How to be a successful CPO

I had a drink the other day with an individual who is one of the most respected procurement leaders in the UK.  His particular skill from my observation is in managing his very senior stakeholders; peers and those above, up to and including the head of his organisation, with whom he has a very close and successful relationship.

After a certain amount of wine had been consumed, I asked him what advice he would give to other procurement folk in terms of managing top level stakeholders.  I have to say this was a question of personal interest; looking back,  I don’t think I ever managed my bosses in as successful a manner as I would have liked when I was a CPO.

He identified three key areas.  Two were not surprising, but the third I thought was particularly interesting.

Firstly, he said, you must be seen as a business problem solver by the C-suite.  The old fashioned  procurement approach of being a blocker, of putting process in the way of people getting things done, just does not work and will not gain you the credibility you need.

On the other hand, he said, you must not be afraid to say so when you believe something is wrong, or cannot be done; you must have courage.  (This is particularly important in a public sector context). BUT...he said, you better be proved right!  It’s the crying wolf thing.  In a public sector organisation for instance, it is fine to tell the top team that something is simply illegal and breaks the procurement regulations.  But if they get a second opinion from a top-tier lawyer, who says you’re wrong, you’re in trouble.

Finally, and this is what got me thinking, he stressed the balance between hands-on and hands-off work as a CPO.  His normal style is very hands off, he delegates strongly and extensively.  But, he said, if the Chief Executive is interested in a procurement project or contract, you as the CPO better keep very close to it.  The CEO will expect you to have your finger on the pulse, to be able to answer questions confidently and quickly; not to have to say “I’ll need to talk to my category manager about that”.

So in such cases, he stays very close to the front line, and is seen by the C-suite to be taking a personal interest and involvement in the issues that matter to them.

And I would add one further point; he has been in this role for about 6 years.  You don’t build trust overnight; you can make an impact in the first 100 days, but it takes years to build reputation.

I'm going to explore this theme further.  Apart from being genuinely interesting, it gives me the perfect opportunity to go drinking with CPOs who I like (and sometimes they even pay the bar bill.....many thanks to Mr X)!

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Voices (2)

  1. David Smith:

    I think that Russ makes a good point. Procurement needs a defined route to identify early those individuals with the potential to go to the very top (and to raise the procurement banner on their journey!). We find some excellent people through our various graduate schemes but then seem to either let them go or let them wander off. I really do think this is something that CIPS should more acvtively address and we should encourage them to do just that. Support, encouragement and mentoring from such luminaries as Mr A and Mr S (incredibly well respected and erudite leaders) would certainly help. I feel a masterclass on the way!

  2. Russ Armitage:

    Clearly “Mr X” is a wise CPO and it’s good to find that people like him are emerging in the upper reaches of procurement. These are the type of people to be encouraged in our profession (M & F) who can go on to become CEOs, etc. I wonder how this type of person can be developed/encouraged?

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