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Archive for February, 2011

One of the keys to surviving before excelling in the corporate world is knowing how to read hidden agendas.  As an agent of change, I need to interact with a large number of internal colleagues before I can go about exercising what my clients want with the outside partners and suppliers.  What we call stakeholder management skills need to come into play.  However, never, ever assume people’s intentions with only the titles on their name cards.

Do you want to be judged by the book cover?  Of course not.  Do you like to be stereotyped by the function or line of work you take part in?  In order to ensure that one genuinely adds value to a decision, he or she has been prepared to announce something new, something bold, or something clever.  Whether you agree with that or not never is the issue.  It is the individual’s hidden agenda that you want to uncover through the conversations you carry out with each and every one of them.  Listening, and reading minds, therefore, is the real key to success.

A newly on-board executive who is badly in need to prove himself.  A neighboring department head who is plotting to eat up your team or even the department.  An overworked manager who cannot be bothered by another new initiative.  A VP who tries to make influencing decisions in using a partnering firm that he has close ties with. 

It doesn’t take a genius to come up with tons of examples like the above, but it does take one to identify and draw such agendas out of everyone before designing tactics accordingly.  It is not easy to be seen, since most of your colleagues have been in the corporate workplace for years.  They are masters of sugar-coating intentions.

So whenever we go about talking with business partners, always consider these questions:

  • Why is this happening?
  • Who are the players?
  • What are the benefits?
  • What are the players each benefiting from, and how?
  • What can I get out of it?
  • How do I go about getting what I want?
  • What are the risks?
  • Are my benefits worth the risks?
  • Is this really what it appears to be?

In my experience it is always this last question that is most valuable, and it isn’t too hard to figure out once you conduct your share of due diligence. 

Last word of advice:  If you want to stay in one piece, you better keep these hidden agendas in the wraps, as long as they are legal!

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If you are working in a sizable multinational company, or have the experience working in one before, chances are that you have already undergone countless number of company prep talks on corporate culture, employee welfare, and training sessions on change management, handling virtual teamwork, and last but not least, team building activities and outings in all shapes and forms.

Pep Rallies

Such trainings and workshops are undoubtedly beneficial and inspirational for fresh graduates when they are new to the corporate world. However, are you still pumped and excited over these sharing and physical activities when you have sat through eight of them across various employers in your career? Furthermore, as your experience grows, you start to realize that nothing ever change after every motivational prep talk or initiative. People fall back to their original bad habits, and because of normal attrition everyone need to take the refresher talks to keep the new joiners up to speed. The worst of course, is if you find yourself forced to listen to pointless motivational speeches by what you label as hypocrites in the workplace. Alright, that’s politically incorrect, but face it, they are everywhere.

How to sit through these workshops gracefully and attentively while trying my hardest not to roll my eyes is probably my biggest accomplishment over the years.

Please Make Us Better

How about those anonymous employee surveys? I completely respect my human resources colleagues and their profession in designing and collating the results and meanings of these surveys. There is indeed a scientific backbone to all this. Though after all these surveys done every quarter or so, I find that I can’t feel anything anymore. I don’t want to be perceived as a whinny weasel who complains about anything. When I sign in to a job, I know what I am getting into and I seldom ask for more other than proportional recognition of my work performance. If I find my job or my company starting to fade away from my aspirations, in whatever means, I will make it clear to my superiors and consider my options if the gap can’t be bridged. I really don’t believe any anonymous venting can bring about substantial changes. No matter how comprehensive the privacy measures are carried out and announced, most survey participants are still apprehensive of the consequences. To flip the coin to the other side, you may also find it frustrating to see your work being criticized by anonymous comments of other colleagues that are borderline hateful. Why do we now have to resort to using surveys to replace face-to-face discussions in a civilized, dignified manner? We all better “man-up” for our opinions as well as mistakes. It’s gutless to hide behind a survey.

Want Fun?

