Sam Walsh – Five Things We Learnt At The CIPS Dinner

Sam Walsh had a difficult job as he kicked off the CIPS Annual Dinner last week. As the CIPS President, this was his first high-profile engagement for the Institute after his own well publicised troubles. (He did not mention that situation, not surprisingly, but maybe there was less about corporate social responsibility than we might have had a year ago in a similar situation).

But more significantly, he had to talk about the recent very sad and unexpected death of the Institute’s CEO, David Noble. He did that very well, with an appropriate tribute to Noble, and finished with a one-minute ovation – much better than a one minute silence.  “We should use tonight to celebrate his legacy – this one is for David”.

In between, Walsh spoke well, if perhaps at slightly greater length than we had expected (25 minutes before dinner does test the hunger reflex) and gave some pretty deep content for diners to consider over the next couple of hours. So what did we learn from Walsh? Here are five points that stuck in the mind, for us anyway.

  1. Walsh has a real affinity with procurement – he started as a trainee buyer with GM over 40 years ago, and clearly ”gets it”, values procurement and will be an excellent ambassador for the profession with the senior management community (if he can dedicate the time to CIPS – see later comments).
  1. CIPS global intentions are becoming clearer, with “opportunities to expand into the USA and Canada”.  the message is that many companies are operating globally, and they are asking for help from CIPS. There is also a need for recognised professional procurement standards in a globalised world.
  1. Walsh wants procurement to improve how we get the message across to CEOs – Jim Hemmington got a mention (see yesterday’s article) for the way he links procurement to programme making. Too many procurement people “focus on busy work, cost savings, how many supplier visits they’ve made” rather than on their value to the organisation as a whole. “If you don’t understand how what you are buying contributes to the business you can’t get under the skin of the organisation”. Another good quote – “understand what game-changing value you can bring to the organisation”.
  1. BUT…even when CEOs get procurement, savings still matter! It was quite amusing really – Walsh said exactly the right things about value, then immediately the first thing he said about procurement at Rio Tinto was that it saved $2 billion! Now, that is not a criticism; in that industry, at that time, value and strategic contribution from procurement was all about savings, we suspect. But a salutary lesson that we must not forget savings even as we pursue those wider strategic aims and goals.
  1. He believes in the “self-regulated licensing of the profession”. Now he didn’t define exactly what “self-regulation” might mean, and his brief comments on that topic were not particularly persuasive, we thought – but along with some significant and useful comments he made about procurement careers and roles, this probably justifies a separate article, coming shortly.

This was his first major CIPS engagement, and on the basis of a quick informal chat we managed with him over coffee, we don’t get the impression he is going to be getting round many UK branch meetings (unlike our previous Australian President, Craig Lardner). None of that "10 members on a wet Wednesday in Wigan or Watford" circuit that Presidents have done in the past. But he will be speaking at CIPS events in Australia and Singapore, and there are plans for events with business leaders. So maybe he will have a great impact at top level, and he is retired now so perhaps he will have more time for CIPS than some busy current CPOs would.

Despite Walsh’s qualities, the jury is still out (in my mind anyway) in terms of having someone as President who is both based in Australia and is a much in demand, portfolio, ex-CEO. But there were plenty of positives last week, and although we disagree with him on the licensing issue (as regular readers know well), you can absolutely see why and how Walsh ended up running one of the largest firms in the world – a very impressive man.

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