Susan Grelling: Women in Procurement

Susan Grelling

Susan Grelling has a wealth of advice to offer people in procurement. After spending approximately 25 years in the field, Grelling has learned some valuable lessons she can pass on to others, such as how procurement can help smooth out profit and loss for a company or how to position the organization to be viewed not just as a “checkbook” but as a source of competitive advantage.

These are only some of the challenges she has spent her career as a professional, director and vice president in procurement tackling as she rose the ranks at several companies, mainly at food and agricultural businesses (General Mills, Pillsbury, Land O’Lakes, to name a few.)

When asked what advice she has for women in procurement, specifically, Grelling is prepared. She names four key points of advice, all which are based on her own experiences:

  1. Don’t be afraid to fail
  2. Disrupt your career in some way, at some point
  3. Understand risk
  4. Be able to communicate

Starting at the top, Grelling learned early on in her career that failure isn’t a bad thing. Just as you cannot have the good without the bad in life, you cannot have the big successes you need to be a leader without experiencing failures in your career, she said.

When you fail, you absolutely learn,” Grelling said. “I have learned more from my failures than I ever have from my successes. I know everyone says that, but really, I have.”

Build a Broad Background

Not being afraid to fail also plays into Grelling’s second piece of advice: disrupt your career. It’s a risk, but one worth taking, at least it has been for Grelling. Take her two-year stint in the Peace Corps as an example. After graduating from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with a bachelor’s in economics, Grelling took a job with General Mills trading grain in Montana. Her title was procurement buyer and commodity trader. She grew up on a farm in central Minnesota, which engrained in her an understanding of agriculture. That background, as well as her economic education and grasp on the market led her to being promoted fairly quickly at General Mills. The promotions were nice, and she enjoyed working in procurement — she said she liked being embedded in the supply chain and working with a group of people who were trying to make that company competitive and best-in-class.

However, at this point, Grelling was still in her early 20s, and she yearned to travel. She had hoped an adventure abroad could be part of a job with General Mills, but when an opportunity with the Peace Corps came, she jumped on it. She spent two years volunteering in the former Soviet Union, selected for her unique background in agricultural business, helping the Danish and Latvian governments establish their agricultural extension program.

I was told by everyone at that time that this was the worst decision I could make,” Grelling said. “I was disrupting a corporate career. I was disappointing my family because we had just paid for a college degree and now I go volunteer?”

But Grelling also knew that this disruption of her traditional corporate career would be a bonus down the line. And it has been. She said the Peace Corps taught her how to enter an ambiguous situation, define the problems, communicate the end goals with the stakeholders and then execute against the plan.

“I have used that, what I learned in the Peace Corps,” she said. “I learned how to do that time and time again, and that, I think, is really what vaulted me into senior leadership.”

Get Comfortable with Risk

Diverging from a traditional career path comes with risks. But risk is something procurement professionals need to be very familiar with. As Grelling puts it, procurement must truly understand risk exposure, know how to leverage it, mitigate it and be able to explain it.

“That means being robust at risk, not just conversational at risk,” she said.

In 5 to 10 years, she said, procurement and risk will be interchangeable, so procurement professionals need to know the opportunities and risks that could impact the company. Grelling’s deep understanding of risk is one of the reasons she thinks she has landed at so many food companies in her career. These companies like her background in agriculture and economics.

“I know the buy, the physical contract, the supplier negotiations, all the best practices with procurement,” she said. “I also know risk, the enterprise risk and financial risk.”

To give a glimpse into her background, Grelling formerly worked as the vice president of procurement, risk management and packaging engineering at The Schwan Food Company. She also served as vice president of risk management commodities and vice president of member relations and corporate governance at Land O’Lakes, where she designed from scratch a new corporate risk office and a new enterprise risk management program, among other accomplishments.

Among those “other” accomplishments at Land O’Lakes include earning a Change Leadership Award and the CEO Award for Diversity and Inclusion for efforts with LGBT employees in making the company a “pro-gender diversity” workplace. For Grelling, promoting diversity was promoting inclusion and “that warm feeling of being accepted” by the people you are surrounded by every day at work.

“Any time we have to hide who we are at work, part of our brain is focused on something else,” she said. When people are allowed to come to work as who they are and be accepted, all that energy can go into performance, she added.

Improve Communication

There are a number of lessons on communication Grelling has learned throughout her career. For instance, she knows she has to pad her language at times, saying things like, “I’m going to be a bit blunt here,” before offering her opinion in a meeting, or she may come off as being too direct. Framing communication is something other women in procurement have spoken of, as well.

But for procurement professional in general, male or female, communication is key. Procurement professionals may not be best known for giving lively presentations, but they need to improve, Grelling said. They need to tell a story, effectively communicate with stakeholders on what the organization is doing or wants to do and how it will impact the company.

“You have to market the heck out of procurement,” she said. “You have to be able to tell a story versus a graph, you’ve got to be able to tell a story that is broader than procurement.”

Personal Growth

Grelling splits her time on her charitable trust and other endeavours like serving as a Daisy troop leader. (She has two young children.) She also makes herself available for procurement professionals looking for advice or wanting to talk through their challenges. Just as her mentors have done for her in the past, Grelling said she “believes paying it forward.” She feels passionately about reaching out and helping other women.

“The more strong women there are, the more we all succeed,” she said.

Perhaps one last piece of advice she can offer women in procurement is one that took her up until recently to learn herself. When asked what her greatest challenge has been working as a women in procurement, her answer was, very honestly, “being a woman.” But as she gained more experience in the field and rose to senior officer levels at companies, she gained more confidence. Now, she can say she doesn’t see being a woman as a challenge. Age, too, has helped.

“I would say up to five, seven years ago, I was trying to overcome being a woman,” she said. “Now, I am confident of my skills, proud of my successes and excited to be a positive role-model as a woman in executive management.”

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Voices (2)

  1. Real-Woman:

    This is amazing Susan.

    Always proud of strong women who go after their dreams. I was particularly impressed by “I was trying to overcome being a woman​”. And this is where most of us women get in wrong. We try so much, to the extent of wanting to be macho like men, forgetting that in our femininity, we can actually achieve more.

    Great job!​

  2. Barb Ardell:

    Great advice, Susan. Thanks for sharing. And congratulations on an impressive career! I hope we can meet “live” at some point.

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