Trust No One: Is Independence a Solution to the X-Files?

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You just wrapped up a day of job interviews and you are heading for the company’s parking garage. You’re pretty happy with how everything went — the company seemed solid; the HR people and the procurement team seemed aligned with your ideas and values. As you reach for the car door, a figure emerges from the shadows and in hushed voice cautions, “Trust no one.”

Yikes!

Like the X-Files, the reality of a work environment can often defy explanation. Today’s procurement leaders talk about waging a “war” for talent. If the positions are out there and the inducements are so great, why are some of the best people opting out of corporate roles and into independent careers? I have cycled through both types of roles. For me, my choice to be independent comes down to one factor that happens over and over in corporate environments: people not keeping their word. Why is it so hard for leaders to say what they mean, then do what they say? With Fox Mulder-level skepticism, I don’t trust anyone when they tell me what I can expect in a job.

The truth is out there. But here are three areas where leaders frequently don’t walk the talk.

Diversity

“Women and minorities are underrepresented in procurement, and it’s a problem.”

Sound familiar? When have I heard this before? Oh yeah, every year since I started in this field 20-plus years ago. Yes, there has been some progress, and some companies act on their proclamations. Too few do it to convince me that our procurement leaders believe it is worth the effort.

How many times have you interviewed for a job where HR or someone in procurement leadership has told you how many diverse people are on the team? You get a peek behind the curtain at the large number of women who function as tactical buyers or other administrative support professionals in the team. Then you ask how many are director level or above, and how many directly report to the CPO. A handful? None? We’re working on it? Too many organizations let procurement declare victory with overall headcount of diverse professionals. If a CPO doesn’t put diverse individuals at the table, leading important efforts and making their voices heard, then diversity talk is disingenuous.

I’ve heard leaders say they don’t stand in the way of minorities getting opportunities. Nice try, but not actively opposing something is not the same as supporting it. Don’t say it’s important to you if it’s not.

Proximity

I believe the No. 1 job of leaders is to get the best out of the people they work with and to develop future leaders. For teams that span geographies, this is no small feat. I have attempted it, and I can attest that it is not easy to identify and develop talent in countries outside your own. But I also know that the path of least resistance — continually engaging only those around you — leads to sub-optimal results. I have seen this play out first hand.

Leaders talk about how important people are to achieving great things. How everyone can make a difference so we should all speak up. Go team! Then a project comes along that could be a great development opportunity for an emerging leader. It gets handed off to someone, probably someone already at a high level, in the region where the CPO sits or very close to it. There is no discussion or consideration of the development opportunity. And then the second project comes and gets the same treatment, and so on. If you’re an ambitious professional sitting far from the CPO, it’s disheartening. Eventually morale tanks, people leave and then there is no one who even could handle a development opportunity. You have submission, but not engagement. It’s a vicious cycle.

Entrepreneurs and Failure

When I hear someone say they want entrepreneurs in procurement, it makes me laugh. By its nature, procurement is not a hotbed of risk taking and innovation. We push hard on the tried-and-true methods of delivering savings. How else do you explain the four-, five- or seven-step sourcing processes that proliferate? Being entrepreneurial flies in the face of the playbooks that tell you exactly what to do, written mostly by consultants who have never done it.

Anyone with an entrepreneurial bent will be passionately independent. They want to try things, and they thrive where that is encouraged and rewarded. Unfortunately, this is not present in procurement, where very often what is rewarded is getting with the program and meeting savings numbers.

Giving high-profile projects to up-and-comers is risky. As a leader, you can either live with some failures or you can’t. In many organizations, decision-making rarely makes it past the CPO’s direct reports. What does make it down are restrictions and expectations of compliance. I have a hard time squaring that with all the blather that leaders spew about being flexible and open to new ideas. Don’t say you support learning through failure if you have no intention of letting anyone try anything.

When it comes to evaluating career opportunities, I lean toward Dana Scully’s scientific certainty. I like to know exactly what I am getting into. But my tendency is to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they have good intentions. However, I have learned over the years that good intentions don’t equate to good outcomes or even living up to commitments. I have a ton of respect for people who can look past that and thrive in the corporate environment. For me, being independent provides the ability to do great work without worrying about someone else delivering on their promises. I’m leaving the shady characters, unexplained phenomena and institutional conspiracies to my favorite television show. Like the poster on Mulder’s wall, when it comes to leaders, “I want to believe.”

Rebecca Karp is a principal of Sourcing Synergies, a procurement strategy company based in Chicago. Reach her at rkarp@sourcing-synergies.com or on Twitter @rebeccakarp.

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First Voice

  1. KBC:

    Fantastic article, and it aligns with my findings in a series of positions as well as conversations with clients and potential employers.

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