It’s that time of year. 2016 is a matter of months away and planning is in full swing. With procurement’s transformation from bean-counter to business partner high as ever on the agenda, CPOs and other functional leaders are having to consider how they want to pursue the addition of value.
People are, obviously, central to any strategy. Indeed, the latest addition of Harvard Business Review enjoins industry leaders of all disciplines to “go to war for talent” in the race to remain competitive, an aside to which I would add that Lucy Kellaway, writing in the FT, dispels with some style this nauseating, albeit principled, cliché.
As much as I enjoy denouncing the mostly ludicrous world of business speak, and I find I agree with Kellaway on the shakiness of the new catch-all for what in simple and real terms is actually your staff, it is not today’s pursuit. Instead, I am concerned with what kind of workers are going to accelerate procurement’s continued growth as an interesting, dynamic and valuable business function.
We are often told that leaders are born; they are charismatic political mavens who look and act the part of the engaging go-getter, who make people feel better about themselves simply as a cause of their own brilliance. Closely related to this is the popular idea that procurement people should think and be more like sales people, capable of persuading the various stakeholder groups that ‘the function knows best’.
An important tenet, no doubt, but on its own lacking a bit of substance. In all the conversations about people I have had with various procurement executives, the play-off between cultivating the technical versus the soft skills is obvious to see, nevertheless all claim to impart on their teams the need to “prove their worth” in order to succeed.
It would however be difficult to believe that anybody knows best, I would argue, if in fact they don’t know anything at all. And the idea of a procurement function full of swashbuckling blaggers, charming their way to success is not a very appealing one, and nor is it likely to be a sustainable one.
Admittedly, you probably won’t get very far if you’re not in the least bit personable, but an interesting study by Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Erasmus University Rotterdam has found that the characterising feature of the best leaders is actually being skilled in their work.
In a study of 49 teams comprising more than 1,000 employees at a Dutch company, the research found that, although 55% of the leaders were chosen for reasons such as charisma, political skill etc., the best leaders’ reputations far outlived their silver-tongued colleagues if they had mastered the competencies of their day jobs.
The best leaders, according to the researchers, were those who also recognised the need to share leadership with others more competent than themselves in a given area, meaning they built teams of staff who excelled in different tasks and were, as a whole, able to adapt to the demands of different situations.
Adaptability is incredibly important in the contemporary world of procurement; the pace of change is rapid and businesses are increasingly stretching the remit of a function no longer charged with buying stuff so much as cultivating a sustainable, innovative base of supply; no longer in the back office, but integral to organisations’ reputations in both the upstream and downstream markets.
It’s a call to both employers and employees. Selling the value of the function is no doubt a necessity, but it is those whom you are selling to that are imposing on and looking for this value from the team, so leaders better make sure they actually have something to sell.
Employers: Professor Murat Taracki, a researcher for the study, advises those hiring to look for candidates with demonstrable expertise and performance in relevant situations, quantifiable if possible, and to seek to weed out those who are “in love with power" - only ever a detrimental character trait.
Employees: In negating the spurious idea that the best leaders are somehow born, the results of the research ought to inspire confidence in those who, I must admit like myself, do not find it entirely natural to dominate each and every business meeting. The confidence needed to ‘sell’ yourself comes from having excelled in your job rather than an innate ability to impress, according to Susie Cummings, a headhunter and founder of Nurole, a UK board level recruitment start up, in an interview with the FT.
The bottom line? The best leaders earn their stripes before they shout about them.
This article is a piece of independent writing by a member of Procurement Leaders’ content team.
Read more on leadership in procurement in our I Am A Procurement Leader Campaign here.