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In Marshall Goldsmith’s book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There“, the renowned executive coach writes about how the very characteristic that you believe got you where you are, may exactly be the one that is holding you back.

On the back cover of the book, it writes: “Your hard work is paying off.  You are doing well in your field.  But there is something standing between you and the next level of achievement.  That something may just be one of your own annoying habits.  Perhaps one small flaw – a behavior you barely even recognize – is the only thing that’s keeping you from where you want to be. “

“The Harvard Business Review asked Goldsmith, “What is the most common problem faced by the executives that you coach?”…he answers this question by discussing not only the key beliefs of successful leaders, but also the behaviors that hold them back…. Say, for example, you have an extremely loyal and talented staff.  You are known for spotting and nurturing talent.  Your inner circle of employees regularly gets assigned the plum projects.  You may think you are building a solid team, but from the outside looking in, you are encouraging sucking up.  You are guilty of Habit # 14: Playing favorites.  Goldsmith outlines twenty such habits commonly found in the corporate environment and provides a systematic approach to helping you achieve a positive change in behavior.”

The so-called 20 habits are the most common flaws, but they are not flaws of skills, intelligence or personality.  They are challenges of interpersonal behavior, often leadership behavior.

  1. Winning too much:  The need to win at all costs and in all situations – when it matters, when it doesn’t, and when it’s totally beside the point.
  2. Adding too much value:  The overwhelming desire to add our two cents to every discussion.
  3. Passing judgement:  The need to rate others and impose our standards on them.
  4. Making destructive comments:  The needless sarcasms and cutting remarks that we think make us sound sharp and witty.
  5. Starting with “No,” “But,” or “However”:  The overuse of these negative qualifiers which secretly say to everyone, “I’m right.  You’re wrong.”
  6. Telling the world how smart we are:  The need to show people we’re smarter than we think we are.
  7. Speaking when angry:  Using emotional volatility as a management tool.
  8. Negativity, or “Let me explain why they won’t work”:  The need to share our negative thoughts even when we weren’t asked.
  9. Withholding information:  The refusal to share information in order to maintain an advantage over others.
  10. Failure to give proper recognition:  The inability to praise and reward.
  11. Claiming credit that we don’t deserve:  The most annoying way to overestimate our contribution to any success.
  12. Making excuses:  The need to reposition our annoying behavior as a permanent fixture so people excuse us for it.
  13. Clinging to the past:  The need to deflect blame away from ourselves and onto events and people from our past; a subset of blaming everyone else.
  14. Playing favorites:  Failing to see that we are treating someone unfairly.
  15. Refusing to express regret:  The inability to take responsibility for our actions, admit we’re wrong, or recognize how our actions affect others.
  16. Not listening:  The most passive-aggressive form of disrespect for colleagues.
  17. Failing to express gratitude:  The most basic form of bad manners.
  18. Punishing the messenger:  The misguided need to attack the innocent who are usually only trying to help us.
  19. Passing the buck:  The need to blame everyone but ourselves.
  20. An excessive need to be “me”:  Exalting our faults as virtues simply because they’re who we are.

If any of the above sends a chill up your spine when you read it, good.  It’s better realizing it than never.  If you are doubting Mr. Goldsmith’s observations, you may want to know he has been the personal coach of corporate CEOs including American Express, Boeing, GlaxoSmithKline, U.S. Army, Sun Microsystems, GE, Goldman Sachs, etc..  His credibility is second to none.

I seriously recommend this book to everyone who want to be more successful from where they already are.  Learn from Marshall Goldsmith, and learn from the corporate world’s biggest CEOs.

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No one should ever underestimate the criticality of employee recruitment and retention, and so is the procurement community.  The biggest reason I see people leaving a role in strategic sourcing, other than purely monetary attractions of another role, is job dissatisfaction.  In my early posts of this blog, I wrote quite a lot about the constant struggles, frustrations and challenges of our roles.  The procurement profession is undergoing a transition phase –  transitioning from a back-office operational function to a more strategic business consultative role.  However, if the leader is not in tune with the expectations of the company, or if he or she lacks the vision and stamina to put forward a compelling case in front of top management, there might be a high risk of losing good people.  Since we are advocating strong influencing capabilities and stakeholder management skills, new joiners will consume costly months of time to reestablish connections with business partners, usually not something the organization can afford often.  As I have said before, strategic procurement is a people business.  The deliverables and results of each project varies significantly by the strategies and personalities of the individual project leads.  No negotiations can be cloned.  Results are different in different counties and different time zones.   Unlike what we buy, staffing should never be commoditized.

