There have recently been some published opinions about the skills required for success in purchasing and supply management.
Some of these opinions I strongly disagree with, specifically those related to the polarization of general problem solving skills vs. industry-specific expertise. Some thought leaders have said that general problem solving skills should take priority over industry-specific expertise.
I think that it is necessary and not unreasonable to expect any good candidate to have both when recruiting for more strategic purchasing jobs. Plus, in my experience, I have seen real-world regret for filling a strategic position with people with excellent raw intelligence but no closely-related experience instead of people with industry-specific expertise.
As someone who has spent significant parts of his career recruiting purchasing professionals, I personally know the importance of hiring someone who can “hit the ground running.” Yes, I agree, some purchasing skills can be taught and learned rather quickly. But what about more complex capabilities like understanding how to execute hedging strategies for fuel purchasing? Or leading a team responsible for multiple and diverse categories?
These skills aren’t so easy to teach. And waiting two years for the high-EQ individual to learn the in’s and out’s isn’t a luxury that a lot of purchasing executives have. Today’s management wants results NOW!
So managers have to recruit people with both general problem solving skills/raw intelligence and industry-specific expertise. And, if there has to be a tie-breaker, these managers will prefer candidates whose ability to succeed in (not to mention enjoy) a particular industry or category is proven by their track record and not “theory” or “hope” that their bet that someone can learn quickly will pay off.
There is a huge amount of risk in ignoring lack of industry/category expertise.
I’d like to back up my position on this issue by recommending that you check out Purchasing Magazine’s interview with Garry Berryman, the CPO of Sarah Lee Corp. In this interview, Berryman lists attracting new talent as one of his major accomplishments of the past year.
He says, “It’s through that talent, who are category experts within the product streams that we’re procuring goods and services through, that enable us to be effective with our business unit partners internal to Sarah Lee, as well as the supplier community and the key suppliers that we’re going to be aligning with to deliver this kind of value over the course of time.
“It’s one very fundamental truth that we are very respectful of and that’s expertise is really an enabler to outcomes that you simply can’t substitute with any other element. You’ve got to have strong people who understand the industry, who know where the experts are at, and are able to drive for performance levels that only the experts – technically as well as operationally – are able to do day in and day out. “