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The ABC Strategies for Procurement Transformation

Change is certain in every aspect of life. A major change or transformation may present some complexities particularly when resources are scarce. In my 27-year government career, I had a chance to test a few strategies. There are some strategies that worked for me whenever I went to a new agency to lead a procurement transformation.  These became my “go to” strategies to initiate the process and show progress in critical areas.  The success of their implementation helped me gain the support for resources needed down the road and accelerate the momentum in the transformation process.  

Interestingly most if not all of the transformations that I led shared a similar vision:  to become a trusted partner in the entity.  That vision was certainly a very lofty one given the starting point of each transformation initiative.  In most cases procurement was considered a roadblock to the operation and/or had the worst customer service record.  My task was to substantially improve the role and performance of the procurement team within the entity.  Common objectives included enhancing the quality of the interaction with end users, which generally related to concerns about speed, quality, customer service, and the ever-changing process.   The success would be measured in each case by significantly reducing end user procurement-related complaints that were brought up to high level executives.  

At the other end of the spectrum, procurement personnel attributed the process delays to understaffing.  There were reasons to believe that.  Almost every organization had experienced the loss of personnel due to massive layoffs, retirements, high personnel turnover, or the lingering effects of budget cuts several years before.  It’s not easy to recover from the loss of positions.  This is particularly true when the organization attempts to continue operating in the same way as it did before the budgetary reductions.   Reductions in personnel will inevitably exaggerate the much talked about length of the procurement process. 

To make significant progress quickly, I tried to focus on the root cause(s).  Over time, I developed my ABC strategies.  These helped me follow a path that would positively impact the most pressing issues and score some wins in the transformation process.  When higher executives task a new hire with transforming a department, they don’t generally trust that it is possible with the current staff. No transformation happens overnight; therefore, dealing with root causes of the most pressing issues is essential.   The goal of the ABC change strategies was to do just that. 

A first step in the assessment of the situation was to determine where was the brain power being allocated.  Data, when available, is very helpful to support findings and measure the extent of inefficiencies.  But I found that some of these issues were obvious to an outsider because as someone said: “it’s hard to see the picture when you are in the frame”.  It didn’t surprise me when data showed that 80%  or more of the effort was being directed to activities that did not add value to the process.  This meant that only 20% or less of the effort was being directed to advance the more complex solicitations. In other words, personnel were busy taking care of repetitive, low value add work, while the large and/or complex projects waited for procurement expertise and attention.  Even when the group appeared busy all the time or productive, the apparent productivity was not producing the desired return for the entity.  

To complicate the matter, some of these organizations reacted to the symptoms of the problem by replicating procurement infrastructures at the end user level.   In my opinion, the strategy created additional budget demands overall and greater inefficiencies because personnel in these end user procurement groups were rarely offered formal procurement training.  It also exacerbated the problem because it disproportionately increased the number of people demanding time and attention from an already understaffed central procurement team.  

The A is for Automation. One of the first strategies that I looked at was to automate repetitive tasks and shift the brain power to procurements.  I considered short term and long term strategies in the area of technology.  The success of a short term strategy would help accelerate momentum in the transformation process and gain support for long term strategy later on.  Good will accumulated early in the process comes in handy when you are seeking funding support for long term comprehensive technology.  The objective was first to maximize any existing technology to reduce manual work and repetitive tasks.  In each instance, I was able to garner support for a lower dollar plug-and-play strategy to make significant impact particularly in the areas of speed and/or quality.  The short term strategy varied from agency to agency as it depended on what was already available.  There is a short window to obtain resources in a transformation process and time is of the essence for requesting needed resources.  Any investment is looked at more favorably when it is presented as an opportunity “enhance the buying experience of the end user”.

The B is for Believe in the capabilities of the team.  When an organization is set up to execute tasks, it will take some time before personnel feel empowered to think critically. It is a major shift.  Routine is disrupted and people have to unlearn and relearn their jobs. During this transition, it’s not uncommon for people to feel alone.  There is no  comfort in knowing that others are going through the same process.    Self-doubt and the feeling of inadequacy kicks in. The leader must believe in the people and encourage them through the growth period.    Offering training, personal development, coaching, and mentoring are essential.  The leader cannot be indifferent to the struggle of each person in the team.  Some are going to struggle more than others of course.  But once the first person breaks through some of the barriers that kept him or her performing at the task executor level, others will also be encouraged.  The key is to help people believe in themselves by believing in them.  In the end, critical thinking will help in the quality of the interaction with end users. Trust will start to develop one project at a time.  The increase in trust will give room for a more collaborative relationship with the end user and this collaboration will enable better customer service. This collaborative approach along with the training will also help improve the quality of solicitations, which will enable higher quality responses from suppliers.  There is a high return on training and empowering the right personnel.

The C is for Consistency.  This third strategy may seem simple and it should be.  A strategy for consistency is necessary up front, at least in all the transformations that I lead.  Part of the reason why there was distrust in the process was because end users received a different answer depending on who they asked.  The root cause of the inconsistency varied, but in all cases the variety in approaches had been considered acceptable and became the practice.  This was a consequence of people working like “islands” instead of a team.  Achieving consistency required a sequence of internal communication,  the progressive standardization of processes, and implementation of best practices learned through professional training.  The adoption of best practices was an opportunity to get everyone one the same page and working as a team.  As end users started receiving consistent guidance, their trust in the process increased.  Gaining that trust was important because it also helped gain support for other changes later in the transformation process.

To conclude, there are three issues that I focused on early in the transformation process: speed, quality, and consistency.  Using my ABC approach helped me focus in areas that made significant impact early in the transformation process and enable the support of other strategies by accelerating momentum in the process. Reaching that point of momentum is important because buy in becomes easier and people tend to be more forgiving when a strategy doesn’t go as planned.

Perspectives on Ethics

Ethics is very important in every field, particularly in procurement. I want to first acknowledge the high ethical standards that my colleagues live by in the performance of their duties as public procurement officials. Many states and municipal level governments have adopted their own ethics laws. These laws generally prescribe principles that all public officials must abide by.  

