Blog

Enhance your Leadership Skills with these 4 Steps

Who do you think about when you hear the word leadership? Many associate the word with political officials, CEOs, C-Suite executives, military commanders, or even athletes. While it’s true that you need good leadership skills to excel at these occupations, leadership is a valuable skill.

Everyone from any vocation or background can use for their benefit and the benefit of others. 

Effective leadership can be learned if it is something that doesn’t come naturally to you. There are several methods that you can use to acquire and refine your leadership skills. 

Discover the leader in you!

Try these four techniques to boost your leadership skills: 

  1. Make excellence your goal. Striving for excellence is part of being a successful leader.  Your ability to set the bar for others will help inspire those you lead. You can be a good role model by constantly seeking ways to improve yourself and aspire to achieve excellence.
    • A hallmark of leadership is excellence. Work on honing your existing skills and developing new ones. Working on what you are good at may seem counter intuitive but consider it your gift to the world.
  2. Focus on your vision and set measurable goals. Each area of your life impacts others. Consider what you want to accomplish in all the different areas of your life. Set goals that align with and help you move closer to your vision. 
    • Set goals and measure your progress periodically.  
    • Don’t try to move a mountain. Break up larger goals into smaller ones. Once you achieve these shorter milestones, make sure to celebrate successes.  Celebrating small wins will help maintain your motivation. 
    • Keep it real. Learn to identify and use all of your resources in the pursuit of your goals. Consider your resources when making plans to reach your goals.  Developing plans based on resources and circumstances that you wish were reality may lead to disappointment.
    • Stay committed but flexible.  Be willing to refine your plans and ultimate goals based on your progress as well as your dreams.
  3. Work on developing your people skills. Great leaders can inspire others to work towards a common goal. To influence and inspire others to buy into you, it’s important to develop your people skills and emotional intelligence.
    • Practice good listening skills. Doing so helps to establish a connection and build trust, so others are more likely to follow your lead and help you.
    • Help others improve and be their best. A good leader motivates others towards positive change.
    • Seek input from others when discussing goals and plans to reach your objectives. Give others a stake in the results by seeking their opinion. You’ll get their buy-in and help them be more motivated to help you. 
  4. Lead with passion and maintain a positive attitude. People take cues from the leader.  The leader sets the tone for the team.  Good leaders teach others to have a positive attitude and to be passionate in their efforts by modeling the behavior they want to see in their team.
    • The leader can help energize the team by maintaining an upbeat attitude. In a positive environment, an engaged team will accomplish more, regardless of the circumstances.

Taking the time to develop your leadership skills can radically increase the amount of success that you experience in all areas of your life. These tips can help you to hone your leadership skills so that you can achieve your goals and enjoy a more satisfying life.  In the words of Dr. John C. Maxwell…

“Everything rises and falls on leadership.”

by Lourdes Coss, MPA, NIGP-CPP, CPPO

Can the Leader Change the Team?

by Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” —Lao Tzu

Seasoned leaders may have contemplated the answer to this question before.  For the new leader, it may be a puzzling one. Some assume that people will automatically follow when they have a leadership position. Most people will follow a positional leader, but will do just enough to be compliant.  If you’ve tried to change the behavior of someone, you probably experienced how difficult this could be and seldom successful.  I don’t think that one person can change another unless it is by association.  

Leadership is influence. —John C. Maxwell

When you are implementing change, the ability to lead and influence people to follow is essential.  It is vital to acknowledge that people need to buy into their leadership for the leader to be effective.  Trust and respect are at the foundation of leadership and essential transformation.  

I spent approximately two decades leading transformations.  With a few exceptions, I found that people want to improve their situation.  Many like to take advantage of the opportunities offered. Some choose to live by default.  That choice might be due to the circumstances that they face or perhaps a low level of awareness of what is possible for them.  Each person must choose to embrace their journey.  In that sense, they elect to change and are not necessarily being changed.  

They say that you become the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time. We have seen this many times and may have heard a version of this from our parents.  Thinking back, many of the destructive habits that I saw in people I knew had to do with the company they kept. In the same way, it works for positive habits.  This is true in a work environment also.

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”

—John Maxwell

The leader can set the tone for a culture of growth, development, and high performance. The leader can create opportunities, but it is still up to each person to accept or reject them.  The leader can help people see the possibilities, which may help them believe that they can achieve more. These are just a few of the things that the leader can do to move things along.

Of course, personality types play a role in the adoption of change.  People process information differently.  The people who are openly willing to adopt change will help create energy about doing things differently, especially if they see success.  A supportive leader can reinforce the choice to change.  The leader needs to design the environment.  

It is easier to change and thrive in an environment that breathes collaboration and support.  Creating the right culture can help the leader reinforce the changes that are needed.  And while not directly changing anyone, he or she is enabling the right environment for change.  

Creating the right environment for change requires a leader that intentionally model the behavior that will ultimately impact the culture of the organization.  Indirectly, the leader can influence the team to change.  It is not manipulation when you lead by example and put the interests of the people first.  When the leader models behavior that drives each person to adjust their behavior and performance, they have gained influence and permission to lead them.

Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish. —Sam Walton

As I mentioned before, the company that we keep influences the way we act.  Developing a culture of collaboration, support, and growth, will affect those in the environment.  Leaders seeking to implement change must first work on increasing their influence with the people they lead.  They need to connect with each individual and develop a relationship of trust.  

To conclude, it is possible to influence others to change, but the decision is still with each person.  The inability to change others is one of the things that add complexity to a transformation process.  Leaders should understand that influence is a critical skill to be effective.  Influence skills make the leader “a leader”.

Think “The Lucky 7” for Your Strategic Plan

by Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

Building your strategic transformation plan should not be a one-time exercise. This plan is a document that one should review often.  The strategic plan paints the picture of the future state, considering where the entity is going.  Often you hear of people that work on an elaborate strategic plan only to realize a year later that the organization is not better off than it was a year ago.

