Finding the Perfect Procurement Talent is Like Trying to Find the Proverbial Purple Squirrel

Many procurement organizations recognize that “it’s all about people,” and that they need to attract the right talent with the right skill sets to deliver an increasingly complex and challenging set of procurement services. So they create a wish-list of every desirable skill and knowledge that might seem relevant to the task at hand.

The result? A job spec looking for a sourcing manager with deep knowledge of 5 spending categories, fluency in 3 languages, experience in China, certified as a master black belt and CPSM, holding a master's degree, responsible for over 10 staff members and $500 million in spend, knowledgeable in your industry and immensely competent in driving strategic change. Oh, and I forgot: a willingness to be paid $75,000. This is the job specification for the proverbial purple squirrel – something that doesn't appear to exist in nature (even though there have been rumors).

I know HR people hate when other departments look at employees as anything other than employees (e.g., they don’t like when manufacturing folk look at them as "work centers" with capacities and the like), but to use a procurement analogy, the job specification is a large market basket of skills and knowledge – and it’s winner take all. Unfortunately, there will be no winner, and after this realization, there are two choices:

  • Break up the market basket intelligently to make sure that all requirements are met...
  • ...or downgrade the requirements to make the one-size-fits-all strategy merely a smaller size

Unfortunately, the answer at >90% of firms is the second option. But then, which requirements do you downgrade? What are the ‘constraints to relax’?  It certainly isn’t salary to a meaningful extent, and basically, everything gets dropped except for the category expertise and the level of spend and employees being managed. For all of the talk about strategic skills, soft skills, change management, etc., procurement falls back on the tried-and-true requirements. This is understandable, but let's not delude ourselves that this will “broaden the gene pool.” It will tend to favor those who have been brought up through procurement.

The other approach is to collaboratively source your talent using a modern talent management process that begins with specialized job roles, then compares existing talent (skills/knowledge) to those requirements, identifies the gaps, and looks at the broadest spectrum of resource choices (full-time hire; full-time train; part-time; contingent; outsource; etc.) to open up the market basket to all potential sources of talent supply (HR people are cringing here with my language - I know), and then make the best choices for filling these requirements for both transferable and nontransferable skills. People shouldn't roll their eyes though at the supply metaphor. I know of a few large, very sophisticated organizations, and they plan talent requirements globally using the process described above. Many also employ advanced methods for finding people within their broader organizations that possess the skills (i.e., you need both hunters and farmers) even if they don’t currently report into procurement. There are also some scary behavioral interviewing processes and tools being used – another blog post is coming on this.

Companies do try to apply some basic “tried and true” strategies surrounding hiring stakeholders out of the business (or from sales or suppliers) and then training them on relevant procurement methodologies like the n-step sourcing process. But, this whole talent management lifecycle is not just a “turn the crank” process because there are a lot of different issues and strategies here with regards to role specialization, job rotation programs, internal services group structures, level of matrixing in the organization structures, philosophies on outsourcing, etc.

The bottom line is that if you go hunting for a purple squirrel in procurement, bring some nuts - because you are going to get hungry.

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