The Purchasing Professional: How To Find And Keep The Best

Author(s):

Steve Miller, C.P.M., CTM
Steve Miller, C.P.M., CTM, Strategic Resources Manager, Teledyne Laars, Moorpark, CA 93021, 805-529-2000 steve_miller@teledyne.com

84th Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1999 

Abstract. Finding and keeping the best purchasers is becoming increasingly difficult. As the 21st Century approaches, there are many challenges facing purchasing managers that makes staffing so tough. Examples include corporate rightsizing, a reduced talent pool, changes in purchasing philosophy and inadequate recruitment of college students. There are ways that staffing problems can be turned around and managers can feel confident of their decisions. This presentation will show participants: How to do pre-search planning, The Eleven Traits of a Good Buyer (c), resume do's & don'ts, interviewing tactics, and some "hot" tips for keeping your current staff.

Why Is Staffing So Tough In Today's Market? Corporate "Rightsizing" has had a major effect on staffing. In years past, many purchasing departments had clerical and expediting support for supplier follow-up, data entry, faxing, filing and mailing of purchase orders. With the advent of personal computers and computerized purchasing/inventory systems, many organizations came to believe the same work could be done with fewer people; exit much of the support staff. The result in many organizations is fewer people working longer hours to do the same work. It takes a special breed of multitasking buyer to survive in today's purchasing department.

Staffing issues have been further complicated by a reduced talent pool, resulting from a robust economy and lesser skilled workers in the market due to rightsizing. The U.S. Labor Department defines "full employment" as 96%. Statistics show that 4% of the working-age population, at any given time, is unemployed due to various reasons such as disability, involuntary terminations, etc. The U.S. economy hit the 96% level in 1997 after many years of economic expansion. Finding qualified buyers has become increasingly difficult; suitable candidates are often lured from other companies. Rightsizing has put lesser skilled personnel on the open market, increasing the screening work necessary to find suitable candidates.

Philosophical changes in how purchasers do their job have also added to staffing problems. The career field is embracing new concepts in ERP, e-commerce, process uncoupling, strategic alliances, vendor-managed inventories and the like. Many purchasers have not had the opportunity to work with some of today's common processes (i.e. MRP II, ABC inventory systems, price/cost analysis concepts, etc.), let alone cutting edge concepts. Lacking experience in the current concepts reduces someone's marketability in today's workplace, and marketability is further reduced because of little or no exposure to 21st century philosophies.

As most purchasers are aware, few American universities offer degree options in materials and/or supply management. In universities where programs are available, recruitment of graduates is common. In other institutions without purchasing programs, little emphasis is placed on the career field; few non-oriented schools encourage business graduates to pursue a purchasing career. The typical path to a purchasing career is still a roundabout process. Finding suitable entry-level buyers with college experience remains difficult. Purchasing still gets most of its entry-level staff from the non-college ranks.

What Is So Unique About The Purchasing Profession? Purchasing is the "crossroads" of an organization. It requires someone who is adept at dealing with financial, technical, and people issues, as well as project management. It's not a place for excuse-makers and requires clear-thinking under pressure. There is not another situation like working as buyer that will sort out who is high functioning and who is not.

Start The Staffing Process With Pre-Search Planning. Few managers actually plan their employee search. Many use their own "system," and find the results less than encouraging. Most managers have heard (or said!) something like this: "I've interviewed 12 people and none of them are right for the job." Why is this the case? A good bet is there was not enough time spent in the pre-search planning process.

Step One: Put the plan in writing. Thinking about it is not enough, as you will forget "key" points.

Step Two: Think about who you want. Do you want someone like you have had before, or someone different. Now is the time to improve the skill-set of the position, if so desired.

Step Three: Regardless of how easy-going you think you are, you need to decide what kind of personal traits a new employee has to have and which you just cannot live with. Do you expect someone to work in a three-piece suit or is jeans and a T-shirt, O.K.? Do want someone who is laid-back or energetic?

Step Four: Determine what level of dependability you need. If you are going to micro-manage someone, a highly independent person may not fit-in. Being a "self starter" is human resources jargon that seems to be a prerequisite for anyone who breathes. But is it realistic to expect it from everyone?

