One of the questions I get asked most commonly, particularly by procurement professionals with just a few years of experience under their belt, is whether being a specialist or generalist is likely to offer the best career path.
I recently came across a 2012 article from Spend Matters that made some accurate predictions:
"Historically, procurement people who moved around jobs and employers as generalists probably stood more chance of making it to CPO and the highest reward levels. However, as key commodity markets get more global and complex, subject matter experts who really understand how to get the best value for their organizations in those areas are often far more valuable."
In my capacity as a recruiter to the procurement industry, I get to see what companies across the board are looking for when they're hiring, and what I've seen over the past 5+ years is very much in line with the statement above. It does ebb and flow over time, though, and with everything that's going on in the world right now, I think it's high time for an update on what, if anything, has changed and what we can predict for the future.
To help answer this question, I sought out Anna McGovern. Anna is a Unilever trained Supply Chain & Procurement practitioner who most recently served as CPO for a PE-backed cosmetics company in NYC. She is also a former Adjunct Professor of Supply Chain Operations and is Procurement Foundry's Regional Chapter Lead for Connecticut. In short, she knows her stuff, both as a procurement leader and an experienced hiring manager.
Mark: Perhaps you can start by providing your own definition of the specialist vs. generalist roles in our industry?
Anna: Procurement used to be merely a support function, a department creating transactions. Nowadays, procurement plays a highly strategic business partnering role touching every part of the value chain. Procurement professionals must have a combination of core skills and soft skills to connect the dots between sales and marketing, R&D, engineering, innovation, quality, supply chain, planning, and finance. A generalist will have a working knowledge of each discipline. In addition, they are internal consultants, relationship managers, legal and risk managers, financial advisors, supplier coaches and cheerleaders, negotiators, and business analysts. Procurement professionals are "expert generalists," a term coined by Bain. They do so much more than manage a portfolio of products.
Procurement specialists, on the other hand, tend to focus on creating both breadth and depth in a specific category portfolio or commodity. As supply chains are much more global, much more complex, and ESG criteria take center stage, procurement specialists are taking a central role in guiding their firms in decision making. Specialists will have an in-depth knowledge of the markets, the supply base, regulatory compliance, the NGO's etc. They are the subject matter experts that the CEO, the CFO, and the senior leaders go to for counsel to deliver the most value to their firms.
Mark: Do you agree with the above quote from Spend Matters? If yes, how have you applied that to your own career?
Anna: I do agree with the quote above. Generalists do more often make it to the ranks of CPO. If I may use a sports analogy, superstar athletes who excelled at their positions rarely make it to head coach or field manager of a team. We remember the superstar athlete for being a phenomenal quarterback or left-handed pitcher with a nasty curveball. They are not typically skilled enough to lead the team though, nor do they necessarily seek this role out. It is similar in procurement. The specialist frequently delivers the most value through in-depth knowledge of their commodity or category. They can influence business decision outcomes and get paid well doing it. Many category experts often work as independent contractors and call several clients and their fees often put them on par with CPO salaries.
In my career in procurement, I have mostly played the role of a generalist. I have managed multiple portfolios of spend categories in both direct and indirect materials in several business units in CPG, beauty, and cosmetics. I have also spent a great deal of time in Supply Chain, namely planning. This approach has worked well for me. It has given flexibility, career growth, a vast network of contacts, and I have been well rewarded.
Mark: What are some of the key considerations that individuals should give as they are deciding which path to take in their own careers?
Anna: The answer depends on many factors. The industry, the markets, the size of the company one works for, educational and technical training are but a few of the considerations. I have found having a cross-functional background with experience in several areas of the supply chain, finance, R&D, or engineering makes for highly effective procurement managers. Getting trained in finance, negotiations, legal and regulatory compliance, as well as learning the portfolio or commodity to be managed, are critical for success. In large or mid-size companies being a generalist gives you flexibility for lateral and vertical career moves. You will have more options to grow your career and add value across many different employers.
Adding a specialization in a specific area such as expertise in the dairy supply chain, IT, marketing or sustainability allows a firm to benefit from your far greater depth of knowledge. You will be paid well as you learn to extract higher value from the portfolios, the innovations, and the supply base.
Early in your career, you can test the waters and try different categories, different industries. However, if after 20 years of buying IT and technology, you decide you would like to be an energy buyer and get paid equally as well because you know the art of the deal, you will need to rethink your approach. Once you specialize, it does become more difficult to pivot. Always map your career path by looking out at least three roles ahead and thinking hard about what you ultimately want to be known for. What bridges are you building from one position to the next? Be sure what you specialize in does not limit career or salary growth potential.
Mark: What is the likely impact of COVID-19 on the procurement function within the context of our discussion? i.e., will a generalist with a more well-rounded understanding of procurement across a variety of categories/industries, and how it fits into the wider business, become the more attractive candidate to companies as the role of the function continues to elevate?
Anna: I recently co-authored an article on this topic. In a post-COVID-19 world, procurement will take a prominent role in managing supply risk, which is about developing detailed knowledge about your supply base and taking prudent steps to minimize business impact and disruption. While Order-to-Cash is critical to a company's revenue stream, it is also vital to incorporate solid Source-to-Pay processes into business continuity planning. How businesses treat and work with their suppliers in times of crisis is the difference between surviving or dying. Further, those who do it well will not only survive; they will thrive.
Procurement will lead cross-functional committees focused on supply management governance. Namely, the policies, processes, systems, and organization structure needed to purchase goods and services. In general, a well-developed and executed supply risk plan reviews and revises the following four elements throughout the year: 1) Supply Chain Resiliency, 2) Supplier Financial Stability, 3) Data Security, 4) Contract Life Cycle Management.
Procurement teams will continue to need both generalists and specialists to protect the revenue stream of their companies. Because procurement will now touch so many different nodes of the value chain though, a multi-disciplinary background will be very attractive and procurement generalists will likely become the hotter commodity again in the mid- to long-term.
The generalist vs. specialist debate has been an ongoing topic in procurement, for a long time, and although the path you chose will ultimately shape your career, and is therefore an important choice to make, I think what is most crucial is that you are doing work you genuinely enjoy. Consider the stage of your career, and where you want to go. Ultimately, both roles have value.