Ethics has been talked about since ancient times. In Ancient Greece, Socrates was and still is considered the Father of Ethics. The ancient Greek term for ethics is êthos, which refers to character. Socrates’ teachings focused mostly on good and bad character traits; on virtues and vices. Plato also spoke about ethics from a virtue-based perspective. He argued that happiness and well-being are the highest goals of moral thought and conduct. Well-being is the result of a virtue-based pursuit of higher knowledge and fulfilling man’s social obligation to the common good.

Ethics shows up in your decision-making.  Twenty-five-hundred years after the eloquent work of the great thinkers, Larry Chonko, PhD, Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Texas, Arlington, defines four categories of ethical theory associated with decision making. Not everyone has the same ethics filters when making decisions.  

  • Deontology: People should adhere to their obligations and duties when making decisions.  
  • Utilitarianism: It is based on one’s ability to predict the consequences of an action. 
  • Rights: The highest priority is to protect the rights established by society or community.
  • Virtues: Focuses on a person’s character rather than any action that may deviate from normal behavior.

Three of these categories deal with the external aspect of ethics and what it looks like to be ethical. One of them focuses on the person and his/her core values.  Our interpretation of ethics is important because there are two different perspectives: policies and people. 

The first perspective deals with acceptable behavior based on external parameters, whether law or policy. These laws or policies help define how an action would be interpreted by others and what the potential consequences might be. Organizations have institutionalized ethics to establish principles that govern the behavior expected of its members.  This is often referred to as the code of ethics. In some jurisdictions, ethics is handled by the attorneys. I have nothing against that, someone needs to oversee that function. The point that I want to make is that ethics is not just about what’s legal or not. It is about what’s right and what’s wrong, which the law attempts to codify from the perspective of legality. 

A second perspective deals with a person’s character and the values that they live by. Integrity plays a big role in the result of an established ethics code.  Integrity is the person’s moral compass that guide their every action. It guides them in their decisions between what’s right and what’s wrong, even when no one is watching. Without minimizing the value of a code of ethics as guidance based on principles of good conduct and the behavior expected from each individual, people ultimately dictate the level of effectiveness of such ethics policies and laws.

A solid character makes trust possible. Character communicates consistency, potential, and respect. This is true for everyone, especially leaders.  It is hard, if not impossible, to trust a leader who does not consistently show inner strength. A person who is talented but has a weak character is like a time bomb that can cause significant damage. Having talent is not enough because people with weak character are not trustworthy. A person who does not have a strong inner compass cannot earn the respect of others. To achieve ethical behavior in an organization, personal inner values must align with ethics principles.  

In some instances, fraud, abuse, misconduct and overall unethical behavior still occur despite the ethics codes adopted by the organization. We have seen cases come up in the business world, government, media, entertainment, and even in the religious area. Most of the organizations where high profile scandals occurred had a code of ethics of some sort. Yet, those policies did not stop the wrongdoing that cost many their careers, reputation, and even freedom. Sure, anyone can make a mistake.  But these cases are not the result of a one-time mistake. They were the result of a series of  repeated actions… the wrong actions. The State of  Illinois took on an ethics reform initiative after corruption at the highest level planted doubt and distrust in government in general. Like Illinois, there have been other states and municipalities that have fallen victim of a scandal and tightened their ethics rules as a result.

These were actions by individuals who perhaps lost their way at some point in time and were overcome with the dark thoughts that they held deep inside.  What may lead a person to lose their way? Perhaps it is greed, the desire to get ahead at all cost, the thought that they will not get caught, or simply a weak moral compass. One can only speculate what the reasons might be.  I’m not here to judge their actions. I am sure there is more to the story than what’s been shared in each case. Why did they consider deceit as the best choice? Did they think they were choosing between right or wrong or did it not cross their mind? How did they justify the actions in their conscience? Were they not aware that the choice could harm others? These are questions that linger in my mind.  In each case, the fraudulent and deceitful actions were kept from public knowledge. I think that the reason why these actions were hidden is because those involved knew they were wrong. Perhaps their motives were stronger than their values, or maybe it is simply a character weakness.

Every profession has a code of ethics. As we have likely all observed first-hand or read about cases of unethical behavior, we know that a code of ethics may not prevent an individual from wrongdoing. But a formalized code provides guidance and a reminder of the type of behavior expected.

Ultimately, ethics is a personal matter. A person’s moral compass must point in the right direction for ethics policies to be truly effective. Having integrity, character, and being trustworthy is about the small things. Trust has a compounding effect. If a person can’t be trusted with small things, they definitely can’t be trusted with bigger things. A strong foundation can withstand the challenges of temptation. A reason why some people may struggle with issues of integrity is because they look outside themselves to explain character deficiencies. Integrity commits to character over personal gain. A person of high integrity will adhere to moral and ethical principles whether written or implicit.  

Most people want to do the right thing or at least, I choose to believe that. They want to live in peace and harmony with others. Then, what is the solution to minimize ethics breaches?  I don’t think that anyone has found the solution yet, but the reactionary approach is to enact more laws and implement tighter policies. These are all external solutions.  I don’t think that the problem is that people chose to conduct themselves unethical due to the lack of policies and laws.  No, I think it is a values issue. As such, it is an inside job.  

It starts with all of us and the behavior that we model for our children, particularly in their formative years. Perhaps we don’t think much of small infractions like cutting a line, forgetting to pay for an item and not rectifying the situation, watching a second movie while at the movie theater without paying for the second one, or telling the little white lies to get by or avoid an undesired task. It is about the little things. If the little things compound to build trust, they can also compound to build distrust. I believe that we should raise our awareness and take inventory of these small infractions. Even though these small infractions from a consequential perspective did not significantly harm anyone, we need to be intentional about taking action to keep these little wrongs from potentially having a negative effect in society.  I think that we are all responsible. Do I think there will no longer be a breach? No, I think that there will always be someone whose unchecked ambition will drive him/her to deceive others.  But any effort that we make will move our community in the direction for a better future and a make this a better place for future generations.

