Being a CPO – five things I wish I’d done as a procurement leader

I was European Procurement Director for the Dun & Bradstreet Corporation in the early 90s (when D&B was a major conglomerate, owning firms as diverse as Nielsen Market Research, Thomson Directories and Moody’s Investor Services). I then became Procurement Director for the Department of Social Security – then the UK’s largest non-military government department -  and my final CPO role was as Group Procurement Director for the NatWest banking group.

Looking back, I’m proud of some of what I did and achieved in those roles – and in other cases I feel I should have done better!  So in this series, running over the next few weeks, I’ll look at five things I wish I had done differently, and five things I’m more happy about when I look back.

My purpose is very much to help others. I think I’m most unlikely to do a CPO role ever again, so I’m hoping some readers might avoid some of my mistakes – and even learn from the odd success!

No 1.  I wish I had fired more people.

OK, let’s start with a controversial point! thank Guy Allen in part for this. At his Real World Sourcing series last year on “the first 100 days of a new CPO” he suggested that firing someone was a good thing for a new leader to do. As much as anything, that would   establish authority and woudl be good “pour encourager les autres” as Voltaire said of the execution of Admiral John Byng for "failing to do his utmost" at the battle of Menorca in 1757.

My thinking is not quite that. It is more that I suspect I was too tolerant of poor performance at times. I’ve never enjoyed those disciplinary aspects of line management (not many of us do, let’s be honest) but what I’ve realised is that you won’t be forgiven by your peers and boss if procurement’s performance is dragged down by poor performing staff. The image of your entire team can be very negatively affected by one or two people, and few of us have enough slack in the system that you can hide them away where they can’t do any damage.

So I wish I’d grasped the nettle on a couple of occasions and been more decisive. Of course it is easier in some organisations than others, the public sector being notoriously difficult to lose people, however badly they perform. Indeed, I still think that is one of the few areas in which the private sector is demonstrably “better” than the public – in its approach to performance management.

Or you can just hope people go of their own volition – it does happen sometimes, and I can remember one occasion when I really gave thanks to one of our competitors for poaching a particular procurement manager! But if you really want to move the procurement function forward, your team is key, and you just can’t afford to have people around who don’t contribute. Be fair, be objective, but ultimately, be decisive.

And watch out for four more wishes...

Voices (3)

  1. Ellen:

    Sometimes, firing people straight away is a sign of insecurity. And it happens a fair bit. An insecure boss can be threatened by the knowledge in the team, so instead of learning from them as well as managing them – there’s a divide and rule and fire and rule approach. That way, the no-one has to remember them as the newbie who knew nothing. Of course, if people in the team are actually pretty crap – then yes..they’ve got to go. But, I’m with Final Furlong – a respectable (but not too long) journey is the right thing to do.

  2. Dan:

    Its even worse than you’d imagine in the public sector. Historically, the procurement section was where you got ‘redeployed’ to when you couldn’t get fired from the team you were in. The procurement section effectively got landed with everyone else’s unwanted employees. This has changed now with the increasing professionlisation of the service, but by and large those staff are still there and still form a large part of procurement teams around the country.

    1. Final Furlong:

      Dan – you need a holiday!

      Peter – I think you be proud of the fact that you haven’t fired anyone. It’s the worst possible way of demonstrating your authority or style over any new team. The wider team would be far more impressed in your abilities to help people navigate their way to an exit (an iron fist in a velvet glove) than axe them on some notion that it’s the thing that you do in your first 30 days. You should only ‘fire’ someone if they’ve had their hands in the till – in all other circumstances you should take them on a respectable journey to an exit.

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