Developing a strategic plan may seem like a daunting task if this is the first time putting one together.  I broke down the strategic planning process into seven steps at a high level.

The first step is understanding the current state and how the current state developed. Spend time to learn some history so that you don’t repeat past mistakes.  Learning from others’ ineffective decisions may end up saving time.  You will not have to relive the same results you are trying to change in the first place. 

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” – Karl Marx

I have referred to my listening tour in a previous blog. This was always time well spent.  Gathering information and different perspectives is good information to have.  There is valid information in each of these perspectives. Still, it is critical to listen with objectivity as each historian in the process will tell the story slightly differently.  It is important to note that strategic plans are not just for organizations that are not operating well.  It is also for organizations that want to continue to stay relevant, considering foreseen or unforeseen changes in the environment.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” —Proverbs 29:18

The second step is to develop a vision of the ideal yet realistic state.  The next step is to develop a vision for the department considering all information gathered.  The important thing is to develop a vision that people can relate to and might be a little scary at the same time.  One should align the goals to the mission of the organization.  They should also align with the overall goals of the entity.  How will Procurement help support the entity’s goals as Procurement transitions to its future state without sacrificing the mission that it fulfills within the agency? Most of the organizations that I worked for were concerned with the speed of the procurement process, cost savings & cost avoidance, quality, and other agency-specific goals. 

“Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground.”

— Franklin D. Roosevelt

The third step is to develop a strategy.  The strategy is the plan of action necessary to help the Procurement organization move closer to the goals identified in the previous step.  From this strategy, you can develop objectives and tactics.  Breaking down the plan into smaller measurements will determine whether the actions taken are moving the organization closer to the goals and, ultimately, the vision.  The goals are the outcomes targeted with the strategic change initiative.  

“A vision without a strategy remains an illusion.” Lee Bolman

The fourth step is to establish measurable actions.    The objectives are specific, measurable actions.  Tactics are the tools used or steps to achieve the objectives, which help determine the strategy’s effectiveness.  Ultimately, these roll up to the goals and the vision. In my example above, one of the goals is cycle times. Then, the strategy, objective, and tactics would read as follows.

            Goal: Establish reasonable and predictable procurement timeframes.

            Strategy: Reduce the procurement cycle times by streamlining the process.

Objective: Alter the order or eliminate redundant steps to reduce time by 40% by a given date.

Tactic: Map the process, identify redundancy, eliminate steps, implement on a specific date. 

Creating these objectives will help measure the effectiveness of the strategy once implemented.  When implementing a strategic plan, it is critical to measure your progress towards achieving the goals. 

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without 

strategy is the noise before defeat.” Sun Tzu

The fifth step is effective communication. The strategic plan should also include a communication plan that establishes who the stakeholders are and the relevant detail and frequency.  The method used for communication plays a vital role in the success of the strategic initiative.  Communicate often with those stakeholders is imperative.  This will help all interested parties stay informed and take any necessary action. 

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw

The sixth step is to measure progress.  Don’t expect a perfect plan.  Measure progress and adjust when necessary.  Staying flexible with the plan and focusing on the goals will pay dividends.  Measuring progress also helps keep accountability for the ultimate results and keeps you moving in the direction of the vision.

“There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.” 
― 
Franklin D. Roosevelt

The seventh step is to reassess and adjust.  This seventh step includes reassessing the vision and goals.  When implementing long-term plans, it is impossible to predict all the conditions and circumstances that one may encounter.  Remaining flexible to adjust to new needs and be willing to revisit the goals is an essential step in the strategic planning process.  

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

 – George Bernard Shaw

To sum up, strategic planning is a process that continues to evolve with time.  It is essential to remain flexible to accommodate future conditions that may not have been anticipated in the original planning process.  

The Three Things Leaders Should Do To Help their Teams Readjust Post-COVID-19

by Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

Some organizations are gradually welcoming back employees to begin the process of “today’s normal.” Leaders should recognize that it’s been a year since the world shut down for business.  A year is enough time to anchor new habits.  There is hope in the air and eagerness to see the pandemic as a thing of the past.  Many people had a year to find new ways of performing the work without stepping foot in the office.  For this reason, people may need some time to recover and readjust.

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” –Socrates

Except for frontline personnel and essential services, we were all sheltered in place.  To shelter in place meant total isolation for some people.  For others, it meant designing ad-hoc workspaces, distractions,  and sharing technology.  Regardless of the situation, these shifts presented challenges that may have lasting consequences.

Change in an instant.  After the immediate shock of the unthinkable, many found ways to stay connected while others’ felt their walls close in on them.  Parents became teachers until schools ramped up to virtual learning. Working from home blurred the line between family and work environments.  In some cases, technology and internet bandwidth challenged the family members’ effectiveness in fulfilling their role as employees or students.  

We postponed or cancelled celebrations like graduations, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, childbirth, engagements, baptisms, and others.  Participation or not in less happy events also impacted people emotionally.   It is possible that the inability to participate fully in these types of events and make lasting memories further contributed to the increased stress. 

Changed workforce. Some organizations are starting to require employees’ physical presence at the office and leaders should keep in mind that employees may bring new worries and issues to the workplace.  The “go back to the office” is not a general mandate.  Given that organizations decide what’s best for them, their decisions impact employees’ lives, particularly if those decisions do not align.  If schools and childcare centers are closed,  the employee required to report back to work has to look at their options.  There is a solution to every problem, but solutions become more accessible when we have the calmness and clarity of mind to look for them. Stress diminishes our ability to be creative.

If the leader stayed in touch with team members, the leader would now be in a position to understand everyone’s ability to reintegrate into work culture, both physically and emotionally. Without such insight, it will be challenging to successfully manage the transition back to the office or have unrealistic expectations. 