I recently come across an excellent article on CPO Agenda titled Stars of Tomorrow, written by Helen Gilbert.  Selling the industry as a long-term career choice, is what she advocates.  If everyone thinks that stepping out of the profession is the only way to progress their careers, there is a big problem. 

Raising the awareness of the profession is critical in recruiting and retaining talent.  I wish that I am modestly playing my part in this space.

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Today I have an update to my last entry which I titled Biggest Flop 2010.  Quite honestly I am hardly surprised to see the latest development based on my earlier observation.  Since the disaster in securing top management buy-in, the organization is now put in a very vulnerable situation.  The business lines are all taking a bite off the procurement department, and its head is constantly kept in a defensive mode.  He is often summoned by other department heads to provide quick fixes that are hardly strategic or measurable.  The middle to upper management team is always called for ad hoc customer meetings where they have little idea how to respond, and whether or not to make certain commitments due to limited departmental resources.  The organization is in a complete state of chaos.

Based on the unfavorable circumstances, I can offer a few recommendations which can hopefully improve morale and make the situation slightly more bearable.

1. Salvage the situation

For the immediate period, nothing much can be done in terms of changing the corporate management’s views.  The best tactic is to embrace it gracefully, while striving to develop success cases from the ground up.  Having top-down mandate is ideal, but it’s not the end of the world even with its absence.  This is how true leadership emerges and shines.  Pick the best people to put in front of selected customers where there is the highest hope to succeed both in terms of quality assurance, savings potential and improved efficiency.  Convince the customers upfront that you are not expecting anything from them other than their cooperation.  Work from the bottom up.  Take care of all the paperwork, liaise with legal, compliance, finance and investigation, represent the clients well in front of suppliers, and make the customer experience a pleasant one. 

All this is needed to be put into the credits bank so that when the right moment comes, these customers are going to root for you in front of top management.  The best salesmanship technique is to have your customers sell for you, instead of doing so yourself.

2. Renegotiate goals

Now is the golden time to renegotiate goals.  Since a substantial spend area is taken away, the cost savings expectation should be adjusted.  In every case, link addressable spend with potential savings as tightly as possible, even if we know it may not always be a directly proportional relationship.  Merely negotiating terms and conditions without having the power to affect sourcing decisions will not bring in cost savings.  The moment top management is convinced and concerned over lost savings, they will change their minds and come knocking.

3. Retreat

For the spend area that is taken away (in this case above-the-line marketing), retreat completely.  Follow exactly the order of top management.  I am more than happy to be a good corporate citizen all along, but since my contribution is now deemed useless by corporate, I won’t be uttering a word.  In my many years of corporate experience, there will be plenty of crisis situations soon enough (knock on wood) where marketing will come screaming for help.  Their major supplier is asking for a 50% price increase and they are left with no alternatives.  The supplier is claiming structural damages compensation for incidents that need mediation.  The company is undergoing corruption and antitrust investigations by the local authorities.  Marketing is being criticized by internal and external auditors for their approval and authorization inadequacies.  When they come knocking – sorry, I can’t comment since I was not involved in the first place.

This isn’t meant as petty revenge, but no one will appreciate the criticality of a function (procurement) until they are bombed with crisis situations.  Let these risks speak for themselves.

4. Energize the team

No matter how one keeps the recent top management discussions in closed wraps, everyone in the procurement team will hear about it in less than 2 hours.  Words spread fast, especially bad news.  The team is going to view it as failure of the leader, and all these rumors are devastating. 

Leaders should address the team in plain language, and advocate that this is all just a transitional phase.  Unity is crucial.  The function’s credibility should never be tainted.  And leaders are working on renegotiating the goals with top management only as a tactic to regain power. 

When team members understand the leaders’ plan of attack, there will be better hopes of instilling confidence and morale.

5. Contain the virus

Keep your ground and don’t let the same happens with other business units or spend areas.  There is a likelihood that other business leaders will follow suit and take a shot of procurement.  Visit these leaders and explain to them of this exceptional and transitional development.  If they have concerns, ask them to come to you instead of escalating straight to the COO.  Depending on the party, different tactics may need to be deployed, ranging from “be your buddy” to scare tactics.  You just cannot afford to have more spend areas fall through.  Otherwise, you may as well propose to have the whole function redesigned as a purely operational cost center with no cost savings responsibility.  The function can then be outsourced to India, Philippines, or China!

