What Makes A Successful CPO? Three Key Factors Can Certainly Help

(I came across this article the other day, from the early days of Spend Matters UK/Europe in my files. I have slightly amended it, but it struck me that it is as relevant today as ever, so was worth featuring again).

I met the other week an individual who is one of the most respected procurement leaders in the UK.  His particular skill from my observation is in managing his very senior stakeholders, peers and those above, up to and including the head of his organisation, with whom he has a very close and successful relationship.

After a certain amount of wine had been consumed, I asked him what advice he would give to others in terms of managing top level stakeholders.  I have to say this was a question of personal interest; looking back, I don’t think I ever managed my bosses in my three head of function roles in as successful a manner as I would have liked.

He identified three key areas.  Two were not surprising, but the third was particularly interesting.

Firstly, he said, you must be seen as a business problem solver by the C-suite.  The old fashioned purchasing / procurement approach of being a blocker, of putting process in the way of people getting things done, just does not work and will not gain you the credibility you need. You need to be seen as an enabler, someone who helps the organisation get things done and make things happen.

The second point complements that - on the other hand, he said, you must not be afraid to say so when you believe something is wrong, or cannot be done; you must have courage.  (This may be particularly important in a public sector context, but applies everywhere).  BUT... he said, you better be proved right!  It’s the crying wolf thing.  In a public sector organisation for instance, it is fine to tell the top team that something is simply illegal and breaks the procurement regulations.  But if they get a second opinion from a top-tier lawyer, who says you’re wrong, you’re in trouble. Marshall your arguments if you are going to go against the organisational grain.

Finally, and this is what got me thinking, he stressed the balance between hands-on and hands-off work as a CPO.  His normal style is very hands off, he delegates strongly and extensively, and is not someone who works 50 or 60 hour weeks.  But, he said, if the Chief Executive is interested in particular  procurement projects or contracts, you as the CPO better keep very close to those activities.

You can't know every detail about everything, but for certain issues the CEO will expect you to have your finger on the pulse, to be able to answer questions confidently and quickly; not to have to say “I’ll need to talk to my category manager about that” or “give me a week to get the numbers together”.

So in such cases, he stays very close to the front line, and the detail, so is seen by the C-suite to be taking a personal interest and involvement in the issues that matter to them. That relates back to the first point actually; being seen to be useful on the issues that matter to the organisation and the top team.

And I would add one further point; he has been in this role for about 6 years.  You don’t build trust, competency and credibility overnight. Of course, you can make an impact in the first 100 days, but it takes years to build real reputation and deliver significant results.

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