Zoom fatigue. Many employees may have reached the point of Zoom overload. People’s personalities are a factor. Introverts and extroverts handled probably handled the virtual interaction year differently.  Introverts might be overwhelmed when extroverts crave a higher frequency of those connections. It is essential to understand that people may be in different areas emotionally when going back to the office.  So, as organizations start requiring the physical presence at the office, the leader should consider doing the following:  

  1. Listen to Understand.  Open the line of communication with the intent to listen.  Now more than ever, is communication a critical skill of the leader, particularly listening skills. It’s not about solving the problems for each individual, but about understanding their perspective.  After all, they have had a year to form new habits.  People have to unlearn and relearn their jobs to an extent.  It is hard to move forward when you don’t feel heard.  It would be advantageous to provide the forum to talk about the past year to understand what additional challenges, if any, employees are bringing to the workplace.
  2. Promote Calmness.  The leader should not contribute to the high stress already generated during the pandemic.  Mental health professionals are saying that depression and suicide have skyrocketed during the past year.  Stress shuts down parts of the brain necessary for creative problem-solving.  I am not advocating to start a day with a yoga session at the office, but some simple breathing exercises might do the trick.  Breathing sends signals to the amygdala and the emotional centers that it is safe and calm, helping activate the brain’s creative center.
  3. Define Change as Part of Reality. The probability that things will change is high.  The leader should plan for the discomfort of change by providing clarity as organizations move forward to establish the new normal.  Constantly readjusting is not easy. But a realistic approach to change will help the team to expect and deal with the changes as necessary.

The three strategies mentioned above are by no means a comprehensive list of things that leaders should do.  The pandemic has and continues to affect people personally, professionally, and emotionally and it may take a while until many can bring stability to their daily routine.  Organizations will need to deal with the human factor, to help recover from a year of constant change and uncertainty.  If your organization had a culture of collaboration where people performed at their highest level, it might take some time to bring it back to what it was.  But it may have a higher chance of bouncing back than those organizations that were already struggling with the lack of engagement.

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” –Theodore Roosevelt

Leaders have a significant role in restoring the organization’s culture and helping people readjust to the “future normal.” It is essential to recognize that in this process, people have to build their infrastructure of support to that which enables them to send their kids to school, childcare confidently, and focus on giving their best to the organization.

The 3 Resources for which you should ask funding early in a Transformation Initiative

by Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

The 3 Resources for which you should ask funding early in a Transformation Initiative

I spent about 75% of my 27-year public service career leading transformations. I enjoyed seeing progress in the organization and the people’s development and how it positioned the procurement function within the entity.  That growth brought positioned Procurement well within the entity.  Having a voice and a seat at the table made the journey worth traveling.  One can attribute the success of the transformation to the collective efforts of the team.  The team lived the daily struggle of getting out of their comfort zones.  They also experienced individual rewards with the changes.  Each individual’s standards measured personal and professional growth.  

“Change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” —John F. Kennedy

My team and I learned many lessons. Some were less painful than others.  Those painful lessons help us build strength; even though some may have been unnecessary.  Those situations help build grace and courage. There was higher awareness that everyone reacts differently to change, and despite their desire for things to remain the same, the organization no longer provides the value that it once did.  It also gave us courage to continue down the transformation path despite the opposition. 

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

The process of transformation requires a lot from people, particularly procurement professionals already overloaded with work.  Perhaps stamina is a valuable ally for anyone going through a transformation process.  Often, the leadership of organizations doesn’t fully understand the energy and effort required to go through a transformation process.  There is usually a long list of demands and a brief timeframe to accomplish them. Paradoxically, the group expected to produce under a new definition of value has not benefited from new tools or resources to create such value.

Whenever I went to a new agency, I faced similar circumstances to those I had seen before.   In most cases, upper management assumed that the procurement personnel were not working as hard as they should have or were not fit for the job.  Rarely did upper management acknowledge the lack of investment made on the procurement group. It was not uncommon that those who wanted the procurement organization to transform did not understand that they needed to think about the function differently. The changes that come with transformation have an impact both internally and externally. 

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” – Niccolo Machiavelli

I learned the hard way to ask for resources upfront, even when I did not know with certainty what I needed.  Why? Because there is a very narrow window after the transformation announcement to obtain approval for the resources required.  If you wait too long after that, it is much more challenging.  Prioritizing the request for enablers that required financial investment and budget dollars is essential.  There are three areas that I focused my attention on right away.  These were training, staffing, and technology.

  • Training – I found that securing a budget for training in a transformation initiative is not as tricky if requested upfront.  In many instances, upper management recognizes that the current staff will require some type of training at a minimum since, in most cases, there had been little to no offered.  If personnel are not up to speed with best practices in the field or have a network of colleagues they can reach out to, it’s hard for them to develop.  Membership to relevant professional organizations like NIGP and the local chapter can be part of their educational experience and network development.  
  • Staffing – Organizations tend to be unwilling to recognize “understaffing” as one reason for the slow procurement process speed.  The end-user and upper management do not fully understand the time impact of specific regulations on the procurement function.  There is a disconnect between the expectations of the time that procurement should take and the effort required to meet the expectations.  While it may be acceptable to guestimate the original request for staffing budget, the leader must make an effort to justify the number of positions requested or the redesign of the existing job descriptions if they no longer serve the organization well.  Staffing is a hard sell and requires sufficient analysis and justification.  Ensuring that salaries are competitive and positions offer growth opportunities will increase the chances of attracting talented individuals to the organization.
  • Technology – Many organizations already have some type of technology primarily related to the financial aspect of procurement.  However, the procurement team often does not have the features necessary in existing systems to ensure their success.  The need for new technology or the optimization of existing technology will become evident once the leader has had a chance to evaluate daily tasks’ efficiency and determine whether there is a need for automation or the need for additional technology.   Depending on the situation, this might be the most significant investment. Therefore, it is crucial to plan the functional requirements well to maximize the benefits to the operation.

