A Strategic Sourcing Consultant’s Guide to the First 90 Days

June 16, 2015

This guest post comes from John Conley, a Strategic Sourcing expert who’s worked with some top organizations to cultivate cost savings and collaboration between formerly-siloed business functions. It’s a good read, and will be useful to any Strategic Sourcing professionals or individuals working to effect organizational change. Thanks to John for the excellent post! 

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Measuring Organizational Readiness:

A Strategic Sourcing Consultant’s Guide to the First 90 days 

There’s a single question that recruiters and future clients ask me most often. “Why do you move around so much?”

I first moved to Toronto without a job and was determined to find my way in business. I visited every temp agency I could find. I called every day and dropped by at least once per week. Within a month, I landed a temporary job at a major telecommunications company as a buyer in their wireless division. Eventually my role became a contract, then a full-time opportunity. After 4 years I was called by my first recruiter. Since then I’ve moved around quite a lot.

Sourcing departments provide a severely underrated value to organizations. If you’re a C-Level Executive, take special note, we’re not just about cost-savings. We cultivate greater corporate self-awareness by fostering inter-department collaboration.

I’ve worked for many organizations with a variety of challenges. There have been some with no technology strategy and others with disconnected company silos. Last-minute thinking and a lack of planning seems to be fairly standard for most organizations under 500 employees. Most organizations over-spend on operational costs. I’ve seen multi-million dollar software solutions that were completely unusable because buyers weren’t self-aware enough to understand their own requirements. In organizations such as these a skilled operator becomes quickly frustrated. I find it easy to integrate into a new culture. I love new ideas, new challenges and new projects. I love solving puzzles and finding patterns. It turns out that all makes me see the big-picture very quickly. Today, when I start a new contract, I ask myself if this place is the kind where I’d want to spend the rest of my career. Do I get excited thinking about their future and how I can help build it?

Here are my rules for quickly assessing an organization once I’m in the door.

1. Follow the Money – A company’s spending habits provide insight into their decision making process

moneyFew departments see the effects of inter-department inefficiency more than Sourcing. Every organization needs a fair balance of control and agility. A financial institution of 60,000 employees needs much different controls than an online retailer of 2,000. What are those controls? What are their budgetary processes like? Are they more reactive than proactive, more transactional than strategic? Are decisions made last minute? Do they document the reasons behind their decisions? Is there a planning process? Do they build business plans?

Understanding how a company makes decisions and spends its money will give you a very good barometer for what they consider important. It will inform the company’s appetite for risk.

A lack of self-knowledge leads to ambiguous business and technical requirements which lead to poor purchase decisions and poor agreements. A lack of planning leads to rushed purchases that only compound the previous issues with timing constraints and further hinder your ability to negotiate an effective agreement.

2. Listen to people complain

Every organization has problems and empathy is your key to unlocking them. Cultivate your listening skills and offer support and advice to those around you. Listen to gossip about what’s wrong. The biggest communication problem most people have is that we listen to reply, not to understand. DO NOT talk about fixing things. DO NOT talk about how they did things elsewhere. DO NOT complain with them. DO NOT think of something clever to say while they’re speaking. Simply acknowledge their burdens. Most people have a deep desire to be understood by others. Acknowledging their challenges will help you build good relationships and unlock the hidden objectives of those around you. People have a tendency to focus on negatives, so you’re going to hear what’s going wrong for an individual person. Complaints often come in the form of a joke or a sarcastic comment. These complaints or jokes are extremely vital. They underpin the areas of greatest opportunity within particular areas of an organization. Encourage them to ask for help with comments such as, “We eventually figured out a way through it, so I’m confident you will too.” It’s often best to let people ask for help on their own terms. Once they do, use your knowledge of them to truly help them achieve their objectives and you’ll have a supporter and champion for life.

Most importantly, a pattern to these complaints should emerge. These patterns tell you a lot about the issues a company is facing. As a sourcing professional, it’s also your role to help companies solve problems. These people are unwittingly ready to participate in transformation. Harness that negative energy and use it to drive the machinery of change. They too want to see things better and can be motivated to own, participate, or champion the change.

Strategic sourcing professionals should be advisors, assisting our clients achieve their objectives through supplier engagement and contractual commitment. Sometimes we need to play the role of psychologist, seeking to understand the motivations behind their objectives, rather than focusing on the objectives themselves.

