Christina Zimber is Commercial & Procurement Director at NHS Professionals, the leading provider of a flexible workforce to the NHS.

In our latest CPO Spotlight, James Dobbin spoke with Christina about sustainability, the challenges within her role and what advice she would give to aspiring CPOs.

How did you get into Procurement?

I think like most of our industry, I fell into it!

I started off as a riding instructor and had to start my career as an office junior, starting right at the bottom, making tea, filing and working in lots of different departments.

I fell into Procurement, actually via supply chain, and realised I liked it. I then moved into product management, which was learning more about the suppliers and how they market their products and then from there I went into true Procurement. We all tend to fall into it!

I noticed after completing your GCSEs, it looks as though you went straight into work, then later in your career earned an MBA and your MCIPS; what importance do you place on higher education when pursuing a career in Procurement?

If you’d have asked me that 8 years ago, I would have said none.

I think what I have learned is that CIPS gives a really great basic grounding of everything around Procurement, so not just sourcing, not just supply chain and not just SRM. It gives a complete rounding which is really important, but Procurement is a strategic function within a business and it needs to be seen as that.

I think if you’re going to step up to that level and be a part of either a group of directors, an SLT or into a C-suite, you need to understand so much more about business. I have found a lot of people don’t look outside their own area and I think doing the MBA gave me a massive understanding of business, learning about strategy, of financial accounting and it gave me so much more.

The one thing I would say is: I don’t think there are any barriers to starting Procurement without any qualifications. I worked my way up from the bottom, but if you do want to get into management and you do want to start having a strategic influence on the business as well as your function, then I do really believe higher education is an important piece of that now.

Your career has seen you take on cross-sector procurement roles across microchip suppliers, DIY equipment manufacturers, media, private healthcare and, finally, professional services; how has this diverse portfolio of roles helped you in your career and in getting to CPO level?

Coming into the profession you need to decide what to do. I decided quite early on that I didn’t want to be a specialist. I think if you want to be a specialist, you need to structure your career in a much better way than I have done in my career.

But for me, I wanted to stay as a generalist. I wanted to understand all parts of Procurement and all different categories. That meant it was easy for me to work across different industries and each industry gave me something new.

Manufacturing was … wow. It was just so hard understanding that a penny makes such a vast difference, but on the supply chain side, one-hour delivery late stops a whole production line. That is huge and it is a really good grounding.

I really like services side of procurement – that’s where I ended up doing an awful lot of work – but each industry has given me something new. When I went into working in the private healthcare sector and we got clinical products that came under us, I didn’t have a clue!

But I had some amazing category managers who were absolute experts in that area, but actually learning about the products and understanding how they are going to work has given me a brilliant grounding all the way round, so I understand so much about services, types of services, product contracts etc. It has given me the ability to work in any industry and learn about the nuances within that specific industry. It has been really great.

You seem very driven; what traits have helped you climb to the top?

I think I became really passionate about Procurement because it can do so much more than what I often see in companies.

It is absolutely a supporting function but it is also a strategic function. It can help drive so much within a business and also with the direction the business is going. We have seen that across sustainability, supply chain, supplier relationship management which is such a huge part of Procurement and it is not often spoken about and for me it is a real passion.

I do truly believe that Procurement needs a whole grounding: it is not just sourcing, it is not just P2P, it is about all the different elements that create procurement and that can help a business significantly and very much strategically.

You are a strong proponent of diverse and sustainable supply chains; what role has Procurement played in NHS Professionals’ sustainability journey?

I am, massively, a fan of this and it is growing ever more within my portfolio. It was always about the three layers – ESG is sort of the new buzzword – E was always there for me, in terms of the environment and a sustainable supply chain, not just in terms of an environmental net zero, but, actually, are they financially stable, are they stable in terms of how they are employing their own staff?

There is so much more to sustainability than just the environment piece, and when they proposed that ESG was to come under my remit, I was slightly hesitant, I won’t lie, but now we’ve got it, I am so happy we have it, and I am learning so much more about social enterprises and how they can really help BMEs and it is a real passion of mine.

It’s also about convincing people that ESG doesn’t mean that it costs more, because it really doesn’t, sustainability doesn’t mean it costs more. It is how you put it into the supply chain and work with your partners to really drive that and I am incredibly lucky now that we have been given it.

I have an amazing Head of Procurement and ESG working for me. He is so passionate and I am just feeding off his passion all the time. It is a real passion for me now and it’s something I want to continue to drive. If ESG ever comes up I am like, yes! Come to me! I am really excited by it.

Based on your experience, what does the role of the CPO entail?

Mine encompasses an awful lot more than Procurement.

My role includes health and safety, property, commercial contracting as well as Procurement. If I take out the commercial side of my role, for me it is getting the business strategically thinking about the function, and making sure we have a seat at that table where we’re helping drive the business forward, not only sustainably, but also in terms of supply chain, making sure we have the right partners and making sure we are involved in everything in the business.

We have so much to offer and so much capability that we really can make a difference within a business. It is definitely part of my role, and there’s probably an awful lot more! But it is definitely helping to drive that strategy forwards and working with the business on what their goals are and what their drivers and strategy is and then making sure we’re aligned.

What are some of the biggest challenges you think CPOs are facing now?

I think some of the original ones are still there around making sure we are part of the journey of the business and that we are not an afterthought, or, as perceived, an administrative function. I think those challenges still exist and that is absolutely still up to the CPO to ensure that the barriers are not there.

I think in today’s markets, we have a lot of pressure around costings with inflation soaring and being impacted by the likes of the war in Ukraine. For me, inside of NHSP, we are not so much seen from the supply chain because so much of what we do is service-based.

I do think they are really key challenges, but I also think embedding sustainability and getting businesses to understand that you can actually alleviate costs without quality.

What advice would you give to any aspiring CPOs listening, watching or reading this article?

Go for it! Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, surround yourself with really good people.

A leader relies on experts. I am only as good as my team. Never be afraid to build a brilliant SLT around you. I am nothing without my team around me. Always remember the golden rule: it is a ‘we’. Go for it and make sure you have a seat at that table, it is really important.

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