On the 50th Anniversary of JFK’s Death, 11 Procurement Lessons from his Legacy

Since I live in Massachusetts and also went to college in Dallas, I thought about JFK's legacy and its relevance to procurement organizations. These are just a few:

1. A changing of the guard. Cultures change slowly, including organizational cultures that have kept procurement "in a box" in terms of its role (and procurement has been its own worst enemy here too). But I have found that the more progressive procurement organizations are being led by CPOs who don't come up through procurement, but are brought in from business units, suppliers, customers, and management consultants who bring in fresh perspectives and energy.

2. From hierarchy to hubs-spokes (and networks). When JFK took over from Eisenhower, he dismantled the hierarchical command-and-control structure. For procurement, no single organizational hierarchy is perfect, especially since procurement has to align to a multidimensional business unit structure, as well as along the dimensions of category management, P2P, continuous improvement (for example, via a Procurement Center of Excellence). Therefore, it is important to set up a management system that is matrixed but can cascade objectives down/across (and roll performance status up and back) elegantly across not only business units, but also supply chain tiers, spend categories, regions, supplier types, etc. See our piece on Supply Performance Management for more.

3. Taking a global view.  JFK was a strong advocate for outreach and support of emerging nations, especially in Africa and Asia. Of course, this was done in the context of winning the hearts and minds of allies versus a competitor nation such as Russia, and it is easy to see the parallel of capturing access to low-cost country supply of key commodities before your competitors do so. JFK did some good things here in terms of programs such as the Peace Corps (which supports grassroots engagement without a huge cost), but he also made some mistakes by prolonging the war in Vietnam for fear of losing the support of voters. CPOs face this same grim choice of having to prolong the win-lose zero-sum-game of PPV-driven cost reductions that lead to brittle and non-innovative supply bases. Eventually, the procurement service portfolio must broaden and the performance measurement system (and set of capabilities must expand). See here and here for more on this.

4. Supporting diversity not just for policy, but for good stakeholder engagement and alignment. JFK helped support some the early work in civil rights. But, he only had so much influence, and could only “burn so many matches," so he moved the needle slightly with regards to affirmative action, but certainly didn’t make it his sole focus. He also frankly saw the practicality in engaging all demographics in America (i.e., all voters in America). It is the same with supplier diversity and environmental sustainability. It is simply good business to align your supply base demographics to your customer demographics while also reducing waste/risk in the environment.

5. You need to get out there in the trenches. Similar to the previous point, JFK loved West Virginia initially for the votes, but he eventually developed an admiration and respect for the people there. When I worked for Timberland, I spent a lot of time in Mountain City, Tennessee, and developed a similar trust and level of endearment towards those folks. For procurement, if you want to engage stakeholders, you need to walk in their shoes, and go to where they live.  This is frankly why I didn't jump into industry, because sometimes, direct procurement and supply chain managers are spending more time traveling to low-cost countries than they are with their families.

6. Use external events to create a burning platform. When Sputnik was sent into space, that was the kick in the pants that the US needed to set the BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) for sending a man to the moon. Procurement needs to be equally opportunistic when such events can be used to help fund building capabilities and supply risk, sustainability, etc.-- with the caveat that such adverse events are being predicted to the extent possible with current investments.

7. You need the threat of the stick and the conviction to sell a shared conviction about the love of carrots. When JFK took on Khrushchev, the threat of nuclear annihilation was clear and palpable. But, at the end of the day, the crucial element was leadership and the conviction that even the most seemingly adversarial relationships can begin to be mended when there is common ground (whether it is survival and treating each other with basic human respect – or whether it is a joint interest in improving profit margins in the supply chain).

8. Sometimes you need to invest (and not just spend more). JFK was a Democrat, and he spent (“invested”) more than Eisenhower, and grew the deficit. But he also grew GDP (which continued to 1969) and lowered unemployment. Many business units think of corporate procurement as the government. Procurement sees its budget as “investment” (which of course we’d agree on based on the hard data), but CFOs views functions as cost centers. So, if you’re going to flip from cost center mentality to profit center, you need to prove the value and talk about it as such.

9. Be careful about your ethical choices. JFK was by no means the pinnacle of virtuosity. If he lived in modern times, he may have easily been not elected – or have been impeached. So, in procurement, you have to take the highest ethical ground you can – no exceptions (which is not easy when you deal internationally in some countries).

10. Politics are about influence – and so is procurement. JFK was a great leader because he was a great politician and knew how to influence people with both charisma and intelligence. Power can be ‘structural’ in terms of headcount, but it is also ‘perceptual’ in terms of influencing spend owners who have spend that you don't directly control via formal policy.

11. Don't underestimate the challenge of implementation. Bay of Pigs, anyone? Implementation risk is not to be ignored, especially with technology projects or any major transformation. And procurement is clearly a function in the midst of major transformation.

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