What Makes a Successful Procurement Leader? (Part 1)

Many, many words have been written about procurement leadership and what makes a successful procurement director, CPO or equivalent. We should always be careful about generalising, as every situation and organisation needs a somewhat different approach to leadership, but it is always useful to look at the key qualities, strategies and tactics that evidently successful people have demonstrated and used.

I’ve known George Owens for some 15 years and worked with him a number of times in three different organisations, so was delighted when he won the Procurement and Supply Professional of the Year award in Berlin recently at the first CIPS Awards Europe (in association with ProcureCon Europe). He was even more delighted that the procurement and contracts team from Manchester Airports Group (MAG) - which he led - won two awards on that evening and another at the UK CIPS Awards.

Given this success, my colleague Nancy Clinton and I made the journey up to Manchester to meet him and some of his team recently, and we’ve got a series of articles to come about their approach to procurement transformation. But we’ll kick off today with a look at Owens himself, as we consider what other aspiring award winners might learn from his approach.

We should say that he is not a man with a huge ego – he’s confident yes, but we believe him when he says that the team awards mean much more to him than the individual.  As we’ll see, empowering his team comes high on his list of priorities.

So after talking to him at some length, we drew out six key points that might be useful to consider.

  • Understanding the supply chain and different viewpoints -- Owens trained as a quantity surveyor, then worked across different roles within the capital projects and construction supply chains. “I think working for a sub-contractor, two global managing contractors and then moving to the client side, has helped me understand the whole supply chain”, he says. “It wasn’t by design but proved invaluable”. And it helps in negotiations - “I don’t always tell them this, but I can generally understand what the other party is trying to achieve!”

So getting some varied experience, but perhaps around a common broad specialism, might be a good way for the aspiring CPO to spend their early working years. While we know some CPOs who have successfully jumped around very different sectors, the deep industry experience Owens has gained undoubtedly helps with his personal credibility and the ability to hit the ground running in each new role.

  • A core business focus -- While he considers himself a procurement and supply chain professional, Owens constantly refers to how procurement activity must be aligned to the business goals and needs. “In one role, it took me a while to work out that supporting our front-line teams with really effective supply processes could drive their own output and increase revenue substantially”. That far outweighed any price savings that could be generated. “Savings should rarely be the number-one goal once you understand what the business really wants from procurement”.  But he is not blind to the importance of the bottom-line effect – “we promised an in-year return of several times the cost of the function from the beginning of the MAG programme”.


  • Highly effective stakeholder management skills – everyone knows this matters, fewer pull it off. But there is no doubt Owens is credible with senior peers. (His career is built on ex bosses and CEOs asking him to join them at their new organisations!) That comes with experience, but also that business focus we mentioned above, and a direct and confident communication style. He also speaks in the language of the business, both using financial terminology when appropriate and also talking about programmes and contracts again from the perspective of the budget holder, not a narrow procurement standpoint. That all has to be backed up with delivery of course – more of that in Part 2 tomorrow.

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