The team building activities have changed color progressively. It started with gut-wrenching physical stunts like those you would see in “Fear Factor”. We are supposed to learn how to face our fear, unleash hidden talents, build inner-strength, and develop trust amongst team members during the exercises. Then slowly because of cost constraints and the increasing trend of virtual teams across countries and continents, such activities become less viable. In some cases a few teammates of the same office are given a certain budget to conduct their own team building activities. Nothing stereotypical here, but in Asia it often means eating it away. Okay, perhaps we will put on same colored shirts while we are at the dining table, take a few snapshots, and e-mail them across the global team, as proof that food brings everyone together.

Freebies Anyone?

Since the dawn of very high-profile survey of “best companies to work for” in America, all major companies have put employee welfare as one of their high prioritized goals. Staffs are sometimes “encouraged” by their management to “vote” for their company in the annual survey. The better companies also make it an effort to establish company-wide social clubs, or nicely labeled employee engagement committees. I have the privilege to be invited to join or even chair a few of these committees across several of my employers in my career. It is no easy work. It takes us literally weeks to plan every activity, from the most popular annual balls, spring dinners to bowling or mahjong tournaments, open days for kids, charity visits and auctions, to distributing free t-shirts, windbreakers, umbrellas, breakfasts, lunches, so that there is always some kind of giveaway or activity for the staffs every month. To be honest, this sounds more like bribery to me. I enjoy my time working with my fellow committee members, but at the end of the day, all of us care most about getting satisfaction from the jobs we do and paid for. Getting a pat on the back for a job well done by my boss beats getting a free mug from the office safety club, hands down.

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The Price Of Egotism

In this day and age you would think that business negotiations are conducted behind weeks of research, preparation and interests alignment.  Definitely true.  However the more I probe into business deals within even the biggest multinational corporations, the more I am surprised by how reckless some business decisions are made, or deals negotiated.  There are a few mistakes that shouldn’t even be accepted by 12-year olds.

  • Unclear and unaligned objectives.  When multiple beneficiaries are involved, negotiations have to be planned carefully with a clear chain of command.  I have seen negotiations that went on for months because certain stakeholders complained about being ignored or neglected.
  • Too short-sighted.  If the stakeholders are only keen on getting what they want now, unless we are talking about a product buying contract, there are bound to be issues with upgrading, maintenance, integration, servicing and performance management sooner or later.  Getting a cheap upfront offer but paying a huge price in the years ahead is no doubt a horrible deal.  Many of my clients used to bitch about the careless contracts that they inherited from their predecessors.
  • Caught by timeline.  This is a result of poor planning, or sometimes being totally conceited.  They believe the other parties will all cave in  regardless of how tight the deadline is, but little do they know everything comes with a price, and their companies sure aren’t prepared to pay more for their ego.
  • Not reading the fine prints.  I hate to believe that some people are just too stupid to not read the fine prints of the contract.  Then they must be so confident that their personal charisma is going to successfully seduce the other party into not executing the protection clauses. 
  • Fooled by the oldest tricks.  How many times have you heard the other parties saying “My god, you are such a tough negotiator!” or “I really like working with you – you are very reasonable.”?    The correct reflex action is run, splash cold water on your face, and review the terms once again.  Chances are, you are already in a shitty deal.

There you have it.  As I mentioned before, these silly mistakes (and many more) are still being repeated everyday no matter how advanced the company it is.  That’s why lawyers and procurement professionals still have jobs! 

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I came across an excellent article on CPO Agenda written by Tom Lawrence, strategy director at European procurement specialist buying team.  Those of you who have read my earliest posts on procurement branding will understand my frustrations and aspirations of my profession.  If you are keen in hearing another person’s views, I have taken the liberty to honor Mr. Lawrence’s work by copying his article here.  I will read it again and again as it echoes my views and vision exactly.  For those of you in my profession who would like to get in touch with Mr. Lawrence and his consultancy, please feel free to visit his company’s website.  The bold formatting is done by myself in highlighting the parts that resonate with me most.

 

What’s In A Name?    By Tom Lawrence
 
“The profile of indirect spend has grown considerably in recent years, but it is currently receiving more attention than ever before. There are two principal factors behind this rise.

Businesses are struggling to grow their top-line revenues. While forecasts do predict growth, this is weighted heavily towards 2013 and beyond. The outlook for the next two years is very sluggish. Therefore, to increase shareholder value, organisations are focusing on the bottom line, and on cost management.