To conclude, people have different filters when it comes to ethics. There is an external perspective that focuses on the actions that we see and judge; and there is the internal factor that relates to our core values. Both perspectives are valid, and they complement each other. I don’t believe that you can have an effective ethics policy without people’s good moral compass. Ideally, external, prescribed behaviors and internal, personal values align to create a self-perpetuating ethical culture. Individual decisions and actions that consistently reflect institutionalized norms and personal value are the basis of integrity. Integrity fosters trust. And trust is the foundation of our relationships, society and government. 

I think a better way to look at ethics is by simply following the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Ethics is really about the golden rule!

Purposeful and Transparent Supplier Communication

Procurement officials should develop good supplier relations in order to maximize the benefits to the organization. This is sometimes challenging due to agency practices associated with restrictions on external parties’ communications. The restrictions generally stem from cases where abuse and undue influence have plagued the procurement environment with bad press and public distrust. The result is a high level of caution almost to the detriment of the entity. In some cases, the reaction to experiences colored by improprieties either apparent or real are memorialized through the implementation of laws, rules or policies or the highly conservative interpretation of such laws, hindering the communication with suppliers. 

Procurement officers with a good moral compass understand how to navigate communications in a way that professionalism and high ethical standards are upheld. Likewise, suppliers who are seeking a long-term relationship understand that crossing the line could cost them much more than their business. I agree that ethical behavior should remain front and center when it comes to procurement-related conversations. I also believe that effective communication is the key to success in every facet of our lives, including business.  Unfortunately, in extreme cases the topics of ethics and conversation with suppliers appear as polar opposite and used as an excuse to avoid vendor meetings. This is not a strategic approach.  Instead, it is a missed opportunity.  

Regardless of the industry, effective communication is the key to developing successful business relationships. This is true whether prior to or after entering into a contract. Sharing unrestricted information is beneficial to both parties. 

Given the constant complaint of resource insufficiency, procurement professionals need to be more strategic about how they invest their time. Talking with suppliers is a form of primary market research. Leveraging the supplier’s market intelligence, for example, can help the procurement professional be more strategic.   

Procurement professionals’ expertise is in process and, with some exceptions, not in the intricacies of product or service details. Rapid changes in technology, goods and services make it challenging for procurement professionals to stay up to date on the benefits and features of new products. This is particularly the case when procurement professionals claim to be a “jack of all trades” in environments where resources are scarce. Absence of adequate resources may cause procurement professionals to try to juggle too many requests without the necessary tools, leaving very little time, if any, to conduct research to learn about any changes in the market.

The expectation of many procurement professionals is that the end user should provide clear and concise scope of services or detailed specifications. The rationale is that the end user is responsible for providing well-written specifications or at least know the essential requirements that need to be included in the solicitation. It might seem logical to assume that the end user is up to speed on current trends within their area of responsibility. Sadly, that’s not always the case. 

In my experience, receiving high quality specs is rare. Yet, we should be more empathetic. Technically, end users are subject to the same time and resource constraints that limit opportunities to learn about market changes and conditions as procurement professionals. Also, like procurement staff, end user personnel might also be required to restrict their communication with external parties.

Although the expectation is to put the knowledge burden on the end user, many procurement professionals dislike the thought of end users going directly to suppliers to obtain information. And when the end user has done so, the suspicion of  unfair advantage for a single or select group of vendors may come into play. I should point out that significantly restricting communication with suppliers whether by mandate or choice conflicts with the expectation of well written specifications.    

Conversations with suppliers is a form of market research. Although market research is a process that procurement professionals should employ frequently, the reality is that many are so overwhelmed with the number of requests that market research falls on the back burner. Realistically, not much market research is done on products or services that we consider routine. This situation is less than optimal particularly when a procurement is not successful due to outdated specification requirements. 

There is a solution to this dilemma. Develop a written protocol for supplier meetings. Procurement officer may consider formalizing supplier meeting practices.

A written protocol helps achieve consistency when meeting with suppliers. The protocol should be cross referenced with the agency’s ethics guidelines or policies and define how to appropriately meet and engage with suppliers to make the best use of each interaction. Adopting the new protocol as part of the written policy and procedures has the added benefit of institutionalizing a practice that ensures a level playing field for all suppliers, while giving staff a referenceable structure to guide their communications with suppliers.

Implementing the protocol can be aided by developing a supplier meeting form or guidelines. A supplier meeting form may be advantageous in that it provides an in-the-moment resource to guide each meeting, capture highlights of the meeting and/or essential information that can be used to document the meeting and offer the agency process transparency. The structure of the form can be simple.  It can capture general information, market research questions, and any action anticipated or taken.

  • General Information. This first section may capture general information such as the supplier’s name and contact personnel, the industry where they compete, and the category, product or service that they provide. The form can also include the name of attendees and the date of the meeting.
  • Market Research Questions. The purpose of this section is a to remind the procurement professional to ask relevant questions regarding the industry and help him/her be more intentional about the meeting. Questions may relate to trends, changes, and industry innovations. Possible questions to include: 
    • What are some of the trends in the industry, and what should procurement professionals be looking to adjust in their solicitations? (i.e. economic trends, import/export issues, environmental requirements, new technology)
    • Is there any legislation that could potentially impact some of the past requirements included in specifications? 
    • What requirements are you not seeing in solicitations that may help agencies obtain more cost-effective products/services?
  • Action. At the conclusion of the meeting, the procurement professional may note any next steps.  Next steps may include: a follow up demonstration, internal research,  additional market research, or simply “no action” required at the time. 

I liked the strategy that my executive assistant implemented of scheduling shorter meetings. Instead of a full hour meeting, she scheduled half-hour meetings, especially if it was the first-time meeting with a supplier. This helped keep the meeting focused on the main topic as opposed to sitting through a half hour of marketing material.