Step Five: What skills do you want? Which are not important? There are three important skill categories: Fitting-in skills, universal skills and job-related skills. Fitting-in skills include adaptability, tenacity, open-mindedness, maturity and team player skills. Universal skills include data analysis, handling complaints, imagining solutions, motivating others and checking for accuracy. Job-related skills such as product knowledge or usage of MRP typically are not as important as fitting-in or universal skills. Statistics show that more than 50% of employees who perform poorly are due to improper or inadequate fitting-in skills. They did not forget these skills after hire-in; they never had them in the first place. You should emphasize your skills list with fitting-in and universal skills and only a few job-related skills.

The Eleven Traits Of A Good Buyer (c). Step Six uses the eleven traits. The eleven traits help you focus on what to look for. Here's how the eleven traits were developed:

I sat at my desk one day completing a report, when one of the company Vice Presidents ran by and said: "I just stepped out of an executive staff meeting and they want to know what are the traits of a good buyer. Throw something together and I'll be back in five minutes."

Five minutes! I whipped-out a sheet of paper and began writing as fast as I could. Soon, the V.P. raced by like a copy boy in the news room of a big city paper, grabbed my notes and disappeared into the meeting. Later, he returned my notes, said the meeting went well and thanked me. I never found out if they thought I was right or wrong.

Since that time, however, I've had the opportunity to check my accuracy. Interestingly enough, my hastily written ideas have proven to be very helpful and accurate in hiring and evaluating buyers. The list can be used for self-evaluation as well as evaluation of your staff and future buyer candidates. The traits are in no particular order of importance.

THE TRAITS

  1. Ability to multi-task in a fast-paced environment. Think of the circus performer who spins the plates on the end of the sticks: If he's good, he can keep them all spinning without any hitting the floor.

  2. A corollary to multitasking is flexibility or adapts quickly to change.

  3. Approachability. Purchasing professionals, by nature, work in people-centered jobs. If you are perceived as unapproachable or difficult to work with, then your effectiveness is diminished.

  4. Innovative and resourceful. Leave no stone unturned. When the boss says something is impossible, a good purchasing professional says, "Give it to me."

  5. Generally inquisitive. Makes it their business to know who, what, why, when where and how.

  6. Strong communication ability. Should be able to write a good business letter with no spelling errors and minimal grammatical gaffs. Oral communications should be such that you feel at ease speaking in front of others.

  7. Listening skills are more important than speaking or writing. Listening well allows you to service your customers properly; and in negotiations, may give you an edge.

  8. Good negotiation skills. Knows how to obtain the right commodity (or service) for the right cost. Understands the concept of total cost.

  9. Willing to take a chance, based on education, experience or instinct.

  10. Attitude that, given a short time to learn you can buy anything well.

  11. Integrity and trustworthiness.

All other aspects (such as MRP, materials management skills, technical knowledge) can be acquired through formal learning, on-the-job training, etc.)

Step Seven: Using the foregoing information, write a position description for use in the hiring process. Format is unimportant.

Step Eight: Determine how the interview/selection process will proceed. This is a critical step. Will you be the sole interviewer of the candidate? Will your boss participate? Will there be round-robin interviews? Who will actually make the hiring decision? These are questions to be answered within your organization before any candidate comes into the office. In today's competitive job market, your company must present a unified front of professional confidence. Most of us have experienced messy hiring scenarios; returning for four or five interviews, inconsistent job requirements, poorly explained job descriptions and so on. To retain the services of the best candidates, your organization must "sell" itself and this cannot be accomplished by appearing to be disorganized and inconsistent.

Finding Good Buyers. This is Step Nine: Determining the process for finding good buyers. The U.S. Department of Labor says only 25% of all available jobs are ever made visible. Applicants think this is so because hiring managers have someone "hiding in the wings" to take an opening. Managers say the 25% statistic happens because going through a comprehensive candidate search is expensive and reaps little corresponding value. What it really means is little or no pre-search planning was done. The average professional position (like a buyer) takes three to six months to fill. Much of the lost time is due to inefficient hiring processes, not a lack of good candidates.

Classified newspaper advertisements can be very expensive. One Sunday blitz with a moderate-sized ad in a large market such as Los Angeles could cost upwards of $8,000! If you have a bad response, a second go-around could double the cost. If you are in a tight employment market, consider up front, the usage of a search firm. Other "no cost" options that reap great rewards include: Telling your friends, relatives, sales representatives, and professional colleagues; getting resumes from the local NAPM affiliate, and recommendations from other employees. In short: Get the word out!

