Purposeful and Transparent Supplier Communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Truths I Learned About Leadership

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

Effective leadership skills are transferable. 

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

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

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

Leadership is about service to others. 

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

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

An effective leader has willing followers. 

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

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

The leader sets the tone for the organizational culture. 

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

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

Leadership happens at all levels of the organization. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Listen to Understand

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

2. Clear and Concise Message

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

3. Connection

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

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

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

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

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