When was the last time you reached out to a Procurement Guru? Although the battleground is changing, those among us with scars have a lot of relevant insights to share.
We knew we’d be in for a treat when we locked in an interview with ISM board member Ann Oka. Ann is the former senior VP of supply management (CPO) for Sodexo, Inc. in North America where she was responsible for a whopping US$5.5 billion spend.
While working, Ann believed in contributing beyond her formal role, and served on the board of trustees for the A.T. Kearney Center for Strategic Supply Leadership at ISM, the board of the Sodexo Stop Hunger Foundation, and was a member of the executive committee of the GS1 Foodservice Initiative. She retired in June of 2014, and other than the ISM board, now occupies her time with family and leisure.
Of course, she has a wealth of knowledge to draw from thanks to decades of procurement experience but, interestingly, she’s objective about its value to the next generation of procurement professionals. “Some things don’t change over time; motivating and leading people, looking at evolving tech and enlarging the sources of value. But, whilst there might be a lot of insights those of us with scars can give, the battleground is changing.”
The battleground may well be changing but surely that means Ann’s insights, as a seasoned pro, are all the more significant? As such, we were fascinated to learn how she has seen the profession develop over time and what she believes the future holds.
The evolution of procurement
Ann explains how drastically procurement’s role has changed over the years, both in terms of job responsibilities and external perceptions of the profession. “Where people were once identified as buyers or negotiators, they became category managers as the implementation of strategic sourcing evolved. These developments redefined the role of the average procurement person – they became professionals; their strategic impact increased and they had a broader scope.”
It’s a tricky and lengthy transition to lead any team through. “There’s a big task in the up-skilling of your people, particularly when you want to bring as many of them along with you as you can.”
Of course, some things don’t change. “The major evolution of procurement that we’re currently experiencing is comparable, in many ways, to what happened twenty years ago” Ann begins. “It was in the mid-90s when I first realised the importance of systems, technology and data. There was a tremendous amount of data available to procurement and category management, but harnessing it and getting it into the hands of the supply professionals was the challenge.”
What does the future hold?
Ann believes that the most competent procurement professionals will take the onslaught of Artificial Intelligence entirely in their stride. As she puts it, in a message to “The Change Resistant”:
“The train has come to the station. You have the choice of getting on it – and we’ll help you with the ticket – or you can be run over.”
The bottom line, she says, is that “people may well have been successful in the past, but the world is changing and you need to change with it, or it will pass you by.”
As far as procurement roles being totally displaced by AI, Ann is sceptical at best. “I don’t think the advent of new technology really changes a procurement role. Those with an ability to look at the long-term picture will be able to incorporate that into their strategies. Look at how the future is evolving and the possibilities it presents and work out how you’re going to work with the firm and with your supply base to extract the maximum value.”
Permission To Fail, Please!
It’s apparent that Ann rates a good procurement leader as much as, if not more than, someone who’s AI-ready. “The harder thing for many organisations is having a management team that allows employees room to stretch and fail, that lets them try new things without instilling a fear of repercussions. There is such a thing as a successful failure. People are loath to say a project they’ve run hasn’t worked out, fearing they will be judged on its success or failure. But occasionally encountering a failure is a part of the journey to improvement.”
Procurement leaders can effectively work as safety nets for their teams. They should allow enough flexibility but know when to pull the plug to avoid too much fallout.
“I was in my position at Sodexo for 11 years. It allowed us to do things like put in some industry-leading systems, change the way we worked with suppliers, and harvest a culture of continuous improvement. In this time the continuous improvement team came up with several far-fetched ideas and used the leadership team as a sounding board. It’s useful to invite new ideas and to have an off-the-wall ways of looking at things.”
Of course, not everyone thinks in this way. The key is finding people who have strategic vision. “Leaders should be on the look out for hires who have an intellectual curiosity and the courage to tickle the edges of things that are scary. Embracing functional diversity is important in achieving this – perhaps your next star will come from legal, or IT, or straight out of college?”
Once a CPO, always a CPO
She might be retired, but its clear to see Ann still lives and breathes procurement. “I have people from past roles who, surprisingly, come back and approach me for our old heart-to-hearts”. She holds board positions and still mentors younger professionals. Safe to say there’s a spot for her on our board any day!
We concluded the interview with a final piece of advice from Ann; “If you’re a CPO, think about how you best position your company for tomorrow. Keep an eye on emerging technologies and bring the conversation to the table.” In other words, don’t miss the train!