Well, these are the top 5 steps that I can think of almost immediately.  Will they adopt any of that in the near future?  That’s what I am eager to find out soon.

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I came across a list of so-called oddball interview questions of 2010 from glassdoor.com, gathered by a  number of job seekers who had encountered them from various renowned employers over the year.  I can’t resist but to share the top 25 questions here with you.

  1. “If you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put in a blender, how would you get out?”   Asked at Goldman Sachs.
  2. “How many ridges (are there) around a quarter?”   Asked at Deloitte.
  3. “What is the philosophy of Martial Arts?”   Asked at Aflac.
  4. “Explain (to me) what has happened to this country during the last 10 years.”   Asked at Boston Consulting.
  5. “Rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 how weird you are.”   Asked at Capital One.
  6. “How many basketballs can you fit in this room?”   Asked at Google.
  7. “Out of 25 horses, pick the fastest 3 horses.  In each race, only 5 horses can run at the same time.  What is the minimum number of races required?”   Asked at Bloomberg LP.
  8. “If you could be any superhero, who would it be?”   Asked at AT&T.
  9. “You have a birthday cake and have exactly 3 slices to cut it into 8 equal pieces.  How do you do it?”   Asked at Blackrock.
  10. “Given the numbers 1 to 1000, what is the minimum numbers guesses needed to find a specific number if you are given the hint ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ for each guess you make?”   Asked at Facebook.
  11. “If you had 5,623 participants in a tournament, how many games would need to be played to determine the winner?”   Asked at Amazon.
  12. “An apple costs 20 cents, an orange costs 40 cents, and a grapefruit costs 60 cents.  How much is a pear?”   Asked at Epic Systems.
  13. “There are 3 boxes.  One contains only apples, one contains only oranges, and one contains both apples and oranges.  The boxes have been incorrectly labelled such that no label identifies the actual contents of the box it labels.  Opening just one box, and without looking in the box, you take out one piece of fruit.  By looking at the fruit, how can you immediately label all of the boxes correctly?”   Asked at Apple.
  14. “How many traffic lights are there in Manhattan?”   Asked at Argus Information & Advisory Services.
  15. “You are in a dark room with no light.  You need matching socks for your interview and you have 19 gray socks and 25 black socks.  What are the chances you will get a matching pair?”   Asked at Eze Castle.
  16. “What do wood and alcohol have in common?”   Asked at Guardsmark.
  17. “How do you weigh an elephant without using a weigh machine?”   Asked at IBM.
  18. “You have 8 pennies, 7 weight the same, one weighs less.  You also have a judges scale.  Find the one that weights less in less than 3 steps.”   Asked at Intel.
  19. “Why do you think only a small percentage of the population makes over $150K?”   Asked at New York Life.
  20. “You are in charge of 20 people, organize them to figure out how many bicycles were sold in your area last year.”   Asked at Schlumberger.
  21. “How many bottles of beer are drunk in the city over the week?”  Asked at The Nielsen Company.
  22. “What is the square foot of 2000?”   Asked at UBS.
  23. “A train leaves San Antonio for Houston at 60mph.  Another train leaves Houston for San Antonio at 80mph.  Houston and San Antonio are 300 miles apart.  If a bird leaves San Antonio at 300mph, and turns around and flies back once it reaches the Houston train, and continues to fly between the two, how far would it have flown when they collide?”   Asked at USAA.
  24. “How are M&Ms made?”   Asked at US Bank.
  25. “What would you do if you just inherit a pizzeria from your uncle?”   Asked at Volkswagen.

So what do you think of the answers of the above questions?  Or are you deeply offended if you are asked these in your ucpoming job interviews?

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I was chatting with a few ex-colleagues the other day over their attempt of securing top management buy-in for procurement’s engagement in the above-the-line marketing spend arena, in the last month of 2010.  The idea was noble and worthwhile, but the outcome turned out to be a complete flop.  Not only did the company President say it out loud, in front of all business leaders, that procurement has no place at the strategic marketing sourcing table, he had asked my ex-colleagues to support only from the terms and conditions perspective.  Great, they now have to clean up other people’s mess with no decision-making power whatsoever.  They can now kiss goodbye to any potential savings in the area, and most unfortunately, the whole reputation of the department.  Procurement has now sunken to a new low in that organization, and it is utterly demoralizing for anyone to work in that environment.

So what went wrong?  I probed a bit more into how that meeting was conducted from an attendee, and could summarize into the following few points, just for sharing.

