Musings on Talent Management

Today I’d like to welcome Dick Locke from Global Procurement Group.

Thank you to the doctor for the opportunity to contribute. Here are my thoughts from the perspective of someone involved in the training aspects of globalizing supply management.

I’m optimistic overall. The caliber of people attending my seminars has improved, and the caliber of commentary on supply management issues has gone up. In my field, the nadir was reached in approximately the year 2000 when ISM removed all international content from their C.P.M. exam. The reason? Very few of the companies that participated in ISM surveys sourced internationally. (That included their retail participants, believe it or not.) Since then, ISM essentially reinvented itself and scrapped not only their own Board of Directors but also the whole C.P.M. program. Their new certification is intended to have strong international content.

The reasons that we are seeing better talent, in my view, is that there is

  1. a significantly better recognition of the strategic nature of sourcing and supply chain management and
  2. a better division of those strategic functions from the tactical aspects of procurement.

Sourcing and supply chain management are complex and challenging. Sourcing in a global environment requires skills in analysis, human relationships, laws, regulations, economics and a great deal of flexibility. Complexity and multi-faceted challenges attract talented people as long as the tasks they tackle are achievable.

In the computer industry, we realized sourcing remains a core competency even when manufacturing isn’t. All the computer companies use the same small group of component suppliers and subcontract manufacturers. To differentiate the cost or flexibility of manufacturing products, the computer companies have to be able to negotiate better deals than either their competitors or the subcontract assemblers can.

Now, a couple of caveats.

One is that talent is one thing, knowledge is another. In the United States, Japan, and a few other countries, imports and exports are a low percent (around 18-20%) of the country’s GDP. People can come away from training programs or even university degrees with very little global knowledge. I have a 10-question quiz on international skills on my website. About 4 people per day take the test. Up to a few years ago, people typically got one or two questions right. Now they are typically getting four or five right. While both talent and knowledge are increasing, don’t assume even the most talented professional will know about foreign exchange risk management, for example.

The second is that it’s easy to drive talent away. Talented people don’t tolerate bureaucracy and routine very well. I can think of three types of bureaucracy that need to be contained.

One is just plain rules and regulations. I know of one ex-client with a good reputation whose people couldn’t carry on a substantive conversation on procurement issues for more than a few minutes without reference to their book of rules. Back when I worked at HP, I inherited a department who believed they had to ask companies such as Texas Instruments once per year if they were a small business or not. When suppliers see that kind of silliness, it diminishes the buying company. When talented people see that kind of demand on them, they vote with their feet and walk away.

Another is giving too much power to departments such as legal and finance. As a consultant, I’ve received 30 page contract proposals with a quarter page of statement of work in them. It takes a mighty big potential level of business for me to spend any time on those proposals. If you have a standard purchase contract, it’s reasonable for a legal department to control maybe five or ten percent of it. The rest is pure business issues that your professionals should be able to (and expected to) control. Lawyers are wonderful people but there’s an old saying that “when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”.

I’ve also seen finance departments unilaterally decide to pay suppliers late. Successful heads of procurement must be able to claim and maintain their department’s role as the manager of the relationships.

Finally, I’m a bit concerned about “technological bureaucracy”. Hard-to-operate software can become all-consuming or can result in the technical wizards being given all the recognition. And the idea that all interfaces (such as e-RFX) can be automated can eliminate the human aspect of procurement. That aspect of procurement is vital for business relationships in most of the world. The challenges of doing this will also attract talented people.

So, for obtaining and maintaining talent effectively, here are a few guidelines.

  • Create jobs that talented people will want.
    Don’t try to put talented people into bureaucratic situations.
  • Separate the tactical and strategic functions.
    Tactical problems will too often take priority over stragegic issues. Not only will your strategies not advance, your most talented people will leave.
  • Train your people.
    Talent and knowledge are two separate issues.
  • Fight fiercely against practices that can drive talented people out.