It is your job to fill openings. You should be just as aggressive in finding a suitable candidate as you would be if you were looking for a job for yourself!

Hiring Good Buyers. Much of the hiring process can be done before any candidate comes in for an interview. After the pre-search plan is complete and your advertising process has begun, you will start receiving resumes. If you have done everything right so far, you should have dozens and dozens of resumes! So many, in fact, you need to know HOW to process them quickly and "screen-in" the desirable candidates.

Screening resumes can be a tiresome process. The "key" is to NOT let someone else do it for you. You know better than anyone what you are looking for. Take the time! Much is emphasized to candidates in books and seminars about constructing cover letters. A pity. Don't waste time reading them; their fluff, generally. Make a list of "buzz" words from your pre-search plan and SCAN the resume for the buzz words. In addition to buzz words, watch for "hidden" alarm bells! Do they live out of state? Did they leave out the names of employers? Does the candidate fail to list actual job titles? Is their experience outdated? Are they lacking direct experience in the purchasing field? Is their salary history too high? Are they job hoppers? All these are signs of possible problems.

Set your own appointments. Most books and seminars teach job seekers to try for the coveted personal phone contact. Rarely do they expect to get one unsolicited. Generally, they are caught unprepared, which allows you to hear them spontaneously without rehearsal. This is a great time to weed-out a poor fit that slipped through the resume screening process. Ask about their salary history; get a feel for their communication style; listen for evasive answers; ask about hobbies; tell them something about the position. A VERY good tactic is asking them for an appointment. It is surprising how difficult it is, with some people, to set an appointment. If they have so many other things going on, maybe they will have difficulty dedicating themselves to your company?

Doing The Interview. "The Work Book: Getting the job you want" says people do not get hired for three primary reasons: They cannot answer interview questions to the employer's satisfaction; they cannot identify and verbally communicate their skills and they have a poor or out-of-place appearance. As an interviewer, knowing these things may help you focus on determining the candidates' real qualifications, not issues of subjectivity.

Set the candidates at ease. Use your pre-search plan. Ask questions that lead into other questions. Ask questions that allow the candidate to present unique selling points. Listen to what is said and how it is said. Often, interviewers think the candidate is the only item for sale; your company is "for sale," too. Sell your company and tell them about any negative points (they will find out soon enough and telling them may prevent a bad fit). Take plenty of notes; you will not be able to remember everything later on.

Often times interviewing defects happen that can distort the process. An imbalance of power can be present; this is where one side or the other is much more adept at the interview process than the other. Phony behavior by a candidate can sway a decision because the interviewer is focusing on the "act" not the content. The biggest area interviewers must guard against is asking useless questions; these are ones that don't elicit useful answers. A good example is asking someone what their biggest weakness is or what they did not like about their previous boss.

Take Them For A Walk. Sometimes interviews are a contrived affair that does not realistically portray the company or the candidate. If you work in a fast-paced environment, taking the candidate for a walk is often a good test. Show them your facility by walking at a brisk pace. Point out areas of interest and attempt to engage the candidate in a lively dialogue of what is transpiring in the areas you go through. Here's an unassuming way to determine if they are energetic, have experience with your products and/or processes and whether they seem to fit your intellectual style. This has proven to be a great tool for sorting out poor fitting candidates. If they seem more awe struck by your facility and do not seem able to contribute to the discussion, maybe you should pass on the candidate.

After The Interview Process. Avoid choosing someone until all candidates have been interviewed. The same can be said about avoiding the tendency to "story swap" with other interviewers involved in the process. Make your selection based on who most closely matched your pre-search plan, any "extras" that came out in the interview process and who you "connected with" the best. Listen to the comments from fellow interviewers, but avoid letting them make your decision for you. If the candidate turns out to be a poor performer, your fellow interviewers will not be there to solve the problem for you!

Retaining Good Buyers. This process is much easier if all of the previous effort has been done properly. Getting a good "fit" to begin with is very important to longevity. Once you hire someone, you get their good traits and the bad. You have a percentage of the responsibility to get them properly oriented (trained) and up to an acceptable level of productivity. It is important that you follow through (as much as possible) with any pre or post hire promises you make (training, raises, travel, promotions, etc.). Circumstances do change, possibly due to poor job performance, but barring that, make good on your word.

