Specialist or Generalist? What’s the best Procurement career route?

Jason Busch at Spend Matters US wrote the other day about a procurement career and reward issue that struck a chord with some of my recent observations.

He commented on the growth in importance - and in reward - for true procurement subject matter experts. (In the US, they tend to abbreviate that to SMEs, which is confusing in the UK as we use that for small and medium-sized enterprises. So we'll use "experts" as our shorthand here.).

Jason's hypothesis is that as key markets, whether commodity based, direct materials or indirect such as IT or marketing, get more global and complex, people who really understand how to get the best value for their organisations in those areas become more valuable, particularly for larger organisations. Whereas historically, he says, procurement people who moved around jobs and employers as generalists probably stood more chance of making it to CPO and the highest reward levels, the experts were challenging, particularly in terms of more comparable reward.

Two observations from me. Firstly, being a CPO these days is a tough job. Turnover is higher than ever, I suspect, as organisations place often unrealistic demands on the role and the individual. Then there is the pressure of travel in many organisations - my friend who was CPO of a large global food firm had weeks when he would cover Latin America, have a day in the  London office, then off to the Far East at the weekend. OK perhaps if you're 25 and fancy-free, but for a 40 year old with a family...?

And on the other side of the argument, I know some "experts" who have done very well indeed, building a great reputation that brings them good rewards too. Often they will work as contractors, but spending perhaps one to two years with a client to get a category sorted out or resolve a particular problem. The contractor route means they build their experience and credibility with different organisations but within their own expert field; and it also enables them to be paid well. Day rates of £600 - £1000 when you're working solidly mean that our expert may well be making as much as the CPO they report to, or even more!

I know individuals who have successfully trodden this path as category experts in IT, professional services, and telecoms outsourcing. I'm sure there are others across different spend areas.

It doesn't appeal to everyone of course. Some enjoy the CPO challenge of managing a large team of disparate procurement people, and the sheer range of issues you get involved with. But, as Jason says - and do read his piece here - it may be that the day of the subject matter expert has come.

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  1. Alison Smith:

    I think it’s about knowing what skills each bring and knowing when each are required.

    If I continue to use the analogy of doctors as I have in my blog today…

    I recently visited an orthopaedic surgeon to get a considered and professional opinion on my knee (osteoarthtris) but the solutions he offered were very much limited to his area of expertise – knee replacement or realignment – he’s a surgeon after all.

    He offered nothing by way of an alternative. More generalist doctors or practitioners, I’d hope anyway, would have offered a much wider range of options – diet, exercise, weight loss, food exclusions, gait analysis and so on.

    The specialist was certainly able to best diagnose the problem – the solution (which currently looks like excluding wheat) was not even on his radar screen.

    (Editor’s note – here’s Alison’s blog!

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