The Tao of Procurement: 7 Steps Along the Way

Jack Miles
Jack Miles

Jack is an advisor known for his experience developing and executing business strategies and his ability to deliver operational excellence in functions which typically under perform in most companies. He has lead procurement teams in both the public and private sector and is a member of Coupa's Visionary Council.

Read time: 11 mins
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7-steps-along-the-wayGet some incense burning and put on some meditative music. To start 2016 off on the right note, I’m going to talk about the Tao of Procurement.

What is Tao? It literally means the path, or the way. In religion, it is a universal principle that underlies everything. In procurement, that principle is service. This is the path to procurement success, drawn from lessons learned during a long career in public and private procurement:

1. Give Credit, But Never Take It

Always give credit, but never rush to take it. It's better for other people to comment or compliment or even criticize your work than for you to wave a banner proclaiming your success.

When you talk about your accomplishments yourself, those are only your perception of events versus those of the people that you actually did the work for. That gets in the way of learning about what the people you serve value most.

Welcome praise, but do not be seduced by it. Praise is only one part of feedback. It is an opportunity to ask, "What is it that we could have done better?" It's always good to ask that question. It’s just easier when you know someone already thinks positively about what you did.

2. Focus on Doing the Right Thing and the Right Results Will Come

CEOs and company leadership expect procurement to act in compliance with policies, regulations and the company’s values, and to be judicious in spending the company's money.

What a procurement organization has the opportunity to do is to broaden that across the entire organization. They can drive continuity of policies and behaviors and suppliers in a way that a single business unit cannot. This focus on right behavior will drive savings, but the opposite is not necessarily true. A focus on savings will not always drive the right behavior.

3. Think Globally, Act Locally

Procurement has a responsibility to know what's going on in all of the various business units, and the responsibility to be a trusted partner to everyone within the organization.

But they must also recognize that their impact extends beyond the company’s four walls. The way that negotiations are handled and suppliers are on-boarded are all part of the brand experience.

I had an experience recently doing some work with a large company with a well-regarded brand name. Their need was urgent and I responded appropriately. When I submitted my invoice for out-of-pocket expenses, they said, "Okay, we have to start the onboarding process now." It took about a month and half to get me set up as a supplier so I could get reimbursed.

That's something procurement should have seen to upfront. They share the responsibility to make sure that everyone who does business with your company has a positive experience.

4. Answer All Who Ask

Procurement people often speak of getting a seat at the table. How are they to accomplish that without touting their achievements? Simply being responsive is a good start. I always had a lot of people that would reach out to me with questions. Sometimes they seemed totally off the wall but you don't decide for somebody else what's important. If they are asking you, it’s important.

Don't just treat it as one more item in a long list that you will get to you when you can. If you respond positively and you're accountable and you follow up, you will become their go-to person.

Respond this way even to the people that are, quite frankly, a pain, because that's sometimes how you win them over. It's human nature that when somebody that you are not a big fan of speaks, you listen with one ear. It’s the Tao of Procurement to listen attentively and treat their inquiry with the utmost respect. You may discover a golden opportunity hidden in a bizarre request.

5. Seek First to Understand

In working with recruiters to find candidates, I frequently had to explain why I would rather hire someone from a services background than a manufacturing background.

Why? Sometimes people approach the procurement department with a very well defined set of specifications. You can hand that to manufacturing and they’ll respond very well and go build exactly that.

More often though, they say they think they maybe want something that looks like this, but it could also look like that, or maybe it even looks like something else. They don't know what they want. They just know they want a solution.

You have to be able to go through a process to understand what it is they really need, and go with them through the discovery process until they can spell it out clearly.

I used to work with a guy who came to procurement from manufacturing, and he came to be known as “the requirements guy” because whenever someone would approach him with a problem, he would look at them and say, "What are your requirements?" He had some challenges with working in the abstract. Don’t be the requirements guy.

6. Prepare and Share

Procurement can be a reactive organization, and I always used to hear this excuse: “People don’t come to us.” If you are going to wait for people to come to you, you will have a long wait and miss out on a lot of opportunity. The way of procurement is to always be preparing.

Responding and following up is preparing, because it causes you to do research and learn about markets and trends and suppliers. You discover information and concepts and ideas you can bring to people’s attention.

Connecting people is preparing. When people have something to solve, they usually noodle it through in their minds alone. But if you're open to options and alternatives, and you don’t care who gets the credit, when you put a couple of minds together, you usually get some pretty good output.

7. Add Value to Others

If you are looking for a role where somebody is going to be patting you on the back all the time and telling you what a great job you did, don't pick procurement because your results are not your own. When you add value in procurement, you are adding value to other people and other departments and other functions. You may help a business unit advance a project or bring a product to market better, but that achievement will be theirs to claim on their quarterly review.

You must derive satisfaction from seeing others succeed. When you listen to the chairman at an annual meeting talk about some new project that was accomplished, take your satisfaction in knowing that you and your team helped, and it could not have been done without you. Because it  is true.