To be included, you must be a team player
I spend some of my time supporting a variety of MBA and executive education programs at international business schools. This support includes discussion and mentoring of project teams.
Recently, I spent a couple of hours talking with a group of senior managers – all at Vice-President level – from the defense industry. They were examining how their companies could improve supplier selection, particularly in the context of choosing suppliers who would assist innovation. Very early in the conversation they made a point of telling me that they had deliberately not included anyone from Supply Management in their team ‘because they seem to us to be the problem’.
I could not dispute this conclusion because it was clearly based on experience. They felt that procurement groups are detached from broader business needs and lack empathy or judgment. So their answer was to look at ways of excluding them from the selection and appointment process.
If this had been a junior group, or perhaps a group consisting largely of people from sales, business development or engineering, I would have understood this approach, even if I did not agree with it. But the group was far from junior and it was very cross-functional. In fact, the leader was head of HR at a major manufacturer.
We had a long – and I think useful – discussion about the wider challenges of supplier selection and motivation, including ways to develop relationships that encourage innovation. But of course I eventually came back to the question of the Supply Management role. I felt that I must point out that the behavior of procurement staff is in large part driven by the messages they receive from senior management – in particular, the way they are measured. So rather than exclude or work around a key business function, would it not be smarter to alter their success criteria and metrics? The group continued to sound dubious. At this point, they raised a variety of objections, most of which related to ‘low skill levels’, ‘poor communication’ and ‘not motivated to be team players’. But perhaps the most telling was the observation that ‘we are not clear what added-value supply managers bring to the table. They seem totally process-driven and have no real ambition to understand what drives a good supplier or a healthy relationship’.
This comment reminded me of work that was done to research inclusion in high-performing project teams. It highlighted that to be considered and welcomed as a core team member, two attributes were essential. First, you needed to bring areas of specific knowledge or techniques that others lacked; second – and more important – was the need to have wider connections to a network that might be useful to the team. In their experience of Supply Management, this group felt those two characteristics were lacking; they could not see what they considered ‘useful’ knowledge and they felt that procurement is generally too insular and limited in its outreach.
Yesterday, I had a feeling of deja-vu when I met with a professor who teaches contract and commercial management at a top business school. He commented on his experience of teaching commercial staff – both buy-side and sell-side – and said ‘They seem to lack interest in expanding their thinking. I try to get them to read your blog, to read and make observations about relevant research – and they just seem to switch off. It takes them out of their comfort zone. They don’t want to expand their ideas or consider new approaches that don’t fit with current practice.’
So next time you hear someone in contract management or procurement complaining about not being included or consulted, have them read this blog and ask them to reflect on whether they meet the characteristics of a team player ……