How to get to the top in procurement: Your career roadmap

12 October 2018

Want to reach the top in procurement? According to the 80 CPOs we asked, you’ll need the following experiences under your belt…

There’s no magic wand you can wave to get where you want to in your career (unfortunately), but as our survey of CPOs demonstrates, there are steps you can take to help you progress.

One trait these successful leaders share is a focus on lifelong learning: 83% of them have done further study as part of their development. For the majority, that involves CIPS qualifications, and a third have got an MBA under their belts, showing a commitment to lifelong learning and leadership development.

Procurement means operating in a global marketplace, and these leaders have an impressively rounded worldview, with 80% having lived and worked in overseas markets. Many of the CPOs told SM that getting this experience has been critical, showing them how to operate in different cultures and teaching them how to sensitively and effectively lead global teams. So if you haven’t already, dig out your passport and start hustling for that overseas assignment.

Variety and breadth of experience links these CPOs, 79% of whom have worked outside the procurement and supply function, many in leadership roles. Operations and general management are the most popular destinations, but a third have also worked in sales, the flipside of procurement. 

This time in the business is particularly valuable for teaching you to “look at procurement through the eyes of an internal stakeholder”, says one respondent. “It has helped me to put procurement in perspective,” says another. “It is important, vital even, to organisations, but it is not their primary reason for existing. I have a better sense now of the strategic direction of the organisation.”

To get this experience, put yourself forward for secondments or special projects in the business. With 21% of our respondents sticking to procurement for their whole career, getting experience elsewhere isn’t non-negotiable, but it should serve to make your procurement approach more rounded. In fact one FTSE 100 CPO told SM they regretted not getting experience outside procurement.

“Take every opportunity you can to do more than your day job,” says another FTSE 100 CPO. “If you want to progress you have to go above and beyond your area of responsibility and contribute more widely to corporate goals.”

Moving can help progression, with the majority working for four or more organisations. A third have worked for between one and three however; knowing a company inside-out can help when it comes to getting things done. 

Leadership is the key skill these CPOs feel has helped them progress, and the ability to lead and influence is what they are struggling to find in new hires. Change management, influencing skills and internal stakeholder management and collaboration have also been key, while traditional procurement skills are ranked much lower. These won’t help you stand out, as the list of skills CPOs are struggling to hire shows. You can demonstrate leadership wherever you are in the organisation, so focus on developing those executive competencies and commercial acumen.

One CPO suggests leadership skills are “more effectively learnt in a function where you do not have technical expertise”, reflecting “I learnt which questions to ask, not necessarily the answers” in their time outside procurement. 

Career success isn’t something that just happens; it requires hard work and planning – even if you, as 45% of those surveyed did – “fell into procurement”. Turn the page to hear from six procurement leaders on their diverse routes to the top of their game.

To do list

  1. Learn to lead
  2. Gain experience outside procurement and supply - in operations, general management or sales
  3. Complete further study: CIPS qualifications or an MBA
  4. Get international experience, including living overseas

Case studies

Vivienne Bracken
CPO, National Grid

Andrew Cannon-Brookes
Global head of supply chain management, Standard Chartered Bank

Adrian Cook FCIPS
Director of fresh foods, Sainsbury’s

Amanda Davies
Global VP procurement directs, Mars Wrigley

Melinda Johnson FCIPS
Commercial director, Department of Health and Social Care

Nick Welby
Global business services director, Imperial Brands

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