“If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” —Woodrow Wilson

I should note that upper management support is a critical component of a transformation initiative.  Once changes start rolling out, end-users and stakeholders will experience the discomfort of change.  It is then that upper management support will become critical to the success of the transformation.  The Human Resources Director and the Technology Director’s support and commitment are crucial as the early request for funding are to these areas.  Any strategy associated with personnel and technology depends significantly on the support received by the people responsible for these two areas in the entity. 

Change is not easy, and those who advocate for change generally expect someone else to make the changes.  When the tables change, those advocates will feel the discomfort of adjusting to changes as anyone interacting with the procurement function will need to make adjustments. The best way that I found to handle this challenge is through communication.  Communicating change should be done with as much transparency as possible.  A well-developed communication plan should include a strategy that considers each layer within the organization and adjusts the communication accordingly. 

To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often” – Winston Churchill

In summary, some enablers do not require additional budget but are necessary for a transformation.  When the organization makes a high investment, particularly in staffing and technology, it will expect a high return. Those enabling resources that require an investment of money should be requested upfront while the initiative is still fresh in everyone’s mind.  Early requests will increase the likelihood of obtaining the resources needed to effectively make the necessary changes and elevate the procurement team’s performance.

About the Author: Lourdes Coss is a former Chief Procurement Officer living her purpose. She’s the author of “Procurement Methods: Effective Techniques” and uses the lessons of her 27 years career in government procurement and transformation to coach, train, and provide consulting to leaders and aspiring leaders in the profession. Post-Pandemic, you may find her in a café writing her next book.

Procurement Month: Reflect, Act, and Celebrate

by Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

Happy Procurement Month!  During the month of March, procurement professionals celebrate each other and the procurement profession.  This year, we celebrate the leadership and ingenuity of many procurement professionals.  Procurement has been at the forefront of the pandemic, and its value became more apparent to those who considered procurement a back-office function. 

“Money is of no value; it cannot spend itself. All depends on the skill of the spender.”  — Ralph Waldo Emerson

After a year of Zoom calls, pivots, and remote work, not yet over, we reflect on many procurement professionals’ actions, leadership, and resilience. Many quickly adapted to new circumstances and fulfilled their mission in their respective organizations.  While the experience may have brought a higher level of stress and uncertainty, it also presented opportunities to add value and provide solutions to those on the frontlines.  

In some organizations, procurement suddenly emerged from the “back office” to do what it does best, provide solutions that enable the organization to deliver the necessary services to the community.  Many of those that stepped up to the occasion will see the reward through a more active role in their organization.  

Procurement professionals should seize the opportunity to step forward and be part of the solution.  Those that see the opportunity are probably working on strategies to minimize the effect of a future crisis in the organizations that they serve.  Some procurement professionals are already collaborating to establish contracts that can help reduce the impact of an emergency or unexpected condition.  One such group is the Continuity of Supply Initiative (CoSi). CoSi is a collaborative effort seeking to encourage the implementation of resilient contracts for the benefit of government organizations.

As many ponder how to build resiliency in the process and the supply chain, procurement professionals are called to take action.  There isn’t a single solution.  The answer is going to take the collaborative effort of all parties involved.  This task is not one that procurement professionals can solve alone.  The collaboration of technical experts, finance, legal, and suppliers will be necessary to implement feasible, transparent strategies and provide a competitive environment. 

“In today’s era of volatility, there is no other way but to re-invent. The only sustainable advantage you can have over others is agility; that’s it. Because nothing else is sustainable, everything else you create, somebody else will replicate it.” – Jeff Bezos, CEO, and president of Amazon

I see this as an opportunity to re-think the way we have done things.  Yes, it may be time to re-invent the wheel!  It is a matter of staying agile to respond to the ever-changing environment while fulfilling procurement’s core objective.  The mission has not changed, in my opinion.  How the services are delivered may be different.  How can procurement perform under other circumstances?  Many procurement professionals demonstrated their ability to adapt to the conditions, particularly those equipped with the tools to do so.  Those organizations that did not offer procurement the tools to quickly pivot to a remote environment undoubtedly learn the lesson. I’d like to think that we are leaving this pandemic behind us, but we should not forget that this is not the last crisis.  Mother nature has a way of reminding us that from time to time.  

“You will not find difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even wars have been won or lost primarily because of logistics.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

I believe that it will take a holistic approach to achieve the resiliency to which many in the field are referring.  Public and private sectors felt the impact of the supply chain disruption.  A challenge that procurement has been dealing with is the absence of adequate technical specifications or explicit scopes to procure the goods or services more effectively. Some procurement professionals’ challenges include inefficient processes, lack of sufficient data, decentralized procurement efforts, maverick spend, and minimal market research and analysis. Besides, some organizations cannot attract the right talent or develop the talent they already have.  Combining all of these old problems makes it even more challenging to take on the task of creating a more resilient supply chain and procurement process that can withstand the type of crisis that we have been experiencing since last year. 

Some organizations take an ad hoc approach to improvements.  This strategy is rarely successful due to other unresolved problems.  It is better than doing nothing, but it doesn’t guard the process against the vulnerability seen very early in the pandemic.  The procurement issues will not be resolved at once but considered in any initiative undertaken to prevent more surprises in the next crisis.

“Put a good person in a bad system, and the bad system wins, no contest.”  ~ W. Edwards Deming

Several experts and procurement associations advise on the adoption of best practices like (1) centralizing the procurement function to more effectively leverage effort and resources; (2) establishing a center for excellence where intelligence gathered through market research, spend analysis, and historical information maintained systematically;(3) implement category management to develop expertise within the procurement group; and, (4)  developing the procurement team by equipping them with the tools necessary to offer solutions.  Procurement professionals are much more than gatekeepers. They can be the resident procurement consultant that help deliver results to the organization. 

In summary, the pandemic highlighted the relevance of the procurement function.  It is an opportunity to become the organization’s strategic partner and be well-positioned in the organization with a seat at the table. It is up to each procurement executive to take advantage of the opportunity.