3. Why? Why Not?

True understanding only comes through curiosity. The greatest question you can ask to achieve understanding is “why.” A word of caution: asking why can be dangerous in companies. Most people interpret it as a challenge to their decision making process, or simply that you’re treading into their territory. If you ask someone “why” and they get upset or defensive, it tells you they haven’t answered the question themselves, or worse, they’re not comfortable with sharing the answer for one reason or another.

Empathy is once again the key to getting your clients to open up to you. If you’ve already established yourself as their trusted advisor, having them open up about why will be a much easier task.

At one consulting role I was passed “an exciting project.” The project was going to be a major new piece of software that was intended to speed up the way we could make certain online changes. I always request a meeting with project stakeholders before taking on a huge piece of work to determine the scope of the overall project, see what their measures of success are, etc. At this executive session, I uncovered that the reason we had purchased the initial piece of software was to deal with the short-comings of another piece of software that was severely outdated. Ultimately, we were looking for a new patch to an old problem. When I left the executive’s office, we were looking to replace the problem piece of software instead, which had the added benefit of eliminating the need for the other piece of software.

My point is this – your internal clients are trying to achieve some specific objective. As a sourcing professional, you are an integral partner in helping them do it successfully. You need to know the Why’s of an organizational requirement so you can negotiate with precision, the What, Where, When and How from the Who.

4. Change

Apple started with 3 people. What Apple didn’t start with was a legal, human resources or global sourcing department. At some point along their growth to today’s 100,000 employees, it was recognized these things were necessary so that their future business ideas could be achieved. Companies, like people, must change if they’re going to survive.

change-arrowEarly in my career I was at an organization that went through some dramatic short-term changes. The department executive was packaged out and a new executive was hired to shake things up, which was something they certainly did. At our introductory meeting each employee was provided with a copy of the book, “Who Moved My Cheese” and asked to reflect on it. For those who have never read the book, it presents a series of characters and describes how they all differ in their ability to deal with change. The new executive then told everyone they should expect there to be major changes, and that we wouldn’t like many of these changes.

While the new executive’s heart was in the right place, trying to prime the organization’s employees for change, I wouldn’t recommend this approach. The “Hems and Haws” of your organization are going to dig in deep and do everything to prevent change, while the others may “Sniff” out new opportunity or “Scurry” away to other organizations. In the end you’re left with the exact people you don’t want, the ones that don’t want to change anything and will hold on desperately to their delusions. You think the chain you tie around them will help you drag them along the road to change, but it’s really attached to the anchor that’s keeping you stuck at sea.

What struck me most about this book was that someone else was moving the cheese.

The reality is that most companies talk a great game, but PEOPLE are the ones that need to change companies. If an organization does not have culture that champions, looks for and adopts change, or if people don’t get excited talking about a project or a new idea, then be prepared for an uphill battle. If it takes 2-3 weeks for a person to develop a new habit, it must take organizations 10 times as long and requires a greater amount of reinforcement during that time.

I look for the signs an organization is open to change. Do employees feel they can effect change in their own departments? How about other departments? Is there a change management team? Is there a process improvement team? I’m looking for an organization that wants employees to become participants in their future successes.

So next time you land at a new organization, remember to;

1.       Do your diligence

Figure out your organization’s checks and balances. Ask yourself if they align with the organization’s business model. Look at company spend to back up your findings. Wonder about how your company is organized and why it is organized that way.

2.       Be empathetic

 Caring about the successes of your clients will make them view Sourcing as partner in their success, not a roadblock. You want to become their trusted advisor. You do that by exercising your empathy muscles.

3.       Always ask why

 When you’re already a partner, asking why is easy. Until then, pay attention and be there for them when they do ask.

4.       Look for change and champion it

 Everyone needs a cheerleader, but nobody needs it more than change.

Once you understand how your organization works, you’ll know if it’s going to work for you. I’m ready for a long-term relationship. I’m looking for a place that’s ready for someone like me. I want to help companies achieve greater financial success. I want leadership that is ready to answer the question why. I want a culture that thinks of the big picture and dares to dream of perfection. I want a place that embraces change and adopts it as a means of planning for the uncertainty of tomorrow. 

So when I’m asked in an interview or a meeting why I move around so much?

It’s not me it’s you. Ok it’s both of us. We just weren’t meant for each other.

 – – –

ebook-cover-3d-final.originalHey! Have you heard of Argentus’ eBook, How to Nail the Interview? It’s chock full of Interview guides for Strategic Sourcing, Supply Chain, and Procurement Professionals. 

Leverage Argentus’ recruiters decades of combined experience to learn how to master every major interview format, including common pitfalls and unique areas of opportunity. 

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