Why CPO is a career platform and not a career peak

posted by Katie Jacobs
12 December 2022

Procurement and supply chain practitioners develop a diverse toolbox of technical and strategic skills, a great number of which are transferable and highly valued by many industries.

Here, senior leaders discuss why CPO experience is more than the pinnacle of the profession – it’s a key to open more doors.

Simon Leigh has spent more than 20 years of his career working in procurement. He held leadership roles across aerospace, telecoms, retail and construction before landing the role of group procurement and supply chain director at hospitality multinational Whitbread in 2019. By this point in his procurement career he had covered all bases.

Then in 2021, Leigh was presented with the opportunity to become a managing director, running Premier Inn Hotels in the Middle East – a joint venture between Emirates Group and Whitbread, with 11 hotels across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – and he jumped at the chance. “I had to take that opportunity to learn, run my own P&L [profit and loss statement] and have responsibility across all operations and functions,” he says.

Leigh’s résumé is a perfect example of how the skills gained through a career in procurement can be used to open more doors, and of ever-increasing options available for ambitious and curious professionals. “There will never be a shortage of exciting roles in procurement, but if your aspiration is to do something different, there are opportunities to grow,” he says.

One of procurement’s strengths is providing the chance to leverage and gain transferable skills, says Georgia Brandi, another sourcing professional who has moved across functions. Brandi is currently working in governance as secretariat counsel at Newcrest Mining in Australia, and is a proponent for gaining foundational skills in the function. “[Procurement professionals gain] exposure to operational activities and business practices across the entire organisation,” she says. “Their day can go from analysing data for one project to writing a board recommendation for another.”

Julia Brown is a former CPO at cruise operator Carnival Corporation, who has carved out a non-executive director career, sitting on the boards of companies including beverage maker Molson Coors. She agrees this breadth of operational experience is key to success outside the function.

“In procurement we typically have a broad, holistic view of the organisation as everything outside employee salaries and taxes is a buy,” she says. “I have always thought of the procurement role as being the CEO of the spend. We tend to have a view across and into our companies that few leaders have, and understand the levers that will make the difference in the P&L and balance sheet.”

Define your brand and sell it

The interface role procurement plays between the internal and external is another major selling point when looking to access broader roles. “Procurement touches every function that I am now responsible for,” says Leigh. “It is the glue between the functions, how we deliver goods and services, and the external market.”

This diverse nature of procurement means professionals are used to adapting and learning fast, which comes in handy when moving on, adds Brandi. “Every procurement project I have been involved in has been a new subject matter,” she says. “It stretched me to shift from novice to subject matter enthusiast in a short period of time. Being comfortable feeling like a beginner, no matter how experienced I was, prepared me to enjoy the challenge of new roles.”

If considering a role outside of the function, the primary consideration should be on how you will sell yourself. “It’s less about being a procurement professional and more about being a business professional. Be clear how your skills transfer and how you can draw on your experience,” Leigh says. “Have that narrative ready,” he adds, citing leading teams and stakeholder management as essential skills to focus on.

For those interested in pursuing a non-executive directorship (NED) path, Brown advises being clear on your brand and what you will bring to a board. “Board composition is like an orchestra where everyone brings unique skills and expertise that complement each other,” she says. “We are typically chosen for our sourcing expertise but are expected to be fully rounded business leaders.” If you are taking on a NED position in addition to your day job, having the backing of your current CEO is critical as it is a significant responsibility.

Both Leigh and Brandi have been fortunate enough to work for organisations that invest in developing talented individuals, to retain skilled people even if they grow beyond the needs of their roles. For instance, Leigh acknowledges he might not have been the first choice for an MD through an external recruitment process, but his deep knowledge, skills and capability were apparent within the organisation. So he asks, “How can we unlock opportunities beyond the pinnacle of people’s career being CPO?”

Transferable skills for advanced leaders

It’s a question also pondered by Fabrice Lebecq, a partner at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, who believes part of the answer is having the ability to move between roles and functions early on in an individual’s career. In Lebecq’s experience, long-tenured CPOs can find it virtually impossible to move out of the function, particularly in the private sector.

In the UK public sector, however, there are more examples of procurement leaders broadening their remit. Melinda Johnson, commercial director at the Department for Health and Social Care, is responsible for several companies (owned by the DHSC) providing services to the NHS.

“Many commercial directors in government have a broader role, including data, systems, capability, policy, customer engagement, and so on,” she says. Johnson first took on a position outside of procurement a decade ago, as director of property, and has also led IT encompassing digital, security and information teams. “They all involve money, markets, risk, the management of resources and the leadership of people,” she says. “The skills you develop in procurement can be valuable in leading functions beyond your professional home.” 

As with many former procurement leaders, Leigh is positive about the future opportunities for ambitious procurement professionals and advanced leaders to add value outside the function. His time away from the function has not diminished his commitment to procurement, rather it has reinforced its value and made him even more of an ambassador for the profession: “I realise now the benefits and skills procurement and supply chain [experience] can bring you.”

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