The Big Interview with Bilal Shaykh

How did you get into procurement?

I have worked with suppliers throughout my whole career, but I initially started in technical and supplier quality assurance roles. When I was approached about a promotion into a procurement role I thought I would give it a try – and the rest is history! I’ve never looked back.

Looking back on it I’ve been a procurement professional all my life in terms of market research and understanding the needs and cost of ownership, to me it was just common sense – so to start doing this with vast sums of money was great fun! I really enjoyed it and it gave me the ability to link markets to businesses and deliver results.

What success are you most proud of in your career to date?

Anybody in Procurement can give you a long list that includes hard savings and payment term improvements, inventory reduction and, even in certain cases, increased sales due to new product developments.

I can list all of these myself, but for me, at a personal level, the aspect that gives me the most pride is people development.

Recognising people’s potential and giving them opportunities, helping them remove any obstacles to grow and progress in their roles gives me my proudest moments.

I remember one person in particular who transferred from the US back to the UK during a period of reorganisation.

He came to me and said, “I’m towards the end of my career and I’m not sure whether I’m the type of person that you want.

If you want to give me a package then I’ll happily leave.” We sat and discussed what was making him feel so disengaged and I discovered that there were certain elements of his job, and hurdles in his work, that were putting him down.

I knew that we couldn’t lose him as a result of these obstacles, so together we worked through them and he ended up accepting a promotion.

I had changed him from looking for a way out and taking early retirement to somebody who was really committed to the business and facing continuous promotions.

These are the great fist-pumping moments for me!

What do you love about your role?

In my role as CPO what I love most is the freedom I am given by the company’s executive to reshape the procurement function as I see fit.

I’m given a lot of trust.

When I first joined Centrica and had my introductory meeting, one of the executive committee members said to me, “I’m not entirely sure what Procurement is, but boy am I glad that you’re with us!” I value the freedom I have – but delivering results is a ticket to play – you need to earn that freedom, you’re not just entitled to it!

Are there any aspects of your role that can be challenging?

The biggest challenge for me is that I always used to work in teams with peers who understood procurement.

We could talk Procurement, compare notes and bounce ideas off each other.

Once you get to the top, you’re on your own. Now I’m CPO, there are no peers to discuss things with, and that can be a little bit lonely at times.

Even though I have networks of other CPOs with similar problems to talk to, the context is different. You can get answers in some sense, but they’re not always as relevant as you need them to be.

What does your typical day at work look like for you?

There is no typical day in terms of content, but in terms of format, there is.

I generally start my day catching up with my PA who runs my diary (with a diary there can’t be two bosses, so I do what I’m told!).

I tend to have several one on one meetings with stakeholders, team members or suppliers, and one or two meetings with larger groups of people.

I also take some time to prepare and catch up on e-mails and phone calls.

One of the biggest changes over the last few years is how modern video conferencing technologies have made life much easier, eliminating the need for much of the travel I used to do in the past – you can share slides and work on things with people all over the world – a far more efficient and effective way of working. You should always meet face to face initially to establish a relationship but following on from that video conferencing is just fine.

What trends have you observed within procurement recently?

My reflection over the last 20 years is that themes in procurement are constant. We’ve always needed to make savings, we’ve always tried to go beyond savings, and every now and then an external matter comes up that we need to react to – be it a financial crisis that affects suppliers or new legislation.

Right now, for example, we’re reacting to GDPR. These ‘topics of the year’ will always come up, but the themes remain the same.

The credibility of our numbers is crucial and going beyond that to become the partner that delivers business success through market solutions is our ultimate aim.

When I ask my team to think about the value that they add I remind them that we’re the link between the market and the business.

The role of technology is constantly developing – how it provides insights and different types of processes, giving us the ability to react quicker.

It allows us to do our work more efficiently and effectively: from data analytics to improved buying channels to robotic process automation – even to the way we communicate and share data with each other.

Technology constantly provides us with big opportunities and I believe this is set to continue. We’re not a huge company and when it comes to technology, I don’t believe Centrica can afford to go through the learning curve first, but we aim to be early adopters.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I give advice to a lot of youngsters now.

Believe in yourself, and if the company you are working for right now does not believe in you, then you’ve got two options: either prove yourself and change their mind or change companies.

The other thing to understand is that performance and potential are not the same things.

High performance is a necessary, but not a sufficient reason to get promoted. You need to show potential to get promoted.

Lastly, the culture and values fit between the individual and the company are critical points that many people, especially early in their careers fail to fully appreciate. At the end of the day, you cannot realise your full potential in a company that does not fit your culture and values.

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