What Procurement Practitioners Can Learn From Car Talk


Tom Magliozzi, the popular co-host of National Public Radio's “Car Talk” program died this week from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 77. If you’ve never listened to “Car Talk,” you really should check it out. Tom and his younger brother Ray did a weekly radio program that has been part of my life for decades. I had lived in Cambridge near their car garage for years. But really, anyone who listened to them probably felt that Tom and Ray were their neighbors too.

I learned a lot from that show – and not just about cars. So, I thought I’d try to share some of what I learned from Tom and Ray to the world of procurement:

  • Be approachable. Tom and Ray were MIT graduates, but you’d certainly never peg them as academic or elitist. They had a way with connecting with people they’d never met and immediately develop a rapport. For procurement professionals, this skill of engaging internal stakeholders and suppliers shouldn’t be undervalued. For example, if suppliers fear you’ll demote them, lessen their allocation or punish them in any way if they bring up a problem to you, they’ll hide the problem and it’ll likely get worse. Approachability breeds trust and it must be demonstrated (e.g., “voice of the supplier” survey)
  • Get at the real problem. Establishing rapport and opening communications lines helps to understand what’s really going on. For example, why is an internal stakeholder not letting procurement have a seat at the table? Is it political? Misaligned KPIs? Previously made mistakes? Poor service levels? Lack of clarity about the services themselves? Tom had a great knack for asking sometimes uncomfortable questions that often did get to the root cause of the issues. The ability to listen and knowing the right questions to ask is a very powerful skill to have that demonstrates intelligence, empathy and credibility.
  • Humor and laughter is powerful. Even in a difficult negotiation, the ability to lower the temperature is an important skill. Also, behavioral economics studies have shown that an adversarial approach reduces payoffs in negotiations. Basically, being an jerk doesn’t motivate your supplier to want to go to his/her senior management to fight for a less-profitable customer. Being likeable doesn’t mean you have to be any less tough and effective s a negotiator.
  • Frequent communications is never a bad thing. Nor is habituating your stakeholders to the communications. Ask stakeholders what the No. 1 problem is with procurement, and “communications” is usually it. Trust me – I’ve benchmarked this area extensively. Efficiently communicating the “brand promise” of effective procurement processes and the value of engaging the procurement function – and then communicating on how to fulfill that promise – is a key capability. Any major transformation or smaller change management effort requires focused and frequent communications.
  • Hate mundanity. Tom basically hated to do drudge work, and so should Procurement. Procurement organizations only have themselves to blame if they are mired in the tactical. They have to elevate their services and either eliminate the lower-value ones or re-engineer/automate/outsource them to free them up for the strategic. And once you’ve done it to yourself, you can then even do the same for your stakeholders and help them elevate their game too.
  • Empower your stakeholders to spend better. Tom and Ray would encourage callers to fix things for themselves where they could. They would also coach callers on potential root causes and how to diagnose them. They’d give them some pre-negotiation planning advice as well on how to go to their suppliers (i.e., mechanics) and also which suppliers to consider (local Joe vs. the dealer). If procurement gets a reputation that it exists to help enable spend owners to spend more effectively, regardless of how formal procurement organizations are directly doing the work and getting “credit,” it can be a powerful transformation (which is what happened to the quality function many years ago).
  • Don’t be afraid to tinker and get your hands dirty to establish mastery. Real knowledge is gained on the job, and real change happens when you aren’t afraid to blow up any aspect of your procurement service delivery. This goes for practitioners and providers alike.
  • Apply the Desiderata. Have the wisdom to know the difference of what you can change and what you can’t (even if that changes over time). Tom and Ray would always understandable err on the side of caution in terms of advice of what to fix, who should fix it (i.e., you or your mechanic), and the risk/reward choices of the different options. Procurement organizations should be able to do this with their stakeholders with regards to supply risk management. This principal also applies to spend influence and procurement influence in terms of slowly expanding the “circle of influence” a la Steven Covey.
  • Never stop learning. Tom had a BS in Economics at MIT, an MS in Engineering Management (which was my undergraduate major) from Northwestern, and a Ph.D. from Boston University. Be like a shark and keep moving – else you’ll die. Whether its professional education, credentialing, cross training or any type of learning, an investment in yourself and your teams is a worthwhile one. This certainly includes learning entirely new subject matter areas outside procurement, as I wrote about here. It was from Tom that I learned how the idea of slow-boiled frogs tied back to the Weber-Fechner law of least perceptible differences, which actually has some applicability in organizational change management. Tom was no ordinary mechanic!
  • Be humble and don’t take yourself too seriously even though you are deadly serious about your craft. I personally believe this strongly and joined Spend Matters because of this philosophy. In procurement, look at the humility and mastery from people like Dave Nelson and the late Gene Richter. Or for a more Boston-flavored example, take Roy Anderson. Roy may be irreverent and animated, but he is also deadly serious about his craft.
  • Build a personal brand for yourself, even if it is in the service of others. I really take this one to heart. By serving others we serve ourselves emotionally, spiritually and vocationally. Procurement leaders shouldn’t view a service orientation as passive, submissive, reactionary, transactional and a white-gloved concierge to spend owners. A service orientation clarifies many things, including your mind and your procurement operating model (a topic for another day).

Perhaps Tom summarized his approach to life best when he said:

“Some guy I met said it’s amazing how we use cars on our show as an excuse to discuss everything in the world – energy, psychology, behavior, love, money, economics and finance. The cars themselves are boring as hell.”

Many could easily replace the word “procurement” with the word “cars,” and describe what we do here on the blog with the “written conservation.” More broadly, I think that if procurement keeps its line of sight on how to tap supply market power for competitive advantage and support for the enterprise mission and being a change agent for good – and everything else really being in support of that – then I think it’ll be easier for procurement to engage its own staff and its own set of “listeners” (i.e., stakeholders).

Obviously, Ray and Tom’s service and their brand had an impact on me, and more than I realized after writing this up! I hope some of these lessons might resonate with you.

Voices (3)

  1. Anu Gardiner:

    Nice tribute. Humor wins the day.

  2. John Shaw:

    Great Tribute and parallels to our profession. Thank you Pierre. I never knew they were MIT grads, your article has only increased my respect for them. Tom will be missed.

  3. Art Van Bodegraven:

    Cool! On point. And, something that practitioners need to take home and think about.
    Full disclosure: Click and Clack inspired me to build and maintain a list of useful joke names, less raunchy than Monty Python’s, but more perturbing than an academic’s witticism.
    Requiescat, Tom

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