The most effective procurement leaders will plan ahead and bring out the best in those who work around them
Someone recently asked for my definition of a great procurement leader. I’ve worked in procurement for 38 years and have met some very good – and bad – procurement managers and directors, but one particular example came to mind.
About five years back I came into contact with a procurement head who, I thought, was guilty of micromanaging. I’d been told he managed the organisation’s relationship with one supplier almost entirely himself, to the extent that he personally ensured this supplier’s invoices were paid quickly. I’ve always believed that good procurement leaders know the value of effort when it comes to managing relationships, but this seemed to be way overboard.
About 12 months later, all became clear. The supplier in question was the only manufacturer of a certain substance that was much needed by the organisation. Suddenly there had been a brief supply chain shortage of this substance, which could have been a huge problem; but because the procurement head had nurtured this relationship, the supplier made sure its quick-paying client received all its requirements and could operate as normal. The supplier’s other customers suffered a shortage.
This story encapsulates the qualities of a good procurement leader. He was looking forward, sniffing out potential supply chain problems and planning solutions in advance. His team did the day-to-day work and he intervened in only the most significant relationships. He also ensured that strong supply management allowed the organisation to operate normally in a troubled market.
I imagine that this head of procurement would have also been good at public relations – another skill the best procurement leaders have. We all know that procurement teams aren’t the most loved functionaries in the public sector: some view them as an irritant, obsessed with standardisation and the minutiae of EU rules; others see them as the procurement police, clamping down on longstanding (but maybe non-compliant) relationships that some staff prefer to have with specific suppliers.
The best procurement leaders defuse this tension by subtly educating employees about the importance of procurement regulations and the need for openness when choosing suppliers. I remember witnessing one colleague patiently explaining to an officer from a different department why he couldn’t simply use his preferred stationery supplier and how an open tender would result in better value for money for his own budget. Through the colleague’s persistence and empathy, the outcome was a much better contract and a satisfied and more understanding internal “client”.
Another time, I worked with a new procurement director who had inherited several unhappy category teams. He told me that one of the categories always needed complex contracts and the other two required simpler agreements, but costly mistakes kept being made. He felt that one of the causes was that the right people weren’t working on the right categories. In the end, he reorganised the teams. Those employees who were very detailed and precise began drafting intricate contractual clauses for the complex category. Employees who found this type of meticulous work too dry were moved to a category where they focused more on managing relationships and negotiating agreements. The teams were instantly happier and the quality of their work soared.
In March, the communities and local government committee’s report on council procurement concluded that local authorities were not fully exploiting the potential for better procurement to generate wider social and economic benefits. More effective procurement leadership may help to address some of these concerns.
Strong procurement leaders need an unusual mix of skills: they must have technical procurement expertise but they also need to control and support suppliers and staff, as well as having a talent for reputation management and internal relations. It’s a tall order but there are many leaders out there who fit the bill.