Procurement people need to be respected, not liked – ask Machiavelli

We wrote yesterday about whether procurement people need to be “likable”. We concluded that no, they don’t.  Remember Machiavelli – answering the question about whether it is better to be loved or feared.

“The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.”

Now Machiavelli isn’t the best guide to being a successful procurement executive in 2011, but there is much truth in his work still. If you haven’t read The Prince, you really should.  We explained  yesterday why being “liked” isn’t enough – indeed, isn’t even that important – for a procurement person. Now, I don’t think we need to go quite as far as being “feared” although to be honest, I can think of a couple of IT Directors I worked with where a bit of fear would have been jolly useful.

But I do believe you need to be respected. It’s certainly tough if you are intrinsically dis-likeable, but you don’t have to be a charismatic charmer if you can build the respect of your internal stakeholders, peers and suppliers.

I saw plenty of real evidence in my time as a CPO to show that being just likeable isn’t enough. I can remember one procurement manager who worked for me years ago. Everyone loved him. “Oh, Josh”, they would say. “So funny! Life and soul of the party! Really great guy as well”!

All true. Unfortunately, he was also at best a pretty poor category manager. Lack of attention to detail, badly organised, didn’t deliver against his promises, no real commercial insight.  And it doesn’t take long for our internal stakeholders to realise this, at which point they started working round him, ignoring or sidelining him – while still being very happy to have a beer after work with him.

Another example. Back in the days when I actually let contracts and met suppliers, I was dealing with a major company in the travel sector, who sent this young female account manager to see me. She was stunning. A lovely smile, pretty, curvaceous, pleasant and lively to talk to. I’m sure if I’d only ever met her socially, I would have “liked” her a lot.

Unfortunately, and yes, you guessed it – she also proved to be useless at her job. A total waste of space. Pretty soon (about the third meeting, I would say) the joy of seeing her very “likeable” form enter my office was replaced by irritation that, yet again, she “didn’t know” what had happened to our rebate, or hadn't got the figures together for last year’s business across the Group.

After a few months she disappeared, and the firm were somewhat vague about what had happened, and as my new account manager I had the pleasure of a fairly sweaty young man. However, he did at least do some of the things to move the business forward that I’d been asking Miss Likeability to do for months.

Weeks and months passed. Then the Sales Director of another firm in that sector called me up. “Peter, I’ve got a nice surprise for you. We’ve just appointed a new account manager who is going to be looking after you. She says you two are already great friends, and she’s really looking forward to working with you again...”

Yes, you’ve guessed. She was back. And my relationship with that firm went steadily downhill until she went off to marry a millionaire or something...

So if you read the Procurement Leaders piece that triggered all this and panicked, thinking, “I don’t know if I’m likeable”, I suggest you don’t worry. By all means work on your interpersonal skills, which are  increasingly important. But remember, in a business context, being  respected beats being liked every time. And as Machiavelli said, if you can manage a bit of fear as well... that might be even better.

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Voices (7)

  1. Dan:

    @ Spend Management Man

    My answer was written more in respect of the internal customers that procurement has to deal with, and was more than a little tongue-in-cheek. While the regs usually entail an enormous amount of beauracracy, inconvenience, and general c**p, i was just making the point that they do have fringe benefits by motivating the internal customers to use procurement when they would just rather carry out the purchasing themselves.

  2. Spend Management Man:

    @Dan, my point is that – contrary to your comment that public sector buying regulations are “so severe that they scare people into doing what procurement ask them to”, my experience is that they actually turn off vendors altogether. Many of the vendors I work successfully with in the commercial sector will not get involved with similar initiatives run by public sector organisations because it is not worth their time and effort. The only vendors who are scared into “behaving” tend to be those who cannot survive in the commercial sector for some reason or another. Is this really what the public sector wants? A safe, conforming and well-behaved (but crap) supply base?

  3. John Viner-Smith:

    If anyone has any doubt as to the desirability of being respected over being liked in business, consider this scenario.

    You deal with two account managers from the same supplier. One is a lovely bloke, and a dream to negotiate with to boot. You look forward to meetings because the negotiations are so easy. Anything you ask for, he gives you without hesitation. The other guy is no fun at all. Meetings are tense and he never concedes anything in negotiation without making you give something in return.

    Now imagine that their business folds and both of them send you their cvs to pass on to your sales department. Which would you recommend? To put it another way, which one do you want on your side?

  4. bitter and twisted:

    Your ‘respectability’ is partly situational but your courtesy is under your control.

    Salespersons’ and their employers’ interests are not perfectly aligned

    Salespeople change jobs

  5. Dan:

    @ Spend Management Man

    Every silver lining has a cloud…

  6. Spend Management Man:

    @Dan unfortunately for tax payers they also “scare” many of the vendors with true innovation or real value-add into not bothering to bid… the ones who have better things to do with their time, generally do better things with their time.

    @Peter. Some of my work involves coaching procurement teams and I have been shocked by the simple lack of manners many of them display towards “vendors”. My own experience was always that the effort I invested in first being polite, second being engaged and third being direct/honest/frank with my vendors, was more effective in any eventual negotiation than traditional procurement skills alone. Put yourself in the salesperson’s shoes… you’ve been treated like a doormat for months and now this guy in procurement wants to talk price. Do you fold in fear of his impolite manners and short-temper, or is it time to reap the reward for putting up with his rudeness all this time and hold firm? So in my humble opinion, procurement managers absolutely need to invest time in being likeable, courteous, professional, etc.

  7. Dan:

    Thats one of the nice things about public sector procurement. The consequences of breaching the regulations can be so severe that they scare people into doing what procurement ask them to.

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