Machiavelli for procurement professionals – using your deputies

(Continuing our series in honour of the 500th anniversary of the publication of Machiavelli’s The Prince).

Here is one great tip from Machiavelli that anyone in a senior management position can use – and something that everyone should be aware of, in case you get used by your own manager…

As we’ve previously discussed, Machiavelli says that the ruler should be loved and feared, but the fear is the most important thing. So often, in medieval Italy, what that meant in practice was this. The Prince would win a town or region in battle – or peacefully – and would put in one of his own deputies to run the place. There might well be some initial resistance – so the deputy would have to take pretty brutal measures to subjugate the people.

But Machiavelli tells the story of this happening in one city, where the hated deputy behaved brutally but was then found beheaded in the main square one morning. The Prince had done that himself (or commissioned it), to show the people he didn’t approve of how far the deputy had gone in his brutality. Machiavelli says this was a very effective strategy – the people then feared the Prince even more, for his awesome power, whilst ‘loving’ him for getting rid of the horrible deputy.

Now, what on earth does this have to do with modern business and procurement? Quite a lot, actually. We can translate it into the principle of getting someone else to do your dirty work. You can use that yourself if you have people working for you, but the message for CPOs and procurement leaders is also to be cautious of your boss and / or the CFO using you in this way!

I've seen CPOs set up to be the bad guys in terms of imposing stricter spending controls, demand management or other measures that will be unpopular with stakeholders. Then of course the complaints start to come in. The IT Director complains that the business is suffering because of these draconian controls, and the CFO explains that the CPO has been “perhaps a little too enthusiastic” about the policies.

Too often, the CPO is then undermined, as the backing from the CFO or the Board leaks away. In the extreme, the poor victim loses not their head maybe, but quite possibly their job. The CFO has demonstrated his or her power, whilst keeping the ‘population’ happy by getting rid of the poor old procurement leader. I have seen this happen more than once.

It’s not just procurement of course that sees this behavior. A friend of mine was a main Board Director and a business unit MD within a large firm, reporting to the Group CEO. My friend implemented a radical strategy in his business unit - but it was actually the Group CEO’s idea.

When it went wrong, which it did in a big way,  the City and media started criticizing the firm. The CEO quickly fired my friend, and reversed what was really his own strategy, which all showed how powerful and decisive he was. Very unfair, but that's how it works, and in the long run my friend did fine, although at the time he wasn't exactly delighted.

So watch out for being set up in this way, and if you’re powerful enough yourself, it is an interesting – if somewhat Machiavellian – tactic to use in your own management role!

First Voice

  1. Trevor Black:

    Following the Ladbroke rail crash in 1999 it is interesting to note that there was widely held public support that the management who were believed to be directly responsible for the causes leading up to the crash should be prosecuted for manslaughter. Immediately following the accident changes were made to the management and regulation of rail transport and the demand for training courses went through the roof as CEOs recognised that if you send your staff on a training course it gets you off the hook when being sued – and that folks is why despite getting well paid for huge responsibilities the system always has a get out clause. When did you last see a CEO in front of the Public Accounts Committee admit that it was their fault?

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