What Procurement Leaders Can Learn from Calvin and Hobbes

Calvin and Hobbes Todd Taulman/Adobe Stock

Just over 30 years ago, Calvin and Hobbes first appeared in print when I was in college. The cartoon series resonated with me strongly, and I have loved sharing it with my kids because of its humor, certainly, but also the way in which it captures a love of life not overly jaded by the trappings of everyday society. I’m not going to go overboard here, but there are some things that perhaps we can all learn from a little boy, his stuffed tiger and a healthy dose of imagination:

Ethics and Ideals Matter

Being ethical isn’t about keeping out of trouble but rather about reaching for a higher standard and having respect for yourself. Cartoonist Bill Watterson, the author of Calvin and Hobbes, only ran the series for a decade before he shut it down. He was overwhelmed by the commercial interests of those who wanted to monetize his brand — including offers from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg — and worried that it would lessen the whole purpose of his art.

Procurement professionals are constantly confronted with such dilemmas, and their ability to hold themselves to a higher standard is not just something they do to build their professional brand. They also do it for themselves to preserve sanity and meaning in a an often cynical and dishonest world. For a new breed of millennials entering the procurement workforce, they don’t see themselves being naïve and idealistic if they try to use suppliers as a force for social good, as well as a source of innovation and advantage. Yes, much of this is derived from the broader firm’s culture and mission, but some of it will increasingly be instilled by a new wave of conscientious capitalists. They don’t need to be coddled, but they should be respected.

Respect Should Be Given from the Outset

What’s great about Calvin and Hobbes is that Watterson honors Calvin for who he is and shows life both through his eyes, such as Spaceman Spiff, and from other perspectives, such as from Calvin’s parents. I’ve seen far too many buyers who treat prospective suppliers disrespectfully — and some who do the same with active suppliers as well. Respecting others is really about respecting yourself. Procurement leaders who are not just tough and fair but also respectful and empathetic — not necessarily sympathetic — are the ones who will thrive in the long run.

Be a Great Observer — and Story Teller

Calvin and Hobbes is great because the stories are like little time capsules that capture the essence of moments in our lives. Watterson was a great observer of the human condition.

Likewise, the ability to listen to your stakeholders and observe your situations insightfully is the key to getting to a solution. As I wrote about recently, the art of telling stories is also an important skill, especially when they are stories of obstacles being overcome during a transformation, whether personal or organizational. Organizational transformation is quite often about deftly exposing tacit dysfunction in a way that is not dehumanizing or demoralizing, and even using a little humor to highlight how we sometimes tie ourselves up in knots without realizing it. There’s a reason why you see so many of these Dilbert cartoons in so many procurement presentations!

Be Bold

Most of all though, don’t be afraid to bring courage, passion and meaning into your work life. If you frame “the art of procurement” properly — say, tapping supply market power to support your stakeholders’ missions through an increasingly rich set of strategies, techniques and technologies — you should be able to draw inspiration to keep you going. Personally, coming from engineering and operations, I never thought that procurement would keep my interest, but 15 years later it’s more interesting than ever, especially with the real digital revolution going on right now.

Procurement organizations, like Calvin, truly have a tiger by the tail. While some buyers see supply markets as inanimate object like stuffed tigers — a commodity like any other — it’s others with imagination and creativity who see a lot more potential. The future of procurement is about being “gate openers” to supply markets rather than just negotiators and gatekeepers. By tapping the hearts and minds of stakeholders and suppliers through deeper engagement, we can draw out the best that we all have to offer. And maybe have a good laugh or two along the way.

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