Preserving the 'art' of procurement through formalised mentoring and coaching programmes

By Ian Hendry

Present-day procurement is part science, part art.

The 'science' of procurement, although challenging, can be learned quite easily from education institutions. However, the 'art' of making procurement work for a specific company is not as easily acquired at university. Unfortunately, this aspect of procurement is often overlooked.

In procurement, more so than in any other industry, it is crucial to be able to work closely with business units and to objectively understand the business needs of a company. Of course, procurement is about curbing costs, but, more importantly, it is about finding the delicate balance between cost reduction and purchase management.

Procurement rules that are too tight will stifle innovation and business growth, which will end up being more costly for the company. If there is an imbalance between procurement and the business' needs, the business will find ways around procurement, leading to a distorted view of the expenses incurred by a company.

A former procurement manager at Nedbank, for example, had a very pragmatic view about travel procurement. He did not believe in telling employees what to do, but instead worked on increasing visibility and transparency. Employees were at liberty to choose the flights they wanted to book for their corporate travels, but the system clearly showed the traveller possible cheaper options that were available. Once travellers were aware of their options, it was up to them to justify their choice.

Through this system, Nedbank saved almost R50-million in travel expenses over a three-year period. This kind of understanding as well as knowledge of the company and human behaviour comes with experience: it is the 'art' of procurement that enables a business and its employees to make better decisions and, as a result, cut costs. It is imperative that we transfer this kind of valuable knowledge of the procurement space through formalised mentoring and coaching programmes.

New, junior staff have a lot to gain from having a mentorship relationship with a more senior employee who is an experienced and knowledgeable procurement expert in the company, someone who is willing to invest their time by sharing their expertise. The mentee can bounce ideas off of their mentor and tap into the valuable knowledge base of the mentor.

Research has shown that the S-shaped learning curve is ideal for keeping employees motivated and engaged throughout their careers. This learning curve starts off slowly, speeds up significantly after 12 months and then slows down again after five years. A good mentor knows how to guide employees through this learning curve by stretching and challenging them. This, in turn, can result in significantly lower staff turnaround at a company.

Throughout one's career, mentors continue to play an important role and can be considered as one's personal board of directors. Mentors can be people who are knowledgeable in leadership, procurement and collaboration. If you want to grow, it is advisable to find mentors in each skill that you would like to acquire.

It is important for companies to remember that the decision of whether new procurement professionals entering the company want a mentor is theirs to make. If they agree to have a mentor because 'they are told they have to', the benefits will not be as far-reaching.

From a company perspective, it is important to identify the more experienced people within the organisation and approach them with the opportunity to be recognised as a mentor. This will allow the company to build a panel of mentors available to assist young entrants into the industry.

Alongside a mentoring programme, companies can also look at appointing coaches. Although coaching is relatively new in South Africa, it is a tried-and-tested approach in the United States of America. Nedbank has taken the leap in South Africa by having more than 65 professional coaches who are all keen to help top performers reach greater heights.

Coaches aren't necessarily more knowledgeable than the employee in their own area of expertise. Instead, a coach asks insightful questions to help the employee make important decisions on their own. This is very similar to what happens in the sporting arena: a tennis coach is not necessarily a better tennis player, but they know how to bring out the best in their athlete.

A good coach has an inquisitive mind and will ask open-ended questions that they did not know the answers to. By asking how employees would approach a situation, instead of dictating how they should, better solutions are often achieved. By formulating their own solutions, people are more willing to make significant changes, which, in turn, will lead to significant improvements at a company.

Companies wanting to implement a coaching programme will need to determine which type of coaching they will offer. They can appoint an internal coach within the company, work with an external coach or choose to equip existing managers with coaching skills.

Although the latter option might seem the most straightforward, the truth is this is quite difficult to implement. Coaching is not a natural skill for a number of today's managers - they tend to lean towards telling people what to do instead of asking questions that will get employees thinking.

If a company wants to implement a formal coaching structure and no internal professional coaches are available within the company, then the best option is to identify external coaches.

Unfortunately, this is not an easy task: coaching is a term that is frequently misused, with many people proclaiming themselves as a coach. The best way to identify reliable coaches is to turn to a registered coaching body such as the International Coaching Federation (ICF) or Coaches and Mentors of South Africa (Comensa).

Whichever road your company chooses, it is important that we do not lose the art of procurement. Now is the time to invest in the future generation of procurement leaders by establishing formalised mentoring and coaching programmes.

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