Suppliers should be advised as part of the meeting confirmation process that they should plan to spend no more than three minutes on company introduction. While the marketing material is often very impressive and showcases the supplier’s market position, the potential for time to be spent in this way discourages already overextended procurement professionals from granting a meeting in the first place. 

Some of my colleagues may be interested in a higher level of detail, but I doubt that they have the luxury of time. Time was such a precious commodity for me that it was essential to be as strategic with it as possible. I delegated gathering any needed background details to someone in my team. This is where “leave behind” marketing information became handy. 

To be clear, sound, supplier-neutral specifications are not built out of conversations with a single vendor, but the having more purposeful meetings can help improve the quality of the questions.   When the quality of your questions improves, so does the information that you receive.

Inviting an end user to the meeting can also be beneficial. Although, I recommend being clear on the potential benefit to the end user before engaging more people in the meeting. The more people that you involve in a meeting, the harder it is to coordinate and the longer it may need to be. The idea is to keep this process simple and with minimum disruption to an already packed schedule.

I want to emphasize that any process can work provided that those involved proceed ethically. While there are many written ethical standards and guidelines, these are useful to define potential circumstances that may be perceived as  problematic. The existence of written guidelines can also help elevate the awareness of individuals in an organization. In the end, it is necessary to rely on each individual’s good values to adopt and model behaviors that ensure transparency, fairness, and good business practices.   

To summarize, communication with suppliers is necessary to develop good business relationships and solicitations. Procurement professionals can make communication with suppliers more purposeful and strategic by implementing simple agency-wide protocols. The information gathered may help the procurement professional ask better questions, prepare higher quality solicitations that are better aligned with the market conditions, and reduce unsuccessful procurements due to the quality issues. Meetings with suppliers can be a worthwhile investment of time if the procurement professional chooses to be more strategic and intentional in his/her communication. Ethics, training and guidelines are helpful, but it is ultimately an “inside job” that determines whether these values are put into practice. The leader must model and reinforce the importance of ethical practice and help create a culture that mirrors that behavior. 

Five Truths I Learned About Leadership

There’s plenty of talk about leadership these days. Whenever you tune into a subject, you seem to attract more of it. Similar to when you purchase a yellow car, you start seeing more yellow cars on the road. The same has happened with leadership. As I started talking more openly about the importance of leadership, I have met people who feel the same way or have thoughts about it. To me leadership skills are a game changer when it comes to procurement transformation. I strongly believe that acquiring leadership skills is a critical element in achieving the goal of elevating the procurement profession. I want to share some leadership truths that I have learned along the way and continue to learn as I transition to a new phase in my career.  

Effective leadership skills are transferable. 

Regardless of the environment in which you acquired and practiced leadership skills, they are based on principles as old as time. These principles, when applied in any environment, country or culture, whether in a small organization of volunteers or in a multi-national company, work just the same.

People can learn to become effective leaders if they consistently and intentionally practice leadership principles. These principles include things like connecting with people, showing integrity and a strong character, continued learning and growing, influencing others, helping those around you to develop and succeed, and providing guidance through good and bad times. 

To become a better leader, you should first learn to lead yourself well and start right where you are. Leadership development is a journey and not a destination; therefore, continuous growth is essential. In his book “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”, Dr. John C. Maxwell lays out 21 principles of leadership. He states that the more a person knows and practices these principles, the higher their leadership skills will be.

Leadership is about service to others. 

We have learned a thing or two about leadership from great philosophers. Aristotle said that the “ethical role of the leader” is to create the conditions that would help followers achieve their potential. Aristotle believed that in order to be a good leader, it was necessary to be a follower. He said that even after becoming a leader, we still need to follow the concerns and progress of those we serve. Plato thought that leadership should be the role of a philosopher because the greatest self-benefit to philosophers was to live virtuously. That being the case, philosophers would then act out of morality and not out of self-benefit, resulting in benefit to the people they serve.  

These timeless lessons taught us that good leaders put people first. That is the heart of leadership. Leadership is not about position or title.  In fact, you can be a leader without an official title. Empowering others and helping people reach their potential is the what leadership is about. Zig Ziglar said “If you help people get what they want, they will help you get what you want.” This statement does not refer to a trade. Instead, it is about helping others succeed simply because it is the right thing to do. That practice is often referred to as “servant leadership”.  

An effective leader has willing followers. 

A position or title serves only as leverage in a leadership situation. The leader must make an effort to connect with people on an individual basis in order to gain their trust. Without it, people will only follow because they have to. People need to know that the leader cares about them and their success.  It is up to the leader to inspire the trust of others by modeling good character and high competence. Once this threshold is crossed, the leader has moved to a level of leadership where people follow because they want to. It is then that the leader can tap into people’s “discretionary good will”. This “discretionary good will” is the potential of individuals beyond what’s expected in the job description.    

Perhaps one of the toughest leadership situations is leading volunteers. Unlike a job on which an individual depends to earn an income and make a living, a volunteer situation does not always offer the leader the leverage of holding people accountable for a certain level of performance. There are little to no consequences to the individual for failure to perform or even show up. The leader must appeal to the volunteers’ uncommitted discretionary good will all the time. It is the leader’s responsibility to connect with each person in order to keep them engaged and interested in giving their time and talents.

The leader sets the tone for the organizational culture. 

If the culture is inviting and people feel included, it reflects the values that the leader instills in the organization. If the environment is toxic, it is also a reflection of the leader and the behavior that he/she models and encourages. It is the leader that sets the tone for the culture.  People do what people see and they take their cue from the leader. 

The leader has the ability to inspire people to go above and beyond the scope of their task or defined responsibility. Getting to that level of leadership requires effort from the leader.  He/she needs to create the right environment. People want to belong and be part of something bigger than themselves. The need to belong is one of the basic psychological needs of every individual according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If the environment is such that people feel excluded or not appreciated, it may result in their disengagement. We are complex creatures!  

Leadership happens at all levels of the organization. 

