The War For Procurement Talent – Why Not Learn From Leicester City?

Please don’t switch off if you don’t like football – we promise not to make this too obtuse or geeky. But we’ve been wondering for a while how to draw a procurement lesson, parable or learning from what is the most surprising season in English football for many years, so here goes. For those of you who don’t follow the sport, Leicester City, who exactly a year ago were bottom of the Premier League and odds-on certainties for relegation, are now 5 points ahead of every other team at the top of the league.

On Saturday, they went to play away at Manchester City, a team that cost £230 million to put together and favourites for the title. (Leicester’s team cost less than 10% of that). This would be it, most commentators said. This would be the game that found out the improbable pretenders. Well, maybe it did. But Man City looked like the pretenders, pretty awful in comparison to the Leicester “Foxes”, who made them look slow and ponderous, and Leicester were comfortable 3-1 winners.

Now Leicester may still crash and burn - with 13 games left, anything could happen (except maybe my team, Sunderland, winning the title…) But already Leicester has done enough to be the story of the season and to bring a tear to the eye of even the most hardened football fan. Hell, even some supporters of other rivals for the title are secretly hoping they win.

So what is the message? Well, it is the same one that we suspect will have scriptwriters and Hollywood producers sniffing around Leicester’s story. Because this is not even a tale of some foreign owners throwing huge amounts of money at the club to buy success. Let’s look at the stars of the team so far this season.

Riyad Mahrez is a 24-year-old French-Algerian who was playing for Le Havre in the French second division when Leicester signed him in 2014. Too frail and skinny to make it, everyone said. Leicester paid £450,000 for him, which is around 1% (yes, 1%) of what Manchester City paid for Raheem Stirling last year. Sterling was comprehensively outplayed by Mahrez on Saturday.

Jamie Vardy, top scorer in the Premiership this season, was playing in the non-league Conference less than 4 years ago after failing to make it into the big league as a teenager. Two weeks ago he scored one of the very best goals ever seen in the Premiership, and would be worth around £30 million if sold now (actually, Mahrez might be worth even more).

Robert Huth, who scored twice on Saturday, is generally considered a big, strong, not very skillful player who was let go by Stoke (not exactly in the very top echelon themselves) last year as he was not getting into their first team. He has been immense this year in every sense. Wes Morgan, his partner in defence, looked every inch a second division player for most of his career and cost Leicester just £1 million when they signed him from Nottingham Forest.

N’Golo Kante is another who played in the dizzy heights of the French second (and third) division; Danny Drinkwater didn’t make it at Manchester United -- and so it goes on. Marc Albrighton was signed from Aston Villa for nothing after he failed to get a regular place in that side (now bottom of the Premiership). Indeed, seven of the squad were signed on free transfers.

So the message is this. Talent does not always come in obvious shapes and sizes, or with a label saying “trained in a big blue chip firm”. There is a brutal war for talent in football, and whilst we shouldn’t over-dramatise it, there is a similar issue in procurement – not enough good people to go round. So the smart CPO should look at Leicester as their model. Be active in looking for the hidden talent, the unrealised potential, the thwarted individual looking for one more chance to make it big. Leicester also make serious use of analytics in their scouting system; that's a story for another day perhaps.

It’s easy to think we will just recruit people with their CIPS qualifications from Ford, or GSK, or another top firm. Easy to think that, harder to achieve it without paying a fortune. But just remember Leicester. There are diamonds in the rough – great people working for smaller firms, or maybe without a degree or a CIPS certificate, or not even working in procurement.  They might do a brilliant job for you and prove to be real gems.

Who knows, open up your eyes and your search process, and maybe you can find the next Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez!

Voices (3)

  1. Lionel j. Botch:

    An excellent article with some great points to consider.

    I believe procurement is at a bit of a crossroads. Most jobs advertised, sometimes for fairly junior posts, state that you must have a degree or equivalent (no subject specified), and be a member of CIPS (with no mention of how you became a member – bearing in mind membership is not a qualification).
    Are we doing all we can to promote procurement as a career of choice to the widest pool of talent possible, or are we vastly reducing that pool by specifying you need to pass exams. Our role needs the softer skills with the ability to influence, negotiate and build relationships for example and I’m yet to see a practical exam for this. We are at the point of almost becoming elitist, to carry on the analogy of the article, If you cost less that £20mil we won’t buy you, regardless of how good you are. In our case, if you don’t have many bits of paper telling us you can pass exams, we won’t hire you.

    So when recruiting, interview someone from left field, someone on paper who may not fit the bill, but has the guts to apply anyway. You might just find that Gem.

  2. Ian Heptinstall:

    Leicester’s great season may also give an analogous lesson in choosing important suppliers. Maybe it is more important how suppliers work together with the client’s folks and other suppliers, than their strengths when viewed in isolation. Whilst their team was relatively cheap, I bet there were other, more important selection criteria than price. And I suspect that a player not willing to fit into the team, was quickly shown the highway..

    Construction projects suffer this way. Suppliers in the main project categories are selected in isolation, with little thought about how well they will work together. Contracts put each supplier at odds with each other…. and we wonder why 75% of major investments are late and 65% overspend.

  3. bitter and twisted:

    On the other hand: Charlton. 😉

    The football analogy shows how weak the concept of ‘talent’ in business and recruitment really is.

    There is no such thing as ‘talent’ : theres just a variety of different abilities and temperaments ready to flourish or wither according to the whims of time and chance.

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