To reach the top, it's not enough to be good at procurement

Career developmentLeadership Talent and LeadershipTransformation+-

How can procurement executives make it to the top of their organisations? In some cases, that may mean a CPO or procurement director role and in others, it may mean moving beyond a pure procurement role and perhaps aspiring to a chief operating officer or business unit MD position [see Unilever’s Marc Engel and his recent announcement].


In a new paper – A Seat at the Top Table - that I’ve co-authored with Peter Smith (Spend Matters MD, an ex CPO and a current non-executive director himself), we’ve looked at what it takes to make yourself suitable to be considered for board-level positions. That might be in the public or private sector, and as an executive or non-executive director.


One key point to consider is that simply being good at procurement is unlikely to be enough to ensure promotion to those top jobs. Achieving strong results in a senior procurement role is probably a necessary but not sufficient condition for rising to the very top. That’s because board members are expected to contribute to their organisations in three different ways:


1. Represent their business unit, functional specialism (like procurement), geography or similar element of the overall organisation.

2. Contribute to the overall business strategy, issues and direction of the organisation.

3. Fulfil some sort of governance role, which may even have regulatory or statutory drivers.


So executives are judged not just on how well they will meet the first point, in terms of functional performance, but on the other two as well. That’s something I quickly realised on reaching the Xchanging executive board: my views are sought on many issues that do not necessarily have a procurement aspect. So you need to show before you get to the board level that you are going to be able to think about broad organisational issues –strategy, direction, delivery – from a wider perspective that that of a pure functional specialist.


There’s a paradox here: the procurement leader who fights their corner and vigorously promotes their own function may be a hero to their team, but if they are seen as being too narrow minded and parochial by senior colleagues, they won’t be seen as a real business leader. That doesn’t mean of course that we should be weak or passive in our internal dealings, but it does mean we need to balance that with the wider perspective.


Personal characteristics also cannot be ignored. That governance role requires an independence of mind and the courage to challenge when necessary – so there’s another balancing act between being a good team player as a Board member, yet not being afraid to speak out when you feel something needs to be said.

So it is all quite challenging. But remember, everybody, from whatever function or background, is in the same boat.


Many of the skills procurement executives develop are highly relevant to board level roles, so let’s hope we see a lot more of our colleagues operating at these levels in the future.



Ed Cross is executive director of procurement, Xchanging. You can download the whitepaper here.

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