Good leaders in the ranks make good leaders at the top. For the organization to succeed, it must develop leaders at all levels. Good leaders at lower levels are more likely to become great leaders in positions of authority. As people in positions of less responsibility acquire leadership skills and practice being a leader, they prepare for opportunities of greater responsibility. In other words, they are ready when the opportunity arises. 

Since modeling is one of the ways through which growth happens, for an organization to develop a good bench of leaders, it should first have a good leader at the top. The leader(s) at the top should encourage, empower, and nurture leaders at the next level.  And the leaders in this next level down should encourage, empower, and nurture the leaders at the following level down in the organization, and so on. If within that chain, there is a faulty link, it will be difficult to develop leaders at the lowest level of responsibility in the organization.  

In procurement, we have not done a very good job of developing a strong bench of leaders. It took the massive exodus of baby boomers to realize that there isn’t for the most part, a deep bench of strong leaders. If we as a profession paid more attention to leadership skills development, there wouldn’t be as much concern about the “Silver Tsunami”. 

Leadership is an integral part of what we do. Procurement professionals lead teams providing expertise and guidance in the procurement process. Yet, leadership has not been a strong part of the skills required for certification. The focus in the past decade or two has been on technical skills and data. It was a necessary focus to establish a stronger foundation for the profession. Unfortunately, as we strengthened our technical skills, we may have missed one key component for elevating the profession to have that seat at the table – leadership. Going forward, as that becomes rectified through educational programs, I hope that communication skills and the ability to connect become part of the educational offerings as well.

Developing leaders at every level of the organization also adds to procurement’s collective influence within and outside the entity. This aligns with the goal of having a seat the table across all organizations. As mentioned previously, for a leader to be successful, people must follow willingly. This is true for procurement professionals. We want our end users to follow willingly and not struggle with compliance every step of the way. This is where the technical skills intersect with leadership skills. It is up to the leader, in this case the procurement professional, to do the things that are necessary to earn that respect and be worthy of the trust of those for whom they are responsible. The posture of procurement in an organization is dependent on modeling character, integrity, and competence, which can result on the necessary trust and respect to position procurement at the highest level in the entity.   

In summary, leadership is about service to others. It is not defined by a position or title. The leader must possess the character to inspire trust and the competence to earn the respect of those led. Trust is a foundational requirement for the leader. Without the trust of the team, the leader does not have influence at his/her disposal to actually lead others. If you want to develop your leadership skills, start where you are right now. Leadership starts with you. The behavior that you model sets the tone for the culture and determines how far you and your team can get. Lead yourself well and make growth your objective.    

The 3 Things We Should Know about Effective Communication …and Practice

It’s been said that communication is the single most important skill to the success of individuals in all aspects of life. I often listen to the advice that great communicators have to offer, such as Oprah Winfrey, Tony Robins, John Maxwell, Les Brown and others. I also listen to experts dissect the different communication styles of these great speakers with the goal of learning about patterns, techniques, and their take on “the secret sauce” to effective communication. I have found that the advice provided by these experts is somewhat similar, even if they don’t use the same terms to express it.

Communication is the transfer of information between two or more parties. There are three parts to communication: the message, the sender or message generator, and the recipient of the message. The education system does a decent job of instilling in us the technical aspects when it comes to the message. We begin learning at an early age the rules of grammar, syntax, and even literature.  We learn how to craft a message by writing essays, reports, letters, and even poetry. Yet, we don’t graduate being skilled communicators. There is more to communication than words, grammar, or correct syntax. The skill of communicating effectively is not in the core curriculum of the education system. But I think it should be, because even with all the years of language education, many do not grasp the concept of how to craft a clear message that has a high chance of being understood by the recipient in the way intended.  

To get some perspective on this subject, I want to share one of the interesting things that I learned later in life. Words account for only 7% of the communication. The other 93% is comprised of body language, face expression, and tonality. So, we spent all those years trying to learn how to write and understand the meaning of words, but their effect is really less than 90%.  I will not dive into details on this today, but many of the great speakers talk about this in their talks or their books.

I don’t think that anyone will argue against the need to continue to grow in the skill and art of effective communication. In fact, we should all be required to take a course to set us off on the communication growth journey and to help us avoid some rookie mistakes when we start a job!  If you consider your job duties, regardless of where you are in the organization, you will at some point be required to communicate with someone, whether an end user, supplier, a member of an interest group, a member of the governing body, your supervisor, or a colleague.  

Communication comes into play as we promote and live procurement values with every project that we handle. Let’s take transparency, for example. It requires clarity. Transparency is manifested in part in the solicitation documents. Requirements need to be clearly articulated. But before the requirements can be clearly articulated in a document, good listening should take place. Procurement professionals provide process leadership and service, but for anyone to follow, there has to be some level of connection that positively influences the stakeholders to follow his/her advice and adhere to the process, policies and legal requirements. Let me then highlight the three essential aspects of effective communication.

  1. Listen to Understand

Listening is a skill that we don’t practice enough. Many of us think we listen, but we are truly not. Listening to understand requires that you abandon the need to jump to conclusions, finish the persons thought, judge the message or the person communicating the message. Some great listeners place their index finger on their lips as a reminder to listen and keep them from interrupting the other person. Listening to understand requires empathic focus on the person’s message. Listening is one of the greatest gifts that you can give another person, particularly if as a result they feel heard, validated, and understood. Everyone wants to be heard. When a person feels heard, they can be more receptive to your response. 

2. Clear and Concise Message

A clear and concise message will help avoid confusion. Avoid using too many words.  Sometimes we want to show our expansive vocabulary and end up confusing the other person. If you tend to ramble or get sidetracked, write down the main point in simple, everyday words. Many people stop paying attention if the point is lost in the abundance of words. Also, make an effort to know your audience or learn about them so that you can communicate in a way that they understand. Even when you are using the storytelling technique, it is important to make the point with the least number of words in order to make it effective. So, the advice is to keep it simple.