1. Missing Strategy

The procurement presentation team, which included a Senior VP, a VP and a Director clearly knew what they wanted to accomplish by the end of that top management meeting.  They were supposed to showcase the success stories of how they had helped the company in reducing costs, driving quality, improving efficiency, and ensuring compliance.  The President and other heads of business were supposed to recognize the importance of that team, and sign on to a pledge to request the cooperation and support of fellow businesses in engaging procurement from day one.  They would set harsh goals for the department to help the company save even more money, but at the same time ensuring businesses come first.  Procurement needs to be flexible and responsive.  The game plan should now be changed. 

Unfortunately, the procurement presentation team failed to come up with a workable strategy in meeting this achievable goal.  They had not touched base with the affected businesses beforehand.  They had not discussed offline with fellow heads of businesses, even on a causal basis, to gauge the climate of the top management’s circuit and recruit alliances.    They were simply struck by surprise of the President’s reaction, and once the comment was made by the latter, there was simply no turnaround at all.

As I have said repeatedly before, procurement leaders need to treat internal selling as their life-long mission.  They have to keep themselves abreast of the company’s latest priorities and pains.  Sitting behind a desk never gets the work done.  If the leaders have spoken with their comrades before the meeting, they could have changed the strategy entirely.  If I had known that the President isn’t my biggest fan, I would choose to work my way up from below and leverage on my successes with the business leaders and use them to sell for me.  Such top management meeting should then be avoided in the fist place.

2. Poor Homework

I was told that the presentation team was not well prepared in terms of success stories.  Instead of showcasing past results and customer feedback, they played the cop card.  This is always risky.  When you want to be assertive, you better get all your bases covered so that you know there are absolutely no holes to your story, and that nothing can backfire.  Of course, from my tone so far you can guess that didn’t happen with my ex-colleagues.  They illustrated a case where procurement was wrongly bypassed.  The accused was dismissive and immediately called the person in charge as rebuttal.  They then confirmed right on the spot that the procurement VP in fact signed on the authorization form.  Crap.  How can anyone not get the story and facts straight before tabling it up as a “weapon”?  Again, if you are ready to fire, you better make sure your bullet-proof vest is secure and tested.

And how “non-strategic” is it to use the threat tactic?  My threat tactic, on the other hand, is to bring forward how the uncooperative departments will lose out from not getting my expert advice and services, from those who see my value in supporting their business goals.  Level it up, guys.

3. Absence of a Fallback Option

Just because the team was caught by complete surprise, they had never contemplated a plan B.  Instead of re-negotiating the cost savings target, or tabling other measurement metrics now that sourcing is out of the question, the team ended with even more laborious tasks that the team may have trouble shouldering.  At the end of the meeting, the cost savings target remained to be sky-high, sourcing power was stripped, and more headcount would be required in areas where procurement’s efforts cannot be quantified.

If there is a case study where everything went completely wrong, this would be it.  The morale of the story however is that all of it is completely avoidable in the first place.  I am interested in following up further on how the scenario progresses, and shall provide coverage in this space.  Fascinating learning material it is!

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As leaders, arriving at a changing or even turmoil environment can be a daunting reality.  There is a lack of trust in the air from the people left behind.  You can hardly find anyone with enough facts to put the puzzle together.  Everyone is saying what you can and cannot do.  Neighboring departments all seem to be using the chance to grab a piece of your empire.  Your comrades are all skeptic.  You don’t know who to trust.  Your boss hired you into the situation and expects you to turn things around, fast. 

This sounds very common to all professions of all industries.  Those days of hiring you into an established post already with good processes and good people are long gone.  We are all expected to improve, land better results, and accomplish the so-called impossibilities.  If not with the latter, your subordinates would have already been qualified for your job.   From day one, you should have already set your expectations right.

I am still surprised to see how many new leaders performing below expectations, not only in the first quarter, but for the first full year.  Yes I know how challenging any new environment is, and how insecure we can all become, at least secretly, from all the observations and disasters landing our way right from the start.  However, there is just no way to look back and ponder.  In my opinion, they have nothing much to lose if they are hired to turn things around in the first place.  Things cannot get any worse, and timing cannot be any better, in reality.

Speed is critical.  People need to see actions, attitudes, opinions, and bold drives.  Employees need to see hope and change.  Though there is no guarantee (is there any, ever?) of the outcome, new leaders need to be able to articulate his or her vision and couple with a few tangible action plans quickly, usually no later than the first quarter assuming office. 

Doing nothing, hiding in his or her comfort zone and let the whole situation plays itself out is by far the worst thing any new leaders can do.