Treat your buyers as professionals that have significant fiduciary responsibility. It is important that you hold your employees accountable for their actions, but reduce some of the controls in the process; in essence, give them more free reign. A good technique is to assign them special projects based on areas they have shown interest in doing. In giving your buyers wider latitude to do their jobs, you should expect high achievement; praise them for it when they do it!

Buying is a stressful job. If you want to retain someone, do not be a boss that adds to the pressure cooker. Diffuse the pressure and make people glad you are their boss. This can be done by becoming a Loyalty-Based Leader (LBL).

Becoming A Loyalty-Based Leader. To gain the commitment of your workers, you must become the type of leader who earns, rather than demands, loyalty and trust. Workers become committed when they feel like they are part of a team; when they know that what they say and do matters. When workers feel appreciated, understood and listened to, their loyalty and commitment grows.

Becoming a LBL is important. Today's workforce is a far cry from yesterday's. Peter Drucker said, "To make a living is no longer enough. Work also has to make a life." There are so many statistics about the changes in the American workforce that a whole presentation could be written on it, alone. Here are some of the "key" points: The average age of the workforce is approaching 40 years and entry-level aged workers (16-24 year olds) are less than 20% of the workforce. Four of five new workers are women, minorities and immigrants; white males entering are down to 15%. College grads will change jobs more than 10 times in their career. Dual income families are over 50%. 40% of workers believe they have a fundamental right to self-fulfillment, self-expression and personal growth in relation to their work. All this means that to be a LBL, you must be more flexible and understanding with your workforce. Keeping good buyers is tough. Many staffing professionals refer to people such as buyers, as "Gold-collar Workers." They are highly skilled and are willing to work long hours in return for top salaries and benefits. They also expect career-building opportunities and promotions. Motivating, developing and retaining these prize workers is a must for any organization. It takes money to educate, train, cross-train and re-train them.

You Need Commitment From Your Workers. This is difficult to achieve nowadays. Ten years ago every career move was supposed to be upward. Many workers are "cycling back through" as rightsizing has taken its toll. Not everyone is motivated by the "ladder-climbing" mode characterized by the single, upward path. Those who have been "up-the-ladder" before are motivated by more intrinsic aspects of the job. People now want jobs that allow self-actualization. Learning what is important to your workers is preliminary to gaining their commitment. The first BIG step is gaining their trust.

Rueben Mark, as CEO of Colgate-Palmolive said this: "The essence of business as it moves into the 21st century is going to be tapping the talent of good people. It's not how you locate the plants, it's how you locate the best people and motivate them; how you trust them and have them trust you."

Richard Huseman and John Hatfield, in their book, The Equity Factor, said trust comes in three levels: 1.) High trust; people are not worried about being taken advantage of; 2.) Low trust; people are preoccupied with seeing they get their fair share; and 3.) No trust; the attitude is: "I'm going to get them before they get me." A "key" to gaining trust is evaluating your trust level and your employee's. On a scale of one to four rate yourself on things such as: When employees use their best judgment, they can be trusted to make good decisions; my employees care about their jobs and this organization; most employees are basically honest and trustworthy; my employees are talented and creative; my main job function is to create an environment in which people motivate and direct themselves toward a common goal and my employees are loyal to me and this organization. If you scored 10-20, there's a low level of trust between you and your employees; 21-25, your trust level could use some improvement; 26-35, there's an adequate amount of trust; and 36-40, you have a lot of trust between you and your employees.

Once you have rated yourself on the above categories, see how your employees rate you on the questions below. Use the same one to four scale. I understand my boss' leadership style; I feel free to take risks; I know that my boss will keep his/her word; I know that my boss trusts, respects and appreciates me; my boss gives me timely and accurate information about the direction of this organization and my role in it; I believe that my boss has the skills and knowledge required for the job; I am comfortable sharing personal feelings or concerns with my boss; I tend to be truthful and honest in my communications with my boss; and my boss is committed to my growth and success. If you scored 10-20, you have a low level of trust from your employees; 21-25, there is some lack of trust from your employees; 26-35, your employees generally trust you; and 36-40, your employees have a strong trust relationship with you.

