The Big Interview | Interim Insight with Paras Sood

Paras Sood is an esteemed International Procurement Transformation Leader. He speaks to David Hazeldine about his career, the Procurement skills required and the benefits of bringing in Interim consultants to deliver change.

Please introduce yourself and give a brief overview of your career.

I’m Paras. I’ve been in the business procurement and supply chain transformation arena for most of my career.

I started corporate life as a graduate management trainee getting thrown into all sorts of things. I was pretty unaware of the business world but I’ve somehow taken my career into different sectors and industries – as a consultant and in-house. I’ve enjoyed learning by doing, and working with some really good folks, which is a big part of what I’ve found professionally rewarding.

With regards to procurement, what stimulated you to develop your career globally?

From day one, I was an alien to procurement. I’m sure lots of people have similar experiences where procurement dawned on them rather than finding it.

I was exposed through a management training scheme with Tarmac, part of the AngloAmerican Group at the time. I found myself at the centre of random commodity negotiations – such as ammonium nitrate for detonating quarries –  and big supplier meetings from an early stage. These meetings brought so many people in the business together around one business problem.

I hadn’t imagined corporate life to be like this; it felt commercial, yet collaborative. Negotiations and complex multi-party facilitation was intriguing. That exposure early in my career gave me insight into what the profession could be. Being in heavy industry as well – where you could see tangible goods that you were procuring move through the value chain – was exciting. When I rotated in other functions, I felt that teams were more internalised. On reflection, it was one of the best business groundings you could get.

Around the skills and core skills that procurement needs to bring to the market, I think personally, that these have changed over the 22 years I have focused in this space.
I’m keen to understand what your thoughts are on that. So, by way of the actual skills that procurement needs to bring to the market as opposed to what they are renowned for.

Yes, this is an important question that we should ask ourselves. Especially the difference in perception of which skills are required: what skills are needed to solve modern procurement problems?

My take on this is that professionals still need the core procurement skills of the past. For example, the ability to negotiate, the ability to work cross-functionally, the ability to understand commercial practices and have sound business acumen. They remain in the toolbox when entering supplier and internal discussions. There’s still a huge responsibility when having one eye on the external market and applying this potentially to multiple business units internally. But there’s an evolution of the skillset as well. Commercial people are agents for change; and a change mindset means change skills. Add influencing techniques and strategic thinking over the top and the skills matrix broadens further.

Business requirements still need to be gathered but with a lens of cross-functional excellence rather than excellence for procurement – that means functioning innovatively. Innovation mindsets normally require outside-the-box thinking, but a lot of procurement skills are still inside the box! The more traditions you can break helps build those lateral skills. These adaptive skills help procurement integrate better with the enterprise as a result.

What do you think are the core pressures on businesses currently and why is it important for procurement to be involved?

It’s not a binary set of old versus new traits. Core business pressures have evolved alongside skillsets, if not reinventing them. For example, sustainability has industry-wide prevalence today. No sector, private or public, can ignore the pressures of sustainability on the economy and society. If procurement has the lion-share of sustainable procurement responsibility, let’s say 70% of their organisation’s footprint, that’s a swing to new legislation, new metrics, new operating models, and new capabilities.

Rewind 10-15 years ago and that wasn’t the core focus of procurement – to try and solve sustainable business. It’s meant adopting a fresh level of scrutiny that a core sustainability or marketing function may previously have taken responsibility for. It’s required procurement to extricate itself out of the day-to-day of taking costs out, keeping the lights on – which includes resilience – now becoming more strategic in nature about sustainable growth. But that’s just one pressure.

Digital acceleration and digital quality is a wider pressure for procurement as it is for several other functions. It goes back to procurement’s privileged position as an external integrator for a business. Most established procurement teams interact with the most innovative suppliers on the planet – where many of their employees personify digital innovation. It puts pressure on procurement to be at the leading edge of digital innovation when securing supply or managing relationships. There are other examples, such as risk, but the two I’ve described are the bigger game-changers.

So my next question is about your own skillset around how you’ve evolved this throughout your career. Because as you’ve rightly identified there, businesses and challenges have evolved. Therefore, your toolkit, and your skillset, needs to evolve.
How do you think, as an independent consultant, you can add value, drive change and deliver the brief for procurement and businesses?

