Take off the 'procurement blinkers' to reach the top

17 September 2013

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18 September 2013 | Will Green

Buyers hoping to make it to the top table in their organisation would be well advised to spend time in another discipline, according to experts.

A Seat At The Top Table, a report from outsourcing firm Xchanging, outlined the steps purchasing professionals need to take to make it into the boardroom, including broadening their business outlook and not wearing “procurement blinkers”.

Ed Cross, executive director of procurement at Xchanging, who co-authored the report with consultant Peter Smith, said the most important skills to master were the board-level behaviour of listening, analysis and making considered points.

“What you expect to see from people at the top is a broad mind and open perspective,” he said. “You can become blinded by the procurement agenda when you need to be thinking about the business agenda.

“It’s important for procurement professionals to get experience in other functions.”

However, the first step a buyer needs to take is to find an organisation where a strong procurement function is established.

Cross said: “What we find is quite often, outside of manufacturing, the executives of the business don’t understand procurement and how it operates. They see it as an ordering activity rather than a value-adding activity.

“If you are embarking on a career in procurement but want to be a leader you have to pick the right organisation, where procurement is high on the agenda.”

Cross believes just 1 or 2 per cent of buyers make it to board level, though he cited the high-profile examples of Apple CEO Tim Cook, who was previously in charge of procurement at Compaq, and Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh. 

The report listed three key roles for board members. First, there is a functional role as someone with specialist knowledge of a particular area, then there is the role of contributing to the organisation’s strategy and direction, and finally there is a corporate governance role, which includes speaking up when something is wrong.

“So to be seen as ready for this board role, an aspiring board level executive from any background needs to demonstrate a set of broad business skills as they rise through the levels,” said the report. “That enables the individual to show what they will be able to offer, above and beyond the purely functional role and skills.

“Be proud of your function and team, but not to the detriment of others in the organisation. Don’t be seen as someone who always wears the procurement blinkers.”

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