About the Author: Lourdes Coss is a former Chief Procurement Officer living her purpose. She’s the author of “Procurement Methods: Effective Techniques” and uses the lessons of her 27 years career in government procurement and transformation to coach, train, and provide consulting to leaders and aspiring leaders in the profession. Post-Pandemic, you may find her in a café writing her next book.

The Six Most Common KPIs for Procurement

by Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

An important aspect of transformation is setting and achieving goals. Whenever an organization establishes a goal, it should also implement a process to manage it.  That means that you need to measure progress towards the target.  Transformation is not a pre-requisite to establishing and achieving goals.  Organizations do this as a matter of practice, particularly those that want to continue to improve.  

Goals should be supported by a process that informs leadership of the progress towards goal achievement.  It is necessary to establish a way to measure the gap between the current situation and the desired state for a specific objective.  Keeping track of the progress is essential because it is hard to achieve what you don’t track or don’t measure.  

To track progress towards goals, organizations establish Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).  KPIs are quantifiable measurements that help procurement leaders determine how well their organization achieves strategic and operational goals. These measurements are specific to areas relevant to the overall quality of a procurement’s operation.  Each KPI requires the collection of appropriate data pertinent to the KPI that supports the goal.  In some organizations, KPIs’ reporting has been institutionalized across the entity to measure the overall performance and determine alignment with its operational and the strategic objectives established by the governing body or top executive.

When establishing KPIs, the leader must take into consideration the availability of data.  If data is not available, the leader should delineate the method or process for making the data available in the future.  When information is not accessible to establish clear targets, the leader’s experience can help him, or her make educated guesses.  As data becomes available, the leader can adjust the goals.

The KPIs’ objective is to track the progress made by the organization towards the achievement of established goals.  KPIs are also an essential aspect of managing change. Developing indicators that help identify the gap between the current and desired states helps provide a clear picture of any strategic efforts.  

In procurement, there are some KPIs that are most common across many organizations.  These consist of speed, cost, quality, competition, compliance, and customer service.  Some organizations may consider compliance, competition, and customer service as part of quality.  But all of these are relevant in one way or another to each procurement organization. If you are embarking on a journey to measuring performance, here are some key performance indicators that I found worthwhile capturing.  

  1. Speed.  Speed generally refers to the cycle times for the different procurement methods.  Cycle time is an important one because it is the one about which most end users complain.  If we look objectively at speed, we can understand why it is one of the most common end-users’ complaints.  When procurement can provide more predictability on the cycle time of the procurement process, the conversation changes.  Predictability implies that there is some consistency, and consistency inspires a level of trust.  For planning purposes, it is vital to understand how much time the procurement process will take.  This term needs to be built into the project’s timeline so that the end-user can manage expectations and implementation.  Part of the end-users frustration is the inability to anticipate the timeframe that it must allow for the procurement process.  I acknowledge that sometimes the issue is a break in communication.  One thing to also consider under this KPI is whether the procurement was planned or unplanned.  It would be hard to meet a goal when you react to procurements that you didn’t know were coming.  It helps to have a procurement plan and have open lines of communication with your end-users.
  2. Cost.  Cost savings and cost avoidance is a measure that procurement generally track.  In entities where the procurement department reports up to finance, keeping track of cost savings and cost avoidance becomes necessary.  Some organizations keep track of savings to determine the return on the investment of having a procurement team.  This KPI is a good one to use when seeking funding for training, personnel, technology, and other resources.  When the story is favorable, it provides for great marketing.
  3. Quality.  I associate quality with the solicitation document and the process.  The data collected seems more indirect.  There may not be a piece of data that will indicate quality.  Instead, there are a couple of factors that have an impact on quality.  Personnel professional development and training is one of them.  The better-trained personnel is, the higher the quality of the documents should be.  The quality of solicitation documents can be valuable data.  The number of addenda issued to correct a solicitation document after it is made available to the public indicates poorly constructed solicitation documents. There are exceptions to every rule, and there are projects that present unique circumstances.  If there is an excessive number of addenda, it is a sign of a quality issue.
  4. Competition.  The level of competition may indicate a quality issue, but it is also an indicator of other problems.  If your agency’s goal is to receive at least three bids, proposals, or responses on average and your KPI shows a lower number, it might be an indication of some issues that need to be analyzed.  
  5. Compliance.  Compliance may relate to individual policies specific to the agency.  If your agency wants to measure compliance with specific regional goals, you can establish KPIs under this category.
  6. Customer Service.  This one is generally measured based on customer service surveys.  It may not be a monthly KPI.  Instead, reports can be quarterly, semi-annually, or annually.  The regular KPI report may not include this particular one. 

Whenever the organization goes through the exercise of establishing KPIs, collecting data, and reporting on it periodically, it is crucial not to lose sight of these KPIs’ purpose.  You should review and analyze the information so that you can adjust the strategies and tactics if necessary.  The goal is to help you achieve operational or strategic objectives.

To conclude, KPIs are a helpful tool to help manage change and achieve goals.  Being disciplined about interpreting the KPIs will also help you stay on track and determine the effectiveness of strategies and tactics. If your procurement organization is new to establishing KPIs, the ones provided in this article are an excellent place to start. 

The 3 Things You Can do to Become More Adaptable

by Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

Good leaders are adaptable.  Being adaptable in a time when there is so much uncertainty has been beneficial to many.  People that have developed this skill can pivot and adjust to whatever life throws at them. There’s been no time like the present when this skill has been more valuable.  In the last several months, the value of being adaptable has been revealed to us in all of our environments, work, home, social, and even health and spiritual life. 

The Pandemic forced us to pivot in many different aspects of our lives.  It has also, to an extent, sparked our creativity in even our most routine activities and the ones we took for granted. Grocery shopping, dining out, a stroll in the park, and family time have taken a new meaning in many lives.  We learned to appreciate the goodness of life, as we have seen its fragility flash in front of us. It has made us realize how quickly our lives can change.

