Looking for the Purple Squirrel in Procurement is Nuts

Many procurement organizations recognize that “it’s all about people,” and that they need to attract the right talent with the right skill sets to deliver an increasingly complex and challenging set of procurement services. So they create a wish-list of every desirable skill and knowledge that might seem relevant to the task at hand.

The result? A job spec looking for a sourcing manager with deep knowledge of five spending categories, fluency in three languages, experience in China, certified as a master black belt and CPSM, holding a master's degree, responsible for over 10 staff members and $500M in spend, knowledgeable in your industry, and immensely competent in driving strategic change. Oh, and I forgot: a willingness to be paid $75,000. This is the job specification for the proverbial purple squirrel – something that doesn't appear to exist in nature (even though there have been rumors).

I know HR people hate when other departments look at employees as anything other than employees (e.g., they don’t like when manufacturing folk look at them as "work centers" with capacities and the like), but to use a procurement analogy, the job specification is a large market basket of skills and knowledge – and it’s winner take all. Unfortunately, there will be no winner, and after this realization, there are two choices:

  • Break up the market basket intelligently to make sure that all requirements are met...
  • ...or downgrade the requirements to make the one-size-fits-all strategy merely a smaller size

Unfortunately, the answer at >90% of firms is the second option. But then, which requirements do you downgrade? What are the ‘constraints to relax’?  It certainly isn’t salary to a meaningful extent, and basically, everything gets dropped except for the category expertise and the level of spend and employees being managed. For all of the talk about strategic skills, soft skills, change management, etc., procurement falls back on the tried-and-true requirements. This is understandable, but let's not delude ourselves that this will “broaden the gene pool.” It will tend to favor those who have been brought up through procurement.

The other approach is to collaboratively source your talent using a modern talent management process that begins with specialized job roles, then compares existing talent (skills/knowledge) to those requirements, identifies the gaps, and looks at the broadest spectrum of resource choices (full-time hire; full-time train; part-time; contingent; outsource; etc.) to open up the market basket to all potential sources of talent supply (HR people are cringing here with my language - I know), and then make the best choices for filling these requirements for both transferable and nontransferable skills. People shouldn't roll their eyes though at the supply metaphor. I know of a few large, very sophisticated organizations, and they plan talent requirements globally using the process described above. Many also employ advanced methods for finding people within their broader organizations that possess the skills (i.e., you need both hunters and farmers) even if they don’t currently report into procurement. There are also some scary behavioral interviewing processes and tools being used – another blog post is coming on this.

Companies do try to apply some basic “tried and true” strategies surrounding hiring stakeholders out of the business (or from sales or suppliers) and then training them on relevant procurement methodologies like the n-step sourcing process. But, this whole talent management lifecycle is not just a “turn the crank” process because there are a lot of different issues and strategies here with regards to role specialization, job rotation programs, internal services group structures, level of matrixing in the organization structures, philosophies on outsourcing, etc.

The bottom line is that if you go hunting for a purple squirrel in procurement, bring some nuts - because you are going to get hungry.

Voices (7)

  1. Matthew J. Tolan, Lifetime C.P.M.:

    Great article. After 30 years in Procurement, I decided to run my own business. Did not want to participate in the yearly process of justifying Purchasing’s existence. No regrets. But the race is over. I do think we complicate the process when seeking out purchasing pros. It really should be about what have they accomplished. Do they believe in working with suppliers as business partners for the greater good? Have they brought exceptional value to their internal customers? Do they keep up on market forces and pricing? Excellent communication skills? Perhaps do a negotiation exercise with them. Would you want this person representing your company?

  2. Pierre Mitchell:

    Mark, keep fighting the good fight on value engineering those job descriptions. There’s a good reason why they get totally re-written at many major transformations! It is hard though when category managers have to be relationship managers on the budget owner side and also on the supplier relationship side – in addition to being commercial bad-asses (that’s my technical term). 🙂

  3. Pierre Mitchell:

    Tony, I totally agree. Procurement has to be a ‘solutions assembler’ and must be both collaborative in the assembly, but also have the content too. Both must be tuned to the company. The one-trick pony w/ an n-step process (or hammer looking for a nail) eventually runs out of gas, especially when they’re just looking to make hay and favorable PPV.

  4. Mark Trowbridge, CPSM, C.P.M., MCIPS:

    Nice article, Pierre. I especially liked the analogy to Hunters and Farmers…which fit the two personnel mindsets inherent in Sourcing vs. Supplier Management types of roles. When my firm helps procurement groups fill positions (permanent or project based), we use several of the methods you mentioned…SCM skills testing (online), recruiting through specialty networks, and subsequent professional development training. But we also frequently challenge the HR group’s position description to make it match the realities of the candidate market…sometimes you can find that Purple Squirrel…or at least a Camoflauge Squirrel which will work just as well!

  5. Tony Fross:

    Great post, Pierre. I think most people would find it easiest to apply this sort of talent management approach to fill the more junior levels of their organizations.

    All domain experts – procurement, business strategists, technologists, whomever – love their tribal content. And we are all equally guilty of tending to believe that coming pre-loaded with the right content is more important that coming with the appropriate process tools, i.e., the tools and methods to solve the relevant problems.

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