Nondependent Trust. Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. developed this concept. It simply reflects the understanding that your first loyalty is to yourself. It is NOT a selfish disregard for your company's goals or the needs of others to get what you want. It means that each person takes care of him/herself and that if you satisfy this well enough, you will be better able to assist others with theirs. Nondependent trust requires a clear understanding of the responsibilities and rights of all parties.

Employee Responsibilities. As an employee, you take responsibility for yourself and your future. You are (in effect) "self-employed"; you create a clear view of what you want your future to be; you develop a plan and a strategy to attain your goals; you realistically evaluate your skills and talents and plan for further personal growth; and you nurture a powerful belief in your ability to attain your goals.

Leadership Responsibilities. As a leader, you give employees a realistic overview of their rights and responsibilities in today's work environment; you encourage employees to set goals and develop career strategies; you expect that people's first loyalty will be personal. Therefore, you show employees how being loyal to the organization can also serve their own objectives; you help others align with your organization by clearly presenting the corporate values, philosophy and mission and you offer employees education and training skills that will prepare them for the future.

Employees Have A Right To: Be treated with courtesy and respect; honest and timely evaluations; know the objectives and future plans of their company; know how their efforts contribute to the success of the organization; question leadership decisions; expect their leaders to care about their well-being, health and safety; and make mistakes.

Leaders Have A Right To: Be treated with courtesy and respect; expect honesty and trustworthy behavior from employees; expect employees to express creative ideas for improving the job or the organization; expect employees to care about the success of the organization; and make mistakes.

Putting It All Together. Now that we understand more about workplace diversity, complexities of life in the 90's, trust, loyalty and so on, it is time to put it all together to become a Loyalty-Based Leader. Putting it all together constitutes The Five Factors of Success.

The Five Factors Of Success. The Five Factors of Success comprise Open Communication, Participative Leadership, Promoting Continuous Employee Improvement, Praising Them and Demonstrating Good Ethics. Each of these factors is essential to becoming a Loyalty-Based Leader.

Open Communication. To foster open communication you must communicate honestly; "talk the talk; walk the walk;" apologize when your wrong; listen well; keep your workers informed and show them a sense of humor.

Participative Leadership. This means empowering your employees by practicing delegation; acknowledging their good ideas; letting them run department meetings and other projects; allowing your workers to structure their own work and work with them to set mutually agreed-upon goals and strategies.

Promoting Continuous Employee Improvement. This is done by practicing job rotation and/or cross training; mentoring and encouraging employees to pursue higher education; and offering them assistance/support for personal problems and publicize their accomplishments.

Praise Them. This should be the most enjoyable part of your job. Here is what you should do: Always offer positive reinforcement; give verbal encouragement; acknowledge group success; find creative ways to show appreciation and acknowledge your primary role of being a supporter and facilitator.

Demonstrate Good Ethics. Lead by example in this area by being fair and ethical with your employees; avoiding favoritism; believing your employees are fair and ethical with you and the organization; being consistent in leading your employees; seeing things from the perspective of your employees; and letting them know what you expect from them in the way of loyalty.

Summarizing The Whole Thing! Much has been covered, but a few key points need to be reemphasized: Take the time to build success into the hiring process; do A Pre-Search Plan. Your employees are your most valuable resource; show your feeling about their value by filling vacancies in your department as quickly as possible. Avoid mistakes in the hiring process an weed-out the lesser qualified candidates by using "The Eleven Traits Of A Good Buyer." Try some phone screening to maximize your interview time and improve the quality of your interview candidates. Conduct an interview "walk." You can also take a promising candidate to lunch to get their reactions in a non-work setting. Do your best to live up to your employees expectations and build the trust factor. Make an effort to become a Loyalty-Based Leader and practice the Five Factors of Success. Good Luck!

REFERENCES:

Miller, Steve, C.P.M.. The Eleven Traits of a Good Buyer. Simi Valley: 1996

Farr, J. Michael, Richard Gaither and R. Michael Pickrell. The Work Book: Getting The Job You Want. Indianapolis: JIST Works, Inc., 1987

Goman, Carol Kinsey, Ph.D.. The Loyalty Factor: Building Trust in Today's Workplace. Los Altos: Crisp Publications, Inc., 1990


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