Is Procurement Trying Too Hard? by Kelly Barner

Posted on August 22, 2012


One of the interesting stories to come out of the 2012 London Olympics is that some of the badminton teams were disqualified for trying to LOSE matches. That’s not exactly what you expect from the most competitive athletes in the world in any sport. They weren’t trying to lose because they wanted to go home, they were trying to throw matches as part of a deliberate long-term strategy to win the gold medal. By losing early in the process, they could manipulate the seeding process and would play against less competitive teams as they progressed towards the final round.

Clearly the strategy didn’t work out for them – there is no medal for going home early – but there may still be a positive lesson to be learned. Sometimes, the best path to your desired end is not to try to win each round, but to fix your eye on the prize, and to make sure that each short-term step you take is calculated to move you in the right direction. In fact, many people have come to the defense of the disqualified players, saying that they didn’t cheat as much as they took advantage of the rules that had been put in place.

In a recent Sourcing Interests Group webinar, former executive Lamar Chesney (SunTrust Bank, Delta Airlines, Marsh McLennan, Coca-Cola) was talking about advancing the partnership between procurement and finance.  During his four-decade career, he held leadership positions in both groups, which allows him to reflect on the ways he handled each role and note any differences for those of us more likely just to be in one function or the other.

One of the major differences between the two groups is their seating arrangement at the executive table. The CFO has an automatic reservation – with a good view, I might add. In many organizations, procurement has to fight for a seat, or an invitation, or standing room. “You need us,” we say. “We can make your strategy more effective and efficient. We can contribute to the organization’s plans in a measurable way.” And all of those statements are true, but are they enough to justify a seat?

According to Chesney, the justification approach to getting a seat may be what’s holding us back. He noted that when he was a CFO, he never spent his time at the table sharing how he would support or finance the business strategy. Instead, he was an active player in developing the strategy. Finance’s participation in building a corporate strategy is as natural as the CEO’s. When procurement justifies their presence at the table by trying to prove their ability to support a strategy, we solidify our role as ‘outsiders’ and may even make ourselves appear as a transactional support function.

Thinking back to the ousted badminton competitors, I’m not suggesting that procurement deliberately hit one into the net. What we need is a goal (a seat at the table in this case) and a plan to get there. Looking for the fastest way to prove we deserve a seat may appear cumbersome to everyone already sitting and get us sent home. What we need is a little more nuance, more finesse, and more purpose to our approach.

Rather than looking to present to the table, we want to sit side by side with them and work on what they are working on as an equal participant. Procurement’s voice should be woven in just like the other contributors to the strategy, assured and comfortable. We would be better off gaining entrance to the conversation as observers, and then making contributions – small ones to begin with – to create the realization that we are a necessary component for the best overall strategy.

Editor’s Note: Remember to tune in to the PI Window on Business every Monday at 12:00 noon EST as Kelly Barner brings you the Buyers Meeting Point Weekly Update from the world of purchasing on the Blog Talk Radio Network.


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