We are more aware of the value of the little things in life.  The little things that we have discovered are not so small or insignificant.  We have come to realize that what we often refer to as “little things of life” are, in fact, the essential things that bring so much meaning to our lives, like moments with family and friends.  Many crave the in-person interaction when, in the past, we probably skipped an event because of the human interaction overload.  I think that we have reached the other extreme. We now crave human interaction.  

Despite the isolation and distancing, we immediately found a way to stay even more connected.  I think that I talk more with family, friends, and colleagues now than I had in the past.  Perhaps it is the fear of isolation and the need for human connection.  Thanks to the different platforms that rapidly scaled up, many of us were able to pivot quickly.  We found ways to stay connected and even develop friendships with people across the country that perhaps we would not have otherwise formed.

On the procurement front, my colleagues have found creative ways to continue to deliver the level of service that their resources permit.  In doing so, many have discovered that physical presence in a specific site is not a determining factor to effectiveness or productivity. It’s interesting how we can adapt when the situation forces us to.  The thought of telecommuting would have been rejected by most of the government organizations immediately.  It would have been one of those “dead on arrival” ideas that an ingenious person would have brought up in a meeting and immediately rejected by many.  Every argument has its time.  The difference is that absent the current Pandemic; the idea would have been a “nice to have” pie in the sky.  It would have taken much effort to get buy-in and get used to the concept of telecommuting. 

On the other hand, the power of choice is one of the most precious things that we have.  It is what makes us individuals.  Sometimes the power of choice works against us.  Because it allows us to remain stubborn to the current circumstances or the changing environment, it provides the easy out for our fear of change and the unknown.  As long as we can choose, we can choose to do nothing.  Choice and adaptability may seem to be on opposite sides, but I don’t see it that way.  You have the option to adapt to the demands of the environment.

What makes people adaptable? Let’s start with the fact that we are all different, and some adapt to change better than others.  Whether in a crisis or a situation with a less critical change, the fear of the unknown affects some people more than others.  We all have some of that fear. So, what can we do to become more adaptable?  I have some thoughts about that.

Adaptability requires awareness and intentional action.  It requires us to recognize that we can learn new things.  We can succeed under unique circumstances if we are willing and open to new and different thoughts about “how” we approach life and the events that it presents. I believe that there are at least three things that people can do to become more adaptable

  1. Elevate your awareness. Increase your awareness level to bring your thoughts from autopilot to the conscious level.  Sometimes we create patterns and habits that are reinforced by our environment.  We get comfortable and prefer to stay in that comfort zone.  Let’s take a moment to think and challenge our resistance to change. We may see the situation differently, not through the eyes of what’s comfortable but as an opportunity to expand our range of knowledge.  It will, of course, require the discomfort that comes with learning something new.
  2. Embrace the learning opportunity.  When we are open to new experiences and learning, there is a discomfort that comes with growth.  If we embrace learning, we will identify the feelings associated with the learning process.  As we become familiar with those feelings, we may be better able to cope knowing that those feelings are temporary.
  3. Become an advocate for change.  Advocating for change will help you be more open to taking risks. Taking some risk will open you to the opportunity to explore new ways of doing things.  When you encourage others to change, it helps you be more open to taking risks in unfamiliar areas.  The ability to take detours in your journey may bring you more opportunities, but you must be willing to take the risk.  

To sum up, adaptability is a necessary quality of a leader. We can plan for the future, but we cannot predict it.  We should remain flexible to the detours that we encounter in our journey in life, whatever that might be.  The one sure thing is change.  To the extent that we remain flexible and adaptable to whatever comes our way, we will be able to overcome any adversity or challenge.  We should see new circumstances as opportunities for the future.

3 Elements to Create a Collaborative Culture

By Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

Do you know what makes a culture? There are reasons why you should consider it to  develop a collaborative environment? Several factors make up cultures, such as habits, preferences, styles, unwritten codes of behavior, etc.  One thing I learned while leading transformations was that it is the leader that sets the tone. When I hear the saying, “culture eats strategy for lunch,” I can relate. When strategies and culture do not align, change may have a short life span. 

The leader sets the tone and that tone trickles down to everyone in the organization.  People have different personalities. Each person will contribute his/her character to the composite of the organization’s culture.  If it is a positive tone, people will be inspired to collaborate, care, and add value to each other.  The people will make this part of their daily behavior.

On the other hand, if the tone is of distrust and negativity, It will also trickle down and may be perceived as a toxic culture.  The culture of an organization impacts its customers, both internal and external.   People tend to give what they receive; therefore, this is one reason why it is vital to treat employees the way we want them to treat customers.  

Many organizations treat the symptom by providing customer service training.  Although it is a valuable investment, in some cases, not knowing how to treat customers may not be the cause of substandard customer service.  I worked for an agency that had the worst customer service record in the organization.  As a new hire, my task was to turn the organization around and fix the customer service issue.  After brief conversations and observations, I concluded that the customer service issue was merely a symptom of a more significant problem.  The root cause was the leadership style and the negativity that permeated throughout the organization.

Resolving the customer service issue required a fresh start with a new leadership style, shielding staff from the negativity that flowed from higher levels in the organization, and training.  The change in leadership gave everyone the incentive to recommit to their role and approach daily situations with the same consideration and care they were now receiving.  Changing culture is not a quick process.  It requires time for each individual to experience and adopt a new set of unwritten rules for behavior that comes from appreciation, choice, and communication.

1-Appreciation: One way to start changing a toxic culture is by helping people feel appreciated and supported for their work. Regardless of whether it is their responsibility to perform their respective roles, people need to feel that they contribute to something bigger than themselves and their contribution matters.  In his hierarchy of needs model, Maslow identified the need to belong and be appreciated as every individual’s psychological needs.  Naturally, individuals are happier about their environment if it meets their psychological needs.  