3. Connection

Connecting with people encompasses good listening skills and a clear message. This skill goes beyond verbal communication. It requires you to be authentic but also to meet the person where they are. This may require blending your style or mirroring the style of the person with whom you want to communicate. To connect requires some extra effort.  Don’t expect people to adapt to you; instead, help people relate to you by meeting them where they are emotionally. From a broader perspective the goal of communicating is to connect with the other person.  When you have a connection, a common ground, or are in rapport, the communication becomes a vehicle for trust.  If you want to positively influence others, communicate to connect. 

When we think about these three aspects of effective communication, it is easy to think that we implement them – occasionally. The key is to be consistent in the application of these techniques. Sometimes we lack the awareness that our communication is not optimized, perhaps because of the mountain of work at the desk that robs us of the opportunity to intentionally improve our communication. I know many procurement professionals committed to their work and to the service that they provide to their community. Like me, they want to make a positive impact.  Over time, they masterfully juggle an insane number of projects particularly if they find themselves in a “solo procurement” scenario. Unfortunately, all the hard work may be overshadowed by their inability to practice tactics that can help them achieve effective communication on a consistent basis.  

The ability to communicate effectively and more importantly to connect, is key to a successful career. Any successful person may agree that communication is or has been an essential contributor of their success. Perhaps this is why despite all the good and hard work that some professionals do on a daily basis, they may feel that their level of success may not be commensurate with their efforts. There could be many factors why success in the form of promotions may have skipped them, but one that is sure to have an impact is “communication”. In his book, “Everyone Communicates, Few Connect”, Dr. John C. Maxwell talks about this. He states that hard work, even when the result is a great job, is insufficient to achieve success. In order to be successful, one must really be able to communicate effectively with others. 

Communication is important in all areas of our lives. This is particularly true if you want to lead, especially when leading a transformation process. Since people naturally reject change or being changed, effective communication is one of the key enabling factors. So, if you are leading change, there is no option but to be intentional about practicing techniques that help you communicate effectively.

In conclusion, to be successful in the different aspects of life, we need to continue to improve our communication. It’s not enough to work hard or have degrees or certifications. Effective communication requires practice and intentionality. Getting good at consistently communicating effectively is not the result of a one-time seminar or a finite time period for practice. When we consider our limitations, the complexities of human behavior, and the environmental challenges that restrict the way we communicate, it is easy to reason that getting good at communicating is a life-long journey.  

The Five Qualities of a Highly Impactful Team

It takes a team…! Whenever you see a successful leader, there is certainly a capable team beside that leader. As Dr. John C. Maxwell stated:  “One is too small of a number to achieve greatness”. A leader can accomplish some goals but to reach significance a leader needs a team.  Phil Jackson, the head coach of the Chicago Bulls back in the 1990s, stated: “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” Team members contribute their talents, and the entire benefit from the collective contributions of each member.

Coming together is a beginning

Staying together is progress

And working together is success

–Henry Ford

Creating a cohesive team requires thoughtful consideration to bring together the talent needed to achieve specific goal(s). A team is as strong as its weakest link.  Strong, successful teams have certain qualities in common.

Members of great teams are committed to high performance.

Each team member shares the responsibility for the entire team’s success and each of its individual members. Each team member’s performance determines the team’s success. I read a story that exemplifies the commitment to high performance for the benefit of another team member. The story is about the veteran Charles Plumb, a US jet fighter pilot in Vietnam.  

Plumb was ejected from his jet and parachuted into enemy territory.  He spent six years in a Vietnamese prison.  After released and back in the US, he was sitting at a café one day, a man came up to him and said, “You’re Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. You were shot down!” Plumb was confused and asked how the man knew about that. “I packed your parachute,” the man replied. The man then shook his hand and said, “I guess it worked!” Plumb assured him it had and said, “If your chute hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t be here today.”

The story reveals the importance of skills and the ability to perform at your best when it matters most. In a good team, members are committed to the cause and its members. This story also unveils the element of trust.  

In great teams, members develop trusting relationships.

In his book “The Infinite Game”, Simon Sinek makes an interesting observation about the difference between a trusting team and a team. He states that in a team where a group of people come together to achieve a specific result, the relationship amongst the team members tend to be transactional. In contrast, in a trusting team environment, the team members develop a trusting relationship. Trust is a feeling that develops in the layering of situations where team members feel safe to be vulnerable. Trust cannot be imposed, required or demanded. Trust and vulnerability go hand in hand. A violation of trust essentially eliminates vulnerability, which then shatters the possibility of trust. 

In great teams, members are committed to working collaboratively towards a common goal.

The 1992 Olympic Men’s Basketball Team aka “The Dream Team” is an example of collaboration towards a common goal – to bring home gold. The Dream Team was comprised of the best players in basketball history. To win gold, they had to put aside their egos and unite on a common objective. They had to trust each other on the basketball court to attain greatness as an Olympic team. “The whole is better than the sum of its parts.” –Aristotle

Another example is a team that over time has seen the participation of the brightest minds in the world, The Royal Society of London. The Society is committed to a common goal: the advancement of science. Under his leadership in the 1700s, Sir Isaac Newton asserted the Society’s dominant role in science.  With the help of Edmond Halley, the Society published Newton’s Principia Mathematica. It is one of the most influential books of all time describing the action of gravity. Through the Society’s photographic expeditions of the solar eclipse in 1919, astronomers confirm Albert Einstein’s relativity theory. Today, the Society fosters international scientific cooperation, innovative research, and better communication between scientists and the public.    

Members of great teams listen, communicate, and connect. 

Google led a research initiative on the qualities of the best teams, Project Aristotle, and concluded that the best teams are those whose members listen to one another and show sensitivity.  

In NASA 1969 Apollo 11, for example, the team had over 400,000 scientists, engineers, and technicians.  The astronauts of that mission were Whilst Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. These men made it a point of visiting the laboratories where these scientists, engineers, and technician worked in order to establish the human connection with the people on whose hands they were entrusting their lives.  

The Manhattan Project, despite the controversial team’s purpose and extreme secrecy (developing an atomic bomb during WWII), is considered another of the most impactful teams in history.  It is said that communication and collaboration made it one of the most effective teams.  

