News focus: No experience necessary?

11 April 2007

12 April 2007 | Antony Barton

Purchasers are divided over whether heads of procurement need to have worked in the function to lead it effectively. Antony Barton reports

When Kenneth Clarke was health secretary in the late 1980s, doctors launched a poster campaign asking the question: What do you call a man who ignores doctors' advice? The answer: Ken Clarke. Quite an effective swipe at the minister and a perfect illustration of the problems that can affect a non-practitioner leading a profession.

And it seems many CPOs are in the same boat. According to a study from CAPS Research, one in five chief buyers lack purchasing or supply experience when they take up their positions.

But is this necessarily a bad thing? Can great leaders lead in any field or does the lack of procurement experience hinder them?

CAPS found that appointing CPOs without first-hand experience can place a "significant burden" on those senior managers who have the relevant skills "of educating and supporting the individual".

Despite this, a surprisingly high number of buyers agree previous supply experience should only be preferable, with a third of respondents to the SM 100 poll of 100 buyers taking the view that purchasing bosses do not need a procurement background.

"I don't expect Sir Alan Sugar would have directly undertaken any procurement but I bet he would make a hell of an effective head of procurement," said Gary Moore, strategic procurement manager at Bournemouth Borough Council.

For others, leaders recruited from outside not only lack the know-how of a procurement professional, they can actually have a negative impact on staff. It risks "devaluing the profession" if someone manages without the appropriate qualifications, one buyer told SM.

Andy Davies, senior audit manager for contracts at Transport for London, makes another point: "I don't recall hearing about a head of legal who isn't a lawyer, and directors of finance are qualified accountants. Why should procurement be any different?"

But the value of an outsider is the potential to bring the fresh perspective that could, for example, help purchasers to promote their value internally.

A case in point is last month's report by research group Aberdeen, which found that CPOs need to do more to convince finance directors of the value of purchasing.

"CPOs become so steeped in their own world that they often forget the financial fundamentals," the report says, adding that CFOs are often not "fluent in the language of procurement".

But rather than suggesting that leaders from outside procurement would make better purchasing bosses, perhaps this shows that procurement needs to adapt more effectively and absorb skills from other sectors.

Martin Toomey, procurement and supply chain specialist at Northwest Regional Development Agency, says procurement professionals must develop diverse skills in areas such as relationship management, market research and negotiation.

He adds: "This would improve impressions of the function and raise its profile. You could then find other organisations looking for people in procurement to lead their non-procurement divisions."

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