us out of, out to another agency.”
Then this deal happened. It’s a long story, but I changed my profile picture on LinkedIn, and somebody I know commented on it who hadn’t been in touch with for 3 years. She said, “Oh, that’s a nice picture” and so we got back in touch. And then, I met her at an industry day for the same contract. We had no background on the opportunity. When the RFP came out, she was able to connect me with a company that really helped us out and the rest is history.
I remember, I was actually at an industry event at USPTO and it was a very stressful event because there was like four, five hundred people there and as I was walking in I got a call that we won the Department of Labor contract and I walked into the meeting and I remember I was stopping myself from saying “Hi, I’m Raza and we just won the Department of Labor Enterprise Service Desk.” It was one of the many times when I felt really, really, I felt the wind beneath my wings kind of a thing.
Fred Diamond: For a lot of the sales game changers listening on today’s podcast, a lot of government contractors get well-established within a particular government agency and it’s extremely difficult to move onto the next one and it’s kind of interesting, you talking about some of the fortuitous things that happened along the way to eventually get to the point where you guys had won this contract with the Department of Labor. Should we tell everybody to go change their LinkedIn profile picture?
Raza Latif: No. (laughs). There’s a certain amount of things this taught me. First, you have to be out in the marketplace. Right? You have to be out there. You have to be connecting with people. You never know which interaction is going to lead to something.
Second, as they say, ‘luck only favors the prepared’. Just the fact that I got this connection to get me to this company, if I did not have my brilliant team with me, if I did not have all the capabilities that we have developed to win that contract, I mean that fortuitous thing would not have led to anything.
I think one of the things that’s really, really going for us is that we have a brilliant, brilliant group of people that really, really steps up in terms of intelligence, in terms of hard work and in fact, when I meet somebody and I do. For lunch, I meet a business development person and when they tell me the story that, “You remember that company, you know, they were like five people and I took them to five hundred people?” I always take that as grain of salt because there’s not a single person on this planet who can do any kind of growth with just their brilliance. I mean if they’re out there I need to find one of them and replace me.
Fred Diamond: Right, one of the keywords in government contracting, of course, is past performance. You need to do the work. Raza, you’ve had a very successful career in sales. Did you ever question being in sales? Was there ever a moment where you thought to yourself “It’s just too hard, it’s just not for me”?
Raza Latif: Never.
Fred Diamond: Okay.
Raza Latif: I have never had that feeling and I think a reason for that is that I have literally cornered myself into that role and that’s all I know how to do. I mean that’s kind of my thing. I think there’s a certain amount of commitment that is needed for any profession, any line, any role. My friends a few years ago moved to California and they call us and they said, “When are you guys moving to San Francisco?” and I said, “You know what, I can’t even move to Philly because the work that I do is only in Washington, D.C.” This can sound limiting also but it’s also very empowering that I do sales in federal government IT services and that’s kind of who I am. Until, if there’s any some kind of foundational shift, tectonic level shift in my life, that’s all I’m going to be doing.
Fred Diamond: Raza, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to selling professionals to help them improve their career?
Raza Latif: I think the most important thing is to not be afraid of chaos. The value that we bring as sales people to our organizations is really that ability, that courage to deal with chaos. Know that when you’re out there you’re not going to have some kind of a structured like a linear response that “I have done this, this, this and therefore, I will get that, that, that.” I think that is the most important thing, to really be able to deal with chaos and take it head on. And, in fact, use it to your advantage.
Fred Diamond: Very good. What are some of the things that you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Raza Latif: I try to surround myself with a lot of smart people. It’s a very precarious kind of approach but my approach is that whoever is joining my team should be able to do what I used to do better than me. It takes a certain amount of being comfortable in your skin. I accept that or I’m bragging about that because at the end of the day if you are, so we have a lot of, I don’t know if I should say this but we have a lot of young people in the company, right? I think the idea there is that I was young once and I think I had a lot of fresh ideas. I still do.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Raza Latif: I’ve started volunteering for moderating panels at different events. I want to be attending at least two to three events every morning. There’s a lot of industry events going on in our area. I recently was a moderator at a Wharton Innovation Summit on government contracting and acquisitions. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I feel like that being there on the circuit as a speaker, as a moderator really helps you, first, build relationships and, two, learn about what is going because in order to be a moderator or speaker you have to prepare and that preparation always leads to benefit in your professional life.
Fred Diamond: Sales is hard. People don’t return your calls or your e-mails. Why have you continued as a sales game changer? What is it about sales as a career that keeps you going?
Raza Latif: That win, I think it’s that hunting analogy. You stalk your prey for days and weeks and then, finally, when you win, when you close, when you get a new contract, that keeps getting you back. I think that’s the only thing. When you’re down and it happens, 99% of the time you’re dealing with a lot of difficult situations but that’s kind of what brings you back up because, you know what, if this thing closes then and that’s going to motivate you and you have to be thinking about that all the time. And, obviously, you have to have a few of those wins to know what a win feels like so that you pursue it with a lot of courage and determination.
Fred Diamond: For a lot of the sales game changers who aren’t familiar with winning government business, winning government business is not easy. There’s a lot of things along the way, not just competition but dealing with the government. It’s a difficult and challenging process. There’s things you need to know. You need to understand laws. There’s something, FYI, sales game changers out there called the Federal Acquisition Regulations. There’s a whole bunch of things you need to know. Let alone, Raza had mention before, creating value for your customer. You need to understand what is the mission of the government customer you’re dealing with and what are some of the challenges and obstacles that are going to get thrown in your way and what is going on in that agency and how can you continue to provide value.
Why don’t you give us one final thought to share with the sales game changers listening today to inspire them to take their careers to the next level?
Raza Latif: Since we are talking to a community of fellow sales people so I can say this, be very proud of the fact that you’re a sales person because you are actually really having the most amount of impact in an organization. For any commercial organization, the sales function is the most important function. You could be building amazing products. You could be delivering services very, very effectively but if you’re not growing, if you’re not getting new customers you’re atrophied.
What you’re doing is extremely important. It’s extremely hard which is why the rewards are high so do not shy away from the challenges and keep dreaming about those wins that will come your way.