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.

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.

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 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.