Procurement is making headlines. Three recent government reports – Sir Philip Green’s efficiency review, the Strategic Defence and Security Review and the Comprehensive Spending Review – have turned the spotlight firmly on procurement and the consequences of not managing it effectively.

Procurement has come a long way in the past 20 years. However, the journey is far from complete. The renewed focus presents us with an opportunity to redefine procurement as a key strategic support function at the very heart of business. Yet indirect procurement’s value is frequently misunderstood, and this ambiguity leads to business leaders undervaluing it.

There are several fundamental questions which, as a profession, procurement simply does not provide consistent answers to. If we are unable to clarify these issues ourselves, it’s no wonder ambiguity occurs elsewhere.

It’s all in the name. First, perhaps surprisingly, is the terminology that we use – indirects, overheads, goods not for resale (GNFR), and non-core. All these words are both negative and imprecise. Indirects are simply the opposite of directs. The same goes for non-core and core, GNFR and GFR. Using only negative terms immediately relegates them to the second division, where they are perceived as secondary and unimportant, if not irrelevant, when in fact the complete opposite is true. Procurement is crucial. Without it, an organisation simply cannot function.

We need to shift fundamental perceptions, replacing the perception of procurement as a cost to one where it is valued as a business-essential activity. And it might be time to adopt a new name for this activity – one that reflects its importance and which will help to change mindsets. At buyingTeam, we have been using the term ‘Enabling Spend’ for several months.

If you look at text books or read market research to answer the question ‘what is procurement?’, you will find much around the source-to-pay process (eg, supplier relationship management, contract management, strategic and tactical sourcing, spend analysis, etc.). All of which is true and accurate. But business engagement – a key ingredient for successful procurement and an essential catalyst, in fact – is almost completely ignored. Procurement’s potential is released when it looks not only outwards to the supplier community, but at its own organisation, acting as an internal consultant or analyst, challenging and influencing behaviours, business rules and ways of working.

Beyond an almost cursory acknowledgement of the need for change management, business engagement is ignored by most textbooks and research and, to be quite frank, by many procurement functions. Procurement will only ever be viewed as a function to secure the best deal if that is all it focuses on, or all that it is tasked to achieve.

There is no common or industry-wide understanding of the areas that make up Enabling Spend. In some organisations, professional services such as audit fees or bank charges, for example, fall outside the remit of procurement. In almost all of the organisations we work with, there are areas of spend over which procurement has little influence, and these can include large spend marketing and IT.

The function may be engaged by the business to negotiate a deal, but all too frequently buyers are not trusted with any further involvement. The root cause of this attitude is the ongoing lack of understanding, even among the CFO community, of how procurement’s principles should be applied to all areas of spend. This is a missed opportunity.

What works for direct procurement doesn’t necessarily work for Enabling Spend. Enabling Spend contains hundreds of diverse categories, with thousands of suppliers serving a very wide range of stakeholders, all of whom have different needs. In comparison, directs has far fewer areas of expertise, suppliers and stakeholders. So a totally different approach is needed – yet many organisations apply their directs approach to Enabling Spend.

The range and depth of skill sets that Enabling Spend requires, – such as commerciality, change management, communication, procurement and deep category knowledge – are vast. ‘Best in class’ is a misleading concept. What is right for one organisation is not necessarily right for another. Procurement must be tailored according to an individual organisation’s culture, structure, profile and strategic aims to deliver the best results. Rather than ‘best in class’, a more useful question to ask is: “What do I need?”

Which brings us to procurement outsourcing. Even here there is confusion. Procurement outsourcing has come to mean different things. To many people, it involves shifting work wholesale to low-cost countries using technology and streamlining processes, running the same processes for less money. It’s all about efficiency. Yet true procurement outsourcing – and where multiples of the value achievable through efficiency are possible – is about how to do procurement better. The benefits are all about effectiveness.

Given all the above, it should come as no surprise that business leaders remain unaware of what is achievable by getting this right, and are therefore failing to prioritise it above other initiatives.