Coming up the ranks, I encounter environments where the person in the leadership position offered a constant reminder that everyone’s job security is in the hands of management. The threat to stability puts at risk a person’s means for fulfilling his/her basic need for food and shelter.  Fortunately, many organizations understand the relationship between treating people with respectful appreciation and customer service quality.  When people are happy, the chances for better customer service increase; it starts with the leader.

2-Personal choice and commitment:  Everyone must see something in the leader or environment that compels them to recommit to their job. Each person has a choice. It is the leader’s responsibility to gain the trust of the team.  Each person’s commitment to the group will have a positive compounding effect and help change the culture.  It is a one-event at a time process.  It takes time to change the culture of a government organization.  I benefited from being a new sign of hope for the team.  I didn’t expect to see immediate changes, but I offer them hope for a better future and a new organization.  No one will change on command; it is an individual process, and it happens only if the individual chooses to do so.  Getting buy-in is vital to the transformation process.  

There are a few examples of organizations that have a collaborative culture.  One of them is Chick-A-Filet.  Just visit their drive-through and experience a happy culture.  I don’t usually eat fast food but became curious after hearing a speaker talk about the company’s leadership and their effort to create a collaborative culture. 

3-Communication: Communication is essential in any change process, especially when you strive to have a culture where collaboration is at the center of all success.  Communicating freely in all directions within the organization is necessary to develop an environment of cooperation, trust, and excellence.  It is an excellent idea to provide communication training to make interactions more significant, given the diversity of personalities and backgrounds.  When people understand how to communicate more effectively with others, they can develop better relationships.  One way to help people identify how to communicate with others with different personalities is to offer them the opportunity to take an assessment, whether DISC, Whole Brain, or any other.  The appraisal’s objective is not to pigeon-hole the person into their style, but to offer recommendations on how to best blend their style to more effectively communicate with people with a different personality profile.

To summarize, culture consists of many factors, including personality styles, leadership cues, and the overall environment created overtime.  To change the culture, it takes time and intentional effort by the leader and every individual that makes up the organization.  Showing appreciation for work performed goes a long way to creating a positive environment, which then translates into the service provided to its internal and external customers. Changing the culture also requires the individual commitment of those in the organization, including leadership. Finally, communication is an important factor throughout the change process and maintains the level of collaboration desired by the organization.    The team should communicate in all directions to increase the effectiveness of the team and benefit the organization. Communication is the door to change and, therefore, should be consistent and frequent.

The Principles of Growth and Procurement Transformation

By Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

Transformation and growth go together, and awareness is a prerequisite for development.  I found this to be true throughout my career in public service.  Both personal and organizational development requires the understanding that there is the potential to expand our capabilities and perform at a higher level.  We may have a natural talent in some areas.  But talent alone does not determine the level of performance or success. It is necessary to cultivate and develop those talents.  We all have high potential to become more and do more, but we each choose to use that potential.  I read in several sources that we use anywhere between 10% to 40% of our potential. I can only imagine how much more we would accomplish it we use another 20% of our capabilities.  It is a daily choice that we make to set our priorities and determine how we spend our time.  It is easier to go about life underperforming than elevate our game and take a more challenging path, a path that can lead us to achieve extraordinary things.

Some of us may have lofty goals of making a mark in the world by leaving our leadership legacy for our family, colleagues, and our profession.  Some of us want our existence to matter by making the contributions that future generations can enjoy.  If our goal is to leave a mark in the world, we need to stay relevant, and to remain relevant, we must continue to evolve into the best possible version of ourselves. But growth is change, and change is uncomfortable. 

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” — Albert Einstein

I led a mastermind with a group of procurement professionals. A mastermind is a group of like-minded people who come together to share and discuss ideas and concepts. The book that we studied was “The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth” by Dr. John C. Maxwell.  As I gathered with colleagues and friends, it is refreshing to learn that many want to continue to learn, grow, and make a difference.  We all struggle with the day-to-day and perhaps mundane tasks that often get in the way of our growth.  Sometimes we wonder why we’re not further along in our career or other aspects of life.  I think the answer to that is in our daily schedule, our habits, and routines.  The choices that we make today reveal the results tomorrow. 

The reason these are laws is that they apply in every situation. I am now putting this book in the context of team transformation, and I believe that these laws are applicable based on my experience. There is a reason why they are considered laws. The awareness step always preceded any transformation plan, at least, those I led.  It was necessary to assess and take inventory of the conditions and circumstances that led the team to the present state.  Reflecting on the past helped take stock of the present conditions of the team and their performance.  This reflection and observations helped identify the gap between the vision for the future and the current state.  Understanding the gap helped me develop a path forward.  The purpose of the goals for growth was to help the team become people who could achieve the vision.  Change, of course, was necessary.

In my opinion, John Maxwell’s laws of reflection, intentionality, and awareness are present in the initial assessment exercise.  If we want to grow, it is necessary to take inventory of where you are, determine where you want to be, and be intentional about taking steps that move us towards the desired state. The law of the mirror comes into play when the organization decides to invest in the procurement team’s transformation. From the organizational perspective, those making the decision see sufficient value in the procurement function to invest in it.  

Interestingly, these laws apply both at the group level and the individual level. Each individual in the organization needs to self-assess where they are and where they want to go.  Once they identify the gap, they can design their growth journey.  Individual awareness goes beyond professional goals.  Taking a hard look at themselves in every aspect of their lives is ideal.  Understanding where we are is vital because we cannot change what we don’t know is broken or no longer serves us. Having awareness is the first step, but we must also take action. Action has to be very intentional to move us in the direction of our vision for the future.  

Another law that I found revealing was the law of the environment.  I can relate this law to the culture of the organization.  The atmosphere within the team may or may not be conducive to growth and development.  In an organization, everyone influences everyone else.  When each member of the organization is at a higher level of awareness and has the right leadership in promoting an environment of collaboration, that environment will be conducive to growth.   This particular law says that “growth thrives in conducive environments.” We don’t select our co-workers, but a team environment can make change possible. If the people around us are on a growth journey, the chances for the team’s collective growth are more significant.

