There were several memorable phrases in the presentations at last week’s Procurement Leaders Forum and Masterclass in Boston.
But for me, one of the most memorable phrases came from Nick Gunn, vice president of global procurement for HP, when he described what he called the talent imperative in procurement:
“When hiring, we have to look beyond red-meat-eating negotiators,” he asserted. The phrase calls to mind an image of a monster-like character with a snarl and a loud voice, sleeves rolled up and fists constantly pounding on the table. And, many companies in the old days hired just that kind of procurement person, expecting the staff member to beat down suppliers to get the last penny of savings no matter what the result. Maybe some companies still hire that type.
But that type won’t get far today, and neither will his or her company. It’s not that the ability to negotiate isn’t important. It is. But as important - maybe more important - is business acumen as well as the ability to develop good relationships, not only with suppliers but within the company. “Talent is a differentiator,” Gunn said, and not having a staff of people who understand business and human relations as well as procurement strategy is a major risk.
He is not the first person to recognize the need for softer skills, or to recognize that aservice mindset is critical, but his phrasing dramatizes the point nicely.
Bill Michels, author and CEO of supply chain consultancy ADR North America has seen his share of young professionals steeped in procurement theory, but unable to see or understand the big business picture. Some come out of school with the idea that everything works according to the strategic plan, forgetting that office politics can be a factor in implementation - or blockage - of the plan. There is a knowledge gap, he told me in a recent interview. “Often, procurement doesn’t own the budget, so you have to use your influencing skills,” he said. If you haven’t developed those skills, you’ll accomplish nothing.
How can new professionals get those skills and that good business sense? One way is for them to choose their parents wisely, because some of the traits required for influencing others are a matter of DNA. Procurement executives can’t help with that choice, but they can mentor new recruits, much like Gunn does at HP. Every procurement operation should have a mentoring program to teach staff the soft skills that will help them exert their influence.
Good negotiating ability will always be part of procurement’s skill set. But the soft skills can be the tenderizer that softens the red meat and makes it easier for everyone else to digest.
Paul Teague is US contributing editor of Procurement Leaders. To find out more about the magazine, click here.