Finally, organisations are simply not investing enough in the management of their Enabling Spend. This is certainly preventing large elements of the above from improving, and is possibly the root cause of much of it. In our experience, procurement can and should be generating a return on investment of between 8 and 15 times. This is a huge benefit and one that substantially outperforms the ROI generated by most other investment decisions. Moreover, it goes straight to the bottom line. We see time and time again that the opportunities to improve shareholder value and operational performance are great – and way beyond the expectations of the senior executives.

The value that most procurement functions deliver is simply not good enough. Yes, much of this is due to the lack of investment in procurement. Yet we, as a community, must shoulder our fair share of the blame.

If procurement is to take its rightful place as a key strategic support function and be recognised as one, it’s time for us to address some of these fundamental issues. In doing so, we can continue to push procurement to front-of-business leaders’ minds as a powerful strategic asset that can deliver real business improvements.

The time has come for us to raise our game and, in doing so, release procurement’s true potential.”

If you have read my earlier posts, you will remember that I have written about delivering solid ROIs to my employers (my commitment is 7 times and up, comparing to Mr. Lawrence’s 8 to 15 times), as well as constantly expanding our span of involvement to areas of above-the-line marketing, consulting, sponsorship and professional services so as to further maximize the author’s definition of “Enabling Spend”.  If you are interested in joining my (and Tom’s) vision of “raising our game”, I am more than happy to hear from you!

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I read from the vault guide that there are now actual internship applications with candidates listing “excellent Facebooker” and “highly skilled Tweeter” on their resumes.  Apparently the ability to connect with thousands of Facebook friends is an accomplishment, and I take my hat off to them. 

But seriously?  What are they thinking?

Hold that thought.   Continuing on from my thoughts yesterday, when today’s post-80s, or Generation Y, are ready for more senior roles in the corporate world, the scene may be totally different.  While social networking skills may not be something worth bragging about now, a few years later the absence of such will be considered fatal disqualifiers for Generation Y hiring managers.

Social media usage will only grow further with younger generations as they mature, contrary to some beliefs that they will grow out of such sites.  With the increasing leverage of social media sites for corporate advertising, loyalty programs, public awareness and even hiring, the next time we try to shrug our shoulders reading those social networking attributes, let’s get real for a second and think again.

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“Post-80s” (generation born after 1980) or “post-90s” continues to be a popular topic in the media lately.  According to a local paper, many corporations are seeing post-80s employees as one of their top human resource challenges these days.  Apparently there are now training courses organized for managerial staff to understand and interact properly with our next generation of workforce. 

The human resource consulting firm being interviewed reports the top 9 characteristics of post-80s workforce:

  • Poor concentration
  • Poor reading skills
  • Impatient
  • Difficult to communicate
  • Overly confident
  • Poor punctuality
  • Poor personal conduct
  • Irresponsible and poor accountability
  • Overly temperamental

Though I am sure there is a bunch of people who are guilty with such characteristics, it’s also time for employers to start adapting their managerial style according to the times.  Many younger recruits are not used to listening to orders because of their unique ways of being brought up.  Family sizes are smaller, there are fewer siblings, and many of them are used to being pampered by all material and financial means.  The new generation is often confident in their own ways, and they are raised to question authority at all times.  Managers who still stick with announcing orders without rationalization are only asking for trouble.  A new managerial style has to be adapted, and the first step to do is to learn how to embrace the new generation of workforce.

What are the new rules?  I am no expert, but off the top of my head I can come up with a few.

  • Don’t be condescending.  Attitude is important, and it should be a two-way street.  Assuming rightaway the post-80s is a group of whining needy kids will only add to the tension.  Don’t talk down to them, and don’t use phrases like “You know how lucky you guys are?  Back in the days, I wished that someone would have spent the time to teach me like I am doing for you right now!”
  • Get rid of the “Because I told you!”  The new generation needs to be convinced through lots of questions and answers.  Their new thinking may spark new solutions which is well worth the added time invested. 
  • Be patient.   Like raising kids, sometimes you have to let them make their own mistakes.  I know it is definitely costly for corporations to allow their staff to make mistakes, but think about it, his other departmental colleagues or external clients are of his generation as well.  What we view as mistakes now may be a norm in the new era.
  • Focus on results rather than the process.  Since the process is going to be challenged anyway, why not allow them to make up some rules themselves?  However, the new rules still have to be socially accepted by others, meaning no one can skip work claiming they are “working from home”.
  • Nurturing.  I know, the workplace is meant for business, but if we understand the social reality of the new generation, managers nowadays also need to be the psychological coach of new recruits.  There is no guarantee that the new joiners will prove to be a valuable asset to the company, but not spending the time to teach them responsibility and accountability, for example, will only lead to disastrous results.  Set the expectation low, and there is no harm to overly communicate. 
  • Positive reinforcement.  When staff feels that they are being rewarded or acknowledged of an accomplishment, the motivation is often so strong that a momentum will be created.  Don’t be stingy with the compliments, be humble and take advantage of their creative juices and unorthodox thinking.

