How does the CPO Gain Board-level Credibility – A Lesson From a Master

(In this holiday period, when news is somewhat thinner on the ground, we thought we would take a few articles from the Spend Matters archives – even the Procurement Excellence blog archives – and feature them again here, with a touch of editing / updating where necessary. Only those of course that are relevant – so nothing about the latest procurement of horse-drawn carriages! This one covers the timeless topic of stakeholder engagement and management).

I met an individual the other week who is one of the most respected procurement leaders in the UK. His particular skill from my observation is in managing his very senior stakeholders; peers and those above, up to and including the head of his organisation, with whom he has a very close and successful relationship.

After a certain amount of wine had been consumed, I asked him what advice he would give to others in terms of managing top level stallholders. I have to say this was a question of personal interest; looking back, I don’t think I ever managed my bosses in as successful a manner as I would have liked. He identified three key areas. Two were not surprising, but the third was particularly interesting.

Firstly, he said, you must be seen as a business problem solver by the C-suite. The old fashioned purchasing / procurement approach of being a blocker, of putting process in the way of people getting things done, just does not work and will not gain you the credibility you need.

On the other hand, he said, you must not be afraid to say so when you believe something is wrong, or cannot be done. So the second key issue is; you must have courage. (This may be particularly important in a public sector context). BUT...he said, you better be proved right! It’s the crying wolf thing. In a public sector organisation for instance, it is fine to tell the top team that something is simply illegal and breaks the EU procurement regulations. But if they get a second opinion from a top-tier lawyer, who says you’re wrong, you’re in trouble.

Finally, and this is what got me really thinking, he stressed the balance between hands-on and hands-off work as a CPO. His normal style is very hands off, he delegates strongly and extensively. But, he said, if the Chief Executive is interested in a procurement project or contract, then as the CPO you better keep very close to it. The CEO will expect you to have your finger on the pulse, to be able to answer questions confidently and quickly; not to have to say “I’ll need to talk to my category manager about that”.

So in such cases, when he has identified something as being critical to the top team, he stays very close to his procurement front line. He is seen by the C-suite to be taking a personal interest and involvement in the issues that matter to them.

And I would add one further point; he has been in this role for about 6 years. You don’t build trust overnight; you can make an impact in the first 100 days, but it takes years to build reputation.

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