Top 5 tips for putting procurement at the top table

In this blog, we share David Smith’s top tips for promoting procurement to ensure it’s seen as a key function by the senior team, giving you the chance to have a say at the top table.

It’s a common theme in many professions:

“If only the senior management would listen to my ideas and understand my team’s value to the organisation.”

“If only my internal clients and stakeholders could better see the value I could add if they approached me early enough in the process.”

“If only my function was considered more strategic by the Leadership team!”

Procurement is no different, and some of this sense of frustration came across when David Smith (former Commercial Director of DWP and a Past CIPS President), spoke at our recent client conference in Manchester.  David is an experienced procurement professional, with over 30 years in senior and board level roles, including 11 as one of the UK government’s most significant and influential Commercial Directors.  So he’s well placed to advise procurement professionals at all levels on how to get the attention of the most senior people in an organisation.

Read on for David’s 5 top tips:

Tip 1: Have a plan

If you believe that you and your organisation can do more and should have a voice at the top table, you must be clear what you believe you can add. If you have that ambition, (and you should have) set yourself a goal and have a plan. It’s no good asking the leadership team for more resource, or a permanent seat if you are not able to effectively express what additional value you and your team can bring.

Undertake real analysis that demonstrates how important your function is.  In most organisations, procurement is accountable for between 50 and 65% of the running costs and will contribute directly to the bottom line of both customer service, efficiency and cash savings.  Make sure the top table knows this and that a successful organisation is built on good procurement. Let them know what you can do now with what you have, and how much better you could do with access to the right people or systems.

Consider which specific areas of the organisation you feel would most benefit from a more systematic or strategic approach to procurement.  Think in advance about where you feel you can add value and make sure that your procurement colleagues buy in to your suggestions before any approach to the leadership team.  Share best practice – find examples of similar organisations that have taken your recommended approach and achieved the success your senior managers crave.  Then go and talk to them – they will be flattered!

In my personal experience, Heads of Procurement have been offered regular invitations or a permanent seat at the executive table in both the public and private sectors by adopting this approach.

Tip 2: Prove that you are doing well

Before you can confidently demonstrate that procurement can influence the success of others, you need to demonstrate you’ve got your own house in order first. Be sure that you can prove where you’re meeting your targets and have a plan to improve where you believe (or others perceive) that you’re doing less well.

Give your managers and executive team regular reporting against budget, targets and other strategic ambitions – even if they don’t ask for it.  If supporting small and local businesses or delivering a holistic approach to healthcare is part of your plan, demonstrate how an innovative approach from procurement can help.  All well-managed procurements start with the translation of a great idea into a well-constructed specification, so real life examples of where strategic ambitions have been supported by early involvement from procurement are likely to be well received.

For example, changes in ministerial or political appointments bring a raft of new ideas.  This is the perfect opportunity to take these and proactively translate them into a procurement plan with a quality specification.  It might be that your exec team or managers are looking for a professional services resource – you can turn their ideas into robust specifications that limit scope creep and focus on outcomes – avoiding potential reputational damage and unnecessary cost (all managers hate unnecessary costs)

Tip 3: Fully understand how procurement influences each part of the organisation.

Don’t forget than procurement is often uniquely placed in understanding the whole range of an organisation’s functions and responsibilities as it typically interacts with all areas. Do your homework here. You can demonstrate a real empathy with your peers and impress your managers with your knowledge.

Speak to colleagues to understand their issues and how you might help – be it budget constraints or customer service issues. If you know where you can add value then be prepared to make your case and make it well.  Read and understand your organisation’s strategic plan and consider how procurement can contribute to it. Do this well and you’ll have you own place in the next plan!

This establishes the profile of procurement, builds your credibility and helps people understand the value you do bring. Doing this will bring them to your door, rather than you knocking on theirs!

Tip 4: Prove that you can (or are) making a difference to your wider organisation

This might be obvious, but remember it’s not always about money saved in the short term (although you’ll always have to know how you’ll approach that task!).  Being able to demonstrate a focus on outcomes that delivers value beyond cost is going to be important. It shows that you’re making a difference beyond what you are employed to do.

To quote Dr Michael Watkins, the renowned expert on accelerating transitions, find out which three things are important to your senior managers and board members and discuss what procurement is doing about them. Pull together a short paper on the importance of procurement with examples of what you’ve done, what you might do and what’s been achieved elsewhere. Remember this is not (yet) a pitch for more resource but one for greater involvement.

Remember our point from earlier – procurement touches up to 65% of the running costs of an organisation, so you must be able to find at least three areas where you can bring additional value.

Tip 5: Aim high and look beyond procurement!

Your ambition should always be to deliver within a ‘world class’ procurement function but it should also be to make a strategic contribution to your organisation’s core function.  Embrace the ambition of your organisation and its political as well as strategic aims.  Don’t be afraid, remember how important you already are!

And my final word on what I believe senior leaders, from CEOs to Ministers, want from their procurement functions? It’s quite simple, apart from what we’ve already covered, they also want:

  • You to tell them what you can do, not what you can’t!
  • Supply chains properly managed to eliminate risk
  • Consider efficiency and sustainability in all plans and decisions



David Smith CB FCIPS has 30 years’ experience in senior and board level procurement roles and 11 years as one of UK government’s most significant and influential Commercial Directors and as a commercial adviser to Ministers. He has a strong record for change, delivery and stakeholder management at all levels. A Past President of the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply (CIPS), David has advised and lectured extensively in the UK, Europe, Asia, Africa, Middle East and Australia to the public and private sector. He was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) in the 2009 New Year Honours and is also a Fellow of CIPS.