I’m a social scientist by background. In professional life, I’ve reinvented my skillset every 5 years or so. I’ve evolved!

Personally, I see independence, or agnosticism, as one route to combining the best of someone’s innate and acquired skills. The benefit of independent thinking is that you’re usually focused on bringing the best outcome to the organisational problem you’re trying to solve. This means you open up best-of-breed approaches too.

Independents usually have a solid grasp of industry know-how and external benchmarking, which positions them well to make judgments on what will work or not work in implementation. That’s where independents can flex to leading internal resources – for instance, incumbent teams – or external resources, such as consultancies or managed service providers. Usually, independents have deep experiences through business cycles, failures and successes. They also tend to have large networks for point solutions and accelerators.

They can be excellent orchestrators of transformation. It’s just another route for organisations to reach the same goals – maybe a little faster!

With the external and independent market mainly being used for big large-scale change, as you’ve rightly alluded to, there’s so much added value that an independent, interim or a consultant can bring when they are parachuted into an organisation, it’s even through osmosis, isn’t it?
Other people within the business will see, hear and understand how you, as an independent, go about things.

Rightly, the independent market is tapped up for large-scale change. Independents are qualified for it. But it’s still about staying outcome-focused. If your organisation has a large procurement problem to solve – such as accelerated procurement or cost transformation – it helps to know you can ‘skin the cat’ in different ways. Consider a pretty mature organisation, with strong internal resources and capabilities: an independent executive might leverage a combination of these existing capabilities and close the gaps with external providers – which could be consultancies or a bank of independent experts.

Business has become subservient to the gig economy, whether we like to admit it or not, and there are some specialist solutions from giggers who often work with other consultancies. Once you’re in the mode of agile and flexible resourcing, you open up a greater set of delivery options and organisations benefit from the best of the ‘parachuter’ and ‘osmosis’. It’s win-win.

What do you think the future landscape looks like for procurement?

It’s a super big question – let me consult my crystal ball! Whilst we’re evolving, we can turn to similar historic procurement problems but give them more emphasis. Sustainability and digitalisation I’ve already mentioned, they’ve been tucked away, but now they are trailblazing – and they have organic momentum in the market.  

However, I’d say trying to stay relevant to your business is still priority number one. I see too many organisations trying to use procurement as a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Procurement should drop it’s “what about me” rhetoric. Just work with stakeholders – be their partner, be their expert, be their coach, be their sounding board, bring ideas in – understand business needs beyond individual needs. That, at times, means stop being a procurement professional – become a good business professional and cross-functional collaborator.

To behave cross-functionally, you’ve got to get comfortable with non-procurement speak in sales, operations, HR, Finance etc. Business partnering should move back up the priority list and is still the future of strategic procurement.

One thing that I’ve had a few conversations about over the last six months is making procurement an interesting career from the get go.
I remember when I started hiring into this space, most people fell into procurement, but it has the potential to be impactful.
It’s starting to become an interesting option for people who are heading into the corporate workplace. Because people want to be part of something that’s impactful and it sounds like the time is now that procurement can really take this mantle and start bringing in new talent, blending it with the more existing and traditional.

Competition for talent is real. If anything, it’s become harder from some of the reasons I’ve mentioned.

Building on the question you asked me earlier – “what professional am I…?” – I’m not a true business professional, let alone a procurement professional. I come from a heritage of social impact. I’ve not grown through traditional business or procurement qualifications. I’ve primarily learned on the job, with some top-ups. I come across many colleagues who have similar stories – a different grounding before joining the procurement cult!

There’s a transference of unique skill sets to push procurement forward. The profession is enterprising in that regard. Take someone who’s come from HR who’s spent years negotiating with agency suppliers and has a real-world awareness of what talent pressures exist from a HR perspective; that’s gold-dust when migrating into a procurement role.  

That doesn’t demean someone who’s grown through procurement, with qualifications, core category or buying roles etc., – these people help career joiners with structure and professionalisation – but non-vocational avenues improve the diversity of the profession and create wider access.

I am nervous though. I’m nervous that new generations of procurement entrants feel disillusioned with the status quo of what procurement has been in the past. But if you’re a commercially-aware orchestrator, you should feel like there are intentional pathways into procurement nowadays that didn’t exist 10-15 years ago.

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