Insecurity?  Please, no time for that.  Don’t start putting the blame on people and the predecessors.  Yeah yeah, that’s why new leadership is sought.   I have seen new leaders complaining about how they are left with no alliances, soldiers and culture.  Yet they always fail to realize that they are the leaders of change as well.  They have way more ammunition than they thought.  They can hire and fire.  They can instill new thoughts and culture.  They can set examples by getting their butts off meeting internal customers, stakeholders and senior executives to remove obstacles and attain buy-in.  Without that,  they can hardly expect their subordinates to change, just like that.

We all need a large mirror to reflect on what we do, behave and run away from.  It is particularly difficult to see the truth when you are a leader because there are very few who would dare to hold up the mirror against you.  Needless to say, knowing how to pick and utilize your talent pool is probably the most critical and very first thing any new leader should master.  Identify the good people, know what their strengths and weaknesses are, and spot the ones who are marginally effective.   Only then would you be able to take in the right advice and recommendations, from the right people.

Insecure leaders, on the other hand, tend to be skeptic of competent staff members due to reasons listed in Part One.  To me, these are just signs that they are still acting as managers, and clearly not yet leadership material. 

This, is where executive coaches come in.   One coach used to say “Getting past your insecurity and embracing contributions from talented staff is the best starting point of becoming a new leader.”

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It cannot get any more disillusioned when you find out your leaders are insecure.  Leaders are there to provide vision, boost morale, remove obstacles and I believe most importantly, identify and groom talent. 

How do leaders get to be insecure?  Well to be fair, it applies to everyone including you and me, but we naturally hold higher standards for our bosses.  We all just got to watch it and not fall into the same trap.

1. Lack of confidence.  It happens to all of us.  We know we aren’t good with everything and sometimes it’s simply because we are less than enthusiastic with certain parts of our work.  We all know that if our hearts aren’t there, there is just no way we can deliver a satisfactory job.  In addition, it just sounds like everyone else is so much smarter than us, and we seem to be the only ones who have no idea what everyone else is talking about. 

The truth is, yes we are not good with everything and no one really is.  There should however at least be a few things that you do well for others to remember you by.  Capitalize on that, know what your weaknesses are and work on them.  There is just nothing more attractive than people who are confident and positive.  Needless to say, watch the line between confidence and cockiness.  I have seen so many people on far ends of this spectrum and too few can balance it well.

2. Threat.  Afraid of overshadowed by colleagues or subordinates?  Think that they may get noticed more and take your position away?  Same case with leaders.  Insecure leaders get so paranoid about the possibilities and make every effort to control information, stir up arguments, micro-manage, set up bureaucracies to make sure they themselves are useful, rather than thinking for the company’s interest.   Unfortunately they seldom know how naked they are.  If I can see it, everyone else can too.

3. Inexperienced to lead.  Leading talent is no easy matter.  Every one of us are different entities and we are motivated by different means.  Some want stability, some want power and some want money.  Bad leaders do not take the time to get to know their team and lead by cookie-cutter techniques – yes, very old-school techniques.  Some leaders do not pay attention even after you honestly share with them what you want.  In my opinion, I know I will probably never be able to provide all that my staff wanted, but I would remember it by heart, check-in with them constantly, and explain to them what I can or cannot do, with a timeline whenever possible.   Leading is very much a tailor-made approach, and I always believe staff responds to honesty and feeling recognized as a distinct individual instead of a generic “team member”.

4. Unable to scout talents.  Admit it, we all get frustrated when we see bad sheep in the department.  It’s bad enough that our leaders fail to notice it, but there is nothing worse or demoralizing than seeing the wrong people get rewarded, or good people go unappreciated.   Leaders need to set good examples by recognizing and reinforcing talented individuals and behavior, so that whatever competition there is within the organization,  it’s a healthy one.  Good leaders attract good people, and I follow many good mentors because they are passionate, charismatic and down to earth.  I believe with year 2011 just around the corner, retaining and attracting new talent is only getting more and more critical and challenging.  But hey, that’s what we expect of good leaders!

 I don’t need my leaders to have super powers.  I am very realistic.  I also don’t expect them to know more than me in everything, and that’s why I am hired to work for them and contribute what’s needed of me.  I however want to see my leaders to be trusting, confident and have a stand.  We may disagree on things but I want to be able to respect them, because it says something.  If I have lost respect for my leaders because of one or more of the above reasons, I know it’s probably time to pull the plug.  Yes dear, we as subordinates have choices as well. 

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