Leadership and clarity are necessary to achieve greatness in a team.

The leader has a role in helping the team achieve greatness. Without effective leadership and clarity, it is very difficult for a team to achieve anything, much less greatness. Even when its members are highly talented and accomplished individuals who have enjoyed “solo recognition”, it is essential for the leader to create the right environment for high performance. Talent can be powerful in a team, but only if there is commitment to a common goal and collaboration. Where talent is abundant in the team, but self-interest guides team members actions, it is impossible to establish trust.

What undermines team success?

Research by The Ken Blanchard Companies concluded that teams fail due to a variety of reasons. Three of those conditions caught my attention:

  • lack of effective leadership and support
  • lack of clarity of purpose
  • lack of talent or training.

There are many examples of failed teams even when their members were very talented. Enron, for example, was a highly regarded company.  They violated the trust of many due to greed. They deceived over 20,000 employees who were left to face significant personal financial losses.  

Another example is the changes to the LA Lakers Basketball Team after the 2002 championship that the leadership of that organization made. Two very talented team members who enjoyed individual recognition were unable to work collaboratively. There were a number of player trades made by the organization, which essentially created a new team. The new team did not possess the qualities necessary to maintain its champion status in the season that followed. The inability to collaborate was detrimental to creating a cohesive team environment. The organization may have overestimated the value of individual talent and did not put enough attention to the other qualities required to assemble a strong team.

In conclusion, some of the most impactful teams in history attribute their success to a strong foundation of trust, respect, communication, collaboration, and a commitment to a common goal. The qualities that make a team successful are interconnected. The leader must orchestrate well the resources, talent, and the environment in order for the team’s efforts to achieve high impact. The leader has an important role in creating an environment that brings out the best of the team collectively and individually. When there is clarity of purpose and effective leadership, the team can move the organization in the right direction. 

About the Author: Lourdes Coss is a retired Chief Procurement Officer with 27 years of government procurement and transformation experience; the author of “Procurement Methods: Effective Techniques”; and an executive coach, speaker, leadership & procurement trainer, and procurement consultant

Procurement and Pandemic: Adjust, Learn, Grow

Many of us entered the public procurement profession by accident. Perhaps the variety was enough to keep you interested or you may have stayed because you were too busy to think about anything else.  Either way, it must have brought enough satisfaction that maybe five years into it you saw possibilities for growth or to positively impact the community.  

After so many years “making an impact” behind the scenes, it is was your turn to shine in one of the most difficult times in history.  At a time where the coronavirus has plagued the world, you have been present supporting those frontline workers in an effort to minimize the devastating effects that this pandemic has had in many nations.

You’ve left no stone unturned.  My compliments to you for jumping on social media, private networking sites, and getting in touch with colleagues and friends in the old fashion way in order to respond to the needs of your organization and your community. It’s good to see that front lines workers have taken notice of the role of procurement. I was talking with my daughter, who for most of her childhood didn’t quite understand what I did for a living and was pleasantly surprised when she told me about the preparedness of her institution because of the timely actions taken by procurement. I am sure that many colleagues can relate to this. So, walk proudly, procurement professional, you’ve done an amazing job.

As the world cautiously opens up and we move to what we may consider a new normal, remember to build on this public recognition to keep the coveted seat at the table past this crisis. There is value in what you do and now others recognize it.  Here is an opportunity to create a new normal with you at the table. Operating under the shadow of a different role in the organization should not be a path forward. We’ve clearly seen that extreme penny pinching resulted in the lack of preparedness. Sure, I don’t believe that anyone could have anticipated the magnitude of this crisis, but organizations that had the foresight to keep up with technology were clearly better able to pivot and respond to the situation almost seamlessly. Seize the opportunity to remove the procurement function from the shadows. You’ve shown your value and now you can build up from there. 

While you think and, most importantly, act on the opportunities that lie ahead, take time to reflect on the path forward.  Here are some thoughts  that can help you show your leadership and growth as an organization.

  • Reflect on this Experience: The experience is only valuable if you learn from it. Take time to reflect on the lessons learned. Reflect on the problems that you faced and how you were able to overcome obstacles under the circumstances to find a solution. Write down the situation and the strategy used to solve the problem. Determine why it worked so that you are able to apply the strategy to other situations in the future. Document and involve your team in putting together a crisis action plan. Include checklists, scenarios, draft procedures, and needed changes to current policy or regulations. Also, make this a growth opportunity for your team.
  • Action: Take the action necessary to prepare for the next time there is a crisis. What are the things that you wished you had in place during this pandemic that could have made it easier for you to handle the situation and solve the problems with which you were presented? If appropriate, implement any policies or strategies that will make your organization more flexible, stronger and better prepared for the next crisis.
  • Technology – Systems & Equipment: Perhaps one of the action items for certain entities is related to innovation, technology and computer equipment.  
    • Technology: Many organizations were not prepared from the technology perspective to conduct business online. This made it difficult to maintain the operation remotely, which increased the level of difficulty during the crisis. If your current work environment is not prepared to operate virtually in an emergency, consider what steps and resources are necessary to begin making progress towards that goal. When investing in new technology, it is prudent to consider the mobility aspect so that business can continue without the need to be in a specific location. A word of caution here is to void the shiny object syndrome, stay focused on the functionality that is needed.Computer Equipment: Some agencies had antiquated computer equipment that did not offer the flexibility for mobility. This made it very difficult to maintain the connectivity amongst teams and/or the rest of the organization. In some cases, employees had to use their own computer equipment, which presents other problems such as greater risk of cybersecurity attacks.
    • Systems: Systems for capturing the costs associated with the emergency is another area that some agencies will need to address. Depending on the situation, the organization may choose to rely on a series of spreadsheets, minor tweaks to existing technology, or the exploration of adequate technology that will enable agencies to capture costs real time. Having a protocol for expenditures related to a crisis is important especially when it’s time to seek reimbursement.  Developing a strategy after the crisis or perfecting the one that worked during the crisis may proof advantageous for all involved. When developing the system take into consideration risk management, but don’t overcompensate by doubling up on approvals. Think strategically and keep it simple.
  • Relationships: Evaluate how your interaction with certain individuals helped you during the crisis. Think about the things that you can do to strengthen those relationships without jeopardizing your position. Perhaps it is as simple as having their contact information handy or creating a directory of key individuals that were helpful during the crisis. It wouldn’t hurt to check in once in a while. It may be also advantageous to evaluate the networks that proved most fruitful and form a task force to evaluate how it can be improved.