We see the law of the rubber band in the tension created by growth.  Change is difficult, and development requires change.  This tension between the comfort zone and the unknown translates into growth both individually and collectively. When we stretch our abilities, we are essentially learning and growing.  Challenging situations offer us tremendous growth opportunities.  Being in that tension stage is very challenging, particularly for the most tenured staff.  Imagine going from the most knowledgeable in the room to having to re-learn your job!  Although you are always the most knowledgeable in the group, there is no tension and, therefore, not growth.  This tension stage is uncomfortable, but as the rubber band, individuals add the most value to the organization.  This tension is a good thing even though there’s plenty of frustration.  To stay relevant, one must continue to grow and change.  This tension benefits everyone both individually and collectively. 

Growth tension can be maintained when each team member remains curious about the continuous improvement of processes and finding ways to bring best practices to the operation. Staying curious is an asset that will help keep the individuals in the team growing.  An environment that enables individuals to explore that curiosity will benefit the entire organization.

We can observe on the back end of the transformation process, the laws of expansion and contribution.  The result of the growing tension is the increased capabilities of the team and each individual.  As the group expands its capabilities in an environment conducive to growth, team members will want to share knowledge, particularly with new team members.  This mindset of sharing information, helping those around you, and contributing to others’ growth also helps individuals get a more in-depth understanding of what they have learned.  An environment of collaboration is beneficial when it comes to change.

To conclude, I think that all of the laws discussed in the book are important and very relevant both on an individual basis or a group basis.  I only mentioned a few of the 15 laws of growth.   These are present in the transformation process, starting with awareness, reflection, intentionality, and worth (law of the mirror) at the very beginning.  Growth comes from the tension caused by a change in an environment that supports collaboration and the continued curiosity for continuous improvement.  Finally, when team members can teach each other, their knowledge is elevated and helps create a culture of collaboration, growth, and development. 

The ABC Strategies for Procurement Transformation

By Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

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

By Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

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

By Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

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

By Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

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

By Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

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

By Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

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

By Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

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

By Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

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. 

Three Skills to Conquer The Modern Day Frontier

by Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

Procurement professionals’ role continues to evolve with the increase of technology and automation.    The pandemic presented us with a wake-up call on preparedness.  Technology and automation were no longer an option to function and stay relevant in the midst of it all.  As electronic systems replace manual processes, procurement professionals will need to strengthen or acquire different skills to complement the changes. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will likely accelerate the pace of change as more innovation penetrates procurement and supply chain.

There is no denying that we need to understand the process and how everything works together in procurement.  Many procurement professionals have excelled in this area.  But teams that thrive when presented with adversity require more than process sequence.  The much talked about seat at the table has been the topic of many conversations, presentations, and even conferences.  There have been pockets of progress in this area.  But the advancement has not been sufficient to make this concept universally accepted in all organizations.  

The pandemic shone the light on the role of procurement professionals.  It was an opportunity for many to leave the anonymity of the back-office function.  Those that were ready stepped up.  Problems compounded for those unprepared to lead the organization through a crisis that called for the availability of supplies in a field of scarcity.  As we reflect, problem-solving skills, communication, and relationships were vital skills to overcome the issues organizations were facing.  

The “Modern Day Frontier” is where science and art collide in the area of AI. We have come a long way in data analytics to aid in the decision-making process.  Such advancements need the complement of the human factor to prioritize and determine the value of the information.  It is an opportunity to enhance the skills where no machine has yet made a debut.  The human brain is the most sophisticated organ capable of imagination, human care, and emotion. No machine has yet replicated these qualities.  The human factor will always be a required element to any successful organization.

Soft skills has not been the top priority in most fields.   Such skills like leadership, connecting, and learning to establish good relationships are imperative for the procurement professional today and tomorrow. Teams that are in the continued pursuit of growth, innovation, and relationship building generally have a strong leader.  Making small shifts today to acquire the skills necessary to thrive in the future will pay vast dividends.  

“Become the kind of leader that people would follow voluntarily; even if you had no title or position.” —Brian Tracy

Leadership – Leadership was is and remains a valuable skill, especially in the heat of the pandemic.  Staying calm and bringing clarity to the next steps was an asset during the crisis. Driving and maintaining the engagement of employees required the emotional maturity of a good leader.  Division, doubt, and fear were prevalent in most environments. Strong leaders were able to leverage diverse teams’ talents and not give in to the negativity and division highlighted that plagued many communities around the country.  And while achieving the highest performance of a work-from-home team, they were still able to influence the organization to not stray from the procurement mission.  As innovation continues to impact the world of procurement, leadership will become even more relevant at all levels in the organization by guiding it through the shifts and pivots.  

The Most Important Thing In Communication Is Hearing What Isn’t Said.”

Peter  Drucker

Communication – Communication is a skill necessary for all. Good communication skills include the ability to connect with others by listening attentively to understand rather than focus on your message.  Problem-solving requires the use of good communication skills.  It is crucial to consider the art of a good question because the quality of the information obtained depends significantly on the quality of the question.   When you communicate to understand and ask the right questions, you will also enhance your negotiation skills.  Understanding what others are seeking can help you develop options for more successful negotiations.  

“Even the Lone Ranger didn’t do it alone.”—Harvey MacKay

Relationship building – Building relationships with internal and external stakeholders, is not something that I see relegated to AI in the foreseeable future.  Supplier relationships, end-user relationships, and the professional network had a massive impact on the entities’ solutions during the beginning of the pandemic.  The extent to which procurement professionals develop their professional relationships can influence and increase their options available to solve problems.  Relationship building is a core function of the procurement professional and one of the skills required to access innovative ideas and solutions on behalf of their organization.

To summarize, as we look to the procurement profession’s future, these are three skills that the procurement professional will need to be successful in the job.  Leadership, communication, and relationship building are not skills that will be automated or absorbed by AI, at least in the foreseeable future.  It is the time to start preparing for the future of procurement and be ready to conquer the modern-day frontier.