All in all, bitching alone will never bring any solution.  We should all face the reality and ask ourselves what is something we can do to bridge the gap.  After all, who says the negative qualities are possessed only by the post-80s?  Aren’t you equally mad at that other colleague of yours who have been around forever and unwilling to accept any new ideas?

Let’s make sure we do not turn into those we used to despise, period.

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Back in the years, one of the earlier lessons I learned as a consultant was how to manage our clients’ expectations.  Our client projects were mostly related to e-sourcing events with an estimated savings figure in mind.  We wanted to ensure our clients a handsome return of investment.   Yet there could still be a number of uncontrollable factors that could go either ways.  The suppliers could be colluding, the parts for bid could turn out to be obsolete, or our clients’ credibility was not as high as they would believe themselves.  The golden rule for all engagement managers therefore is to manage our clients’ expectations on a daily basis until the project finishes.

In short, managing expectations is to minimize the impact of surprises, particularly those unpleasant ones.  It requires the ability to think of all the possible scenarios that could go wrong.  I have since learned to extend this cardinal rule to my daily life, and so far this rule has not been disappointing me a single bit.

  • Investments.  I am definitely not one of those daring investors who would bank their entire net worth into a property, stock or a fund.  My lowest expectation in buying my apartment is that I can see myself living in it till the day I die.  If I can flip it and make a profit some time, it will always be a bonus.  Of course I will carefully pick properties with higher appreciation prospects, but expecting any solid return within a specified period of time is not my number one priority.
  • Entertainment.  I have been around the city long enough to know what to expect from the hundreds of thousands of restaurants, theatres, shopping malls, boutiques and bars.  As they all differ by the clientele they serve, level of customer service standard they uphold, and the dollar amount on their price tags, I set vastly different expectations just for that.  This way I know exactly what I will be getting.  If I am in an adventurous and energetic mood, I don’t mind going for crowded eateries that my bowl will be lifted away as soon as I put down my chopsticks.  If I am exhausted after a day’s work, I will go for more comfortable places where I expect pampering service and cuisine, with full expectation that the bill is going to be more pricey.  Why some people choose to swap that around always puzzles me. 
  • Relationships.  One of the reasons why many couples get into fights on Valentine’s Day is expectations mis-alignment.  Some wish for romantic elements, while some choose to be more practical.  Some feel the pressure from their peers and colleagues, and there are a million different expectations of gift choices, dining choices, and what to do afterwards.  This aspect perhaps is the least manageable in my opinion, since no matter how prepared and civilized it is with the prior planning and conversations, one always secretly wishes something more.
  • Career.  This requires no further clarification.  Everyone is dispensable, whether we like it or not.  Every decision we make or advice we provide comes with both opportunities and risks.  If we have not fully contemplated all possible outcomes, we would surely be struck by surprise.   Another thing for sure, is to manage your superior’s expectations on yourself.  He or she also hates surprises!

I know some may see this is all too conservative and behind the times.  Some believe that the society needs constant challenges to the status quo, and they are always ready to make bold objectives and changes.  I see nothing wrong with that, since deciding which path to take solely depends on how well you know about yourself.    Being honest to yourself and listening to your heart is critical. 

There is one thing that I never attempt to manage expectations whatsoever, and that is my Love towards my family and companions.  My devoted love and affection is unconditional.   Just like what the book Eat, Pray, Love says, love is worth losing balance for.

 

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