This crisis situation has opened the door to opportunities for the procurement professional. The need for technology, systems and mobility is now very obvious to all. If in the past you couldn’t sell the advantages of technology capabilities, this is a chance to initiate that conversation. The need is very obvious and failure to upgrade may put the organization at a huge disadvantage. Everyone has been faced with the technology challenges at a personal and professional level. Individuals and organizations that were able to pivot to a virtual environment quickly fared better than those that were not equipped to do so.

To conclude, procurement professionals managed to stand out in what has been one of the worst crisis situations of our time. The actions taken to prepare for the new normal and for future crisis situations is up to each procurement professional and entity. Remember that this is not the last emergency or crisis situation.  Sometime in the future, you will find yourself in another, hopefully not as major as this one. The lessons that you learned during this time will help you increase your efficiency later. The extent to which action is taken to prepare and to mitigate the effect of a future crisis to the organization and the community that it serves, will depend on each person’s ability to take this experience and grow from it.  

Transformation: 3 Things You Shouldn’t Miss

True transformation is not an event, it is a journey. It may be triggered by an event or a life-changing experience that may cause a disruption to our comfortable auto pilot routine. Such a circumstance may inspire us to reflect on the road traveled thus far and consider whether we are moving in the direction of our goals and the live that we see ourselves living.    

Similarly, organizational transformation is generally triggered by an event or series of events that lead to the desire of a total overhaul of systems, processes and approach. In government, procurement is generally on the list of functions for which transformation is sought. A quick search of the number of cases where contract fraud and abuse of power have threatened public trust can help explain why procurement is often a candidate for transformation.  

There are many dimensions to transformation. Many refer to transformation from the tangible perspective, equating it process improvement and systems implementation. People and culture that are at the root of any lasting change.  A culture of continuous improvement is developed with intention and the recognition that people are at the center of every process, system, and decision in the organization.    

In my experience, there are three aspects that contribute to the overall value of transformation.  There is no denying that the visible progress is what is celebrated, but the visible progress is not feasible if these three aspects are not taken into consideration. These three things are: leadership, the reason for change at the micro level, and a culture of teamwork.

  • A good leader: The positional leader must be equipped to lead.  Poor organizational performance signals a deficiency in leadership. If employees are simply barely meeting the demands of the job, there’s not much creativity, and performance is at the autopilot level, then the leadership aspect needs to be addressed.

    The limitations on performance are generally related to the limitations of the leader. Some organizations elect to bring in a new leader before initiating transformational changes. Another option is to coach the positional leader acquire key leadership skills. With the right attitude, some professional development, and coaching the positional leader can develop the skills necessary to lead the group through the transformation process. This strategy is not a quick fix. A true leader, however, invests in his/her own growth regardless of the organization’s desire to provide the resources to facilitate training.
  • A reason for change. The leader must be aware of the team members’ “why”. Communicating the vision, the goals and even the strategy to effect changes is a good idea in helping people see the path forward. More importantly, it is essential for everyone to identify their own “why” for change. One of the reasons for this is that the values and priorities differ from person to person.  

    When individuals can filter the organization’s vision and goals through their own value system and align their goals accordingly, the effort by each individual will produce a compounding effect. Happy people are self-motivated to do and achieve their goals and/or their life’s purpose. Happy people are more productive. That productivity provides significant benefits to the organization particularly during a transformation process. This means that with goal alignment, the effort by each individual not only benefits the individual him or herself, but also the organization. 

    The leader should understand what moves each person in the group, and through that understanding, unlock the key to productivity. The leader can also strategically  create opportunities to contribute to the success of each person. Zig Ziglar’s statement “You can have everything you want if you help other people get what they want” is very fitting and so true. 

    The leader must know the people that he/she leads and help them believe that they have the capacity to achieve more. A true leader empowers, believes and helps people achieve new heights. As a result of the behavior that the leader models to the team, the leader gains their trust. It’s important for the leader to gain the trust of the people they lead.  Without trust the relationship with the leader will not develop. 
  • A team. Team is another word that people use loosely to refer to a group of people working in the same organization. Just because people work together doesn’t mean that they are a team. In his book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” Patrick Lencioni indicates that trust is the foundation of a good team. Trust is at the center of every relationship. When team members can trust each other and the leader, they can tackle the toughest assignments knowing that others have their back. A good team, according to Lencioni, can work through conflicting ideas, commit to a decision, hold each other accountable, and focus on results

Trust and leadership are enabling factors for transforming the culture of an organization.  Trust is at the center of any relationship and it’s nothing different in a team.  A leader without followers is not a leader, and in order for people to follow a leader there has to be trust. The first order of business in a transformation is then a leader that can inspire trust, can help people grow, and can create a collaborative environment built on mutual respect.  

Before setting off on a transformational journey, the organization needs effective leadership, the individual goals of its members should complement those of the team, and everyone should work collaboratively towards a common vision. Only then it is possible to change the culture of an organization. Obviously, people are happier when they are in a positive and progressive culture working with individuals that they like and respect.  

To conclude, the leader has a significant role in the success of an organization’s transformation initiative. It is the leader’s responsibility to build relationships and create a culture rooted on a solid foundation of trust and respect. A transformed culture where people feel that their contribution is valued is going to continue to evolve and reach new heights. A team that feels empowered to achieve a higher level of performance while working towards their individual goals is almost unstoppable. This is the place where the leader should take the team in order to transform the culture. Add to this the necessary enabling resources and you’ll have a successful transformation.