What Procurement Can Learn from Sport

What Procurement Can Learn from Sport
Date Posted: 16/11/2016 Category:
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What Procurement Can Learn from Sport

Date Posted: 16/11/2016 Category:

Can Procurement Learn Something from Sport?

Whilst putting together our article ‘Are Procurement Professionals stuck in the Stone Age?’, which looks at B2B technology in comparison with B2C, myself and Ed got on to the topic of sport. And it became clear that we are both very driven, not just in terms of our work ethic, but also in our passion for our chosen sports. We then thought about how this passion and determination translates to our work, and how important having a growth mindset vs a fixed mindset is. And what better time to write this article than in the run up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, with less than 100 days until the Opening Ceremony.

Triathlon and training have become somewhat of a compulsion for Ed. Others might call it an all consuming passion. It all started 8 years ago as a means to get fit and stay healthy – having not competed since school in athletics; “it started as a goal to encourage me to stay fit and eat and drink sensibly”. It has culminated in Ed racing IronMan triathlon’s across Europe and a growing ambition to represent GB at Age Group level, and the opportunity to be coached by a professional Ironman Triathlete – Harry Wiltshire.

Anya took up Olympic Weightlifting around a year ago and fell in love almost instantly. Being naturally strong and with a gymnastics background as a child, the move to weightlifting was pretty natural. Fortunate enough to visit the Europa Centre, home of the British gymnastics and weightlifting teams, she had the privilege of learning from the best in the sport in the UK.

The determination and drive to succeed in sport follows through to our passion for procurement and success in business with the same principles being applied in both areas. We believe having a positive attitude and determination to succeed is the ultimate key.

The picture below shows how and where attitudes can change and we relate these to specific examples we have come across in sport and industry:

1. I can learn anything I want to.

The brain is like a muscle, the more you work it the stronger it will become, this is an interesting analogy given our respective sporting pursuits. For Anya lifting heavy weights is not just about pure strength as technique plays a key role. For Ed, swimming was not his discipline – in fact he cannot float – this initially stopped him thinking (!) about triathlon racing – because he did not believe he could master swimming. This was not a physical limitation, instead a mental / mindset issue on his part. It was overcome by using his brain, deciding that he could learn to swim well, and persevering with the help of others at a local swim club and ultimately with Harry Wiltshire.

Similarly in the work environment, and whilst at Xchanging Ed took on responsibility for the EMEA business, which had a large French operation. In spite of failing French at school, and a self perception that foreign language learning was not his forte, he ignored his thinking and decided to learn French in an effort to create a stronger bond with the French team. ‘Je décidai que je pouvais apprendre le français.’

2. When I’m frustrated, I persevere.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race” Calvin Coolidge

Procurement involvement and interference with the decisions of stakeholders is not always welcomed, to say the least. Often misunderstood, and sometimes seen as a function which slows down action, many stakeholders are not greatly supportive of the procurement team getting involved in their spend. This has a range of reasons, which we won’t go into here. Across the last 30 years in procurement Ed has seen the good and bad of procurement’s relationship with stakeholders inside and outside the organisation. The common change management thread to securing involvement in stakeholder programmes is ‘not giving up’, simply to keep knocking at the door, and showing the stakeholder that you are persistent And at the same time looking for different angles to showing that procurement value can be brought to bear – perseverance will bring results.

To quote Albert Einstein “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

3. I like to challenge myself.

Target setting in procurement – if you really have to get the money…what would you do….

There are two ways to operate in procurement, sport and life in general. You can either coast along, doing things the way you’ve always done them, avoiding change and new ideas, or you can embrace innovation and search for those challenges.

Sales is notorious for being very target-driven, and procurement professionals are often given savings targets to meet. However, aside from these challenges set by management, we have to be able to set our own personal goals.

At Market Dojo, we talk about the ‘eSourcing Hero’. This refers to someone within a procurement function with that extra drive and motivation to work harder. So that they can say to themselves, their friends and family (really!), on their CV or LinkedIn, ‘I identified and then delivered savings of £4m in 6 months’. #betheeSourcinghero

4. When I fail, I learn.

James Dyson interestingly has taken learning from failure to create a World beating multi-billion pound business. Interestingly Dyson excelled at long distance running: “I was quite good at it, not because I was physically good, but because I had more determination. I learnt determination from it.” It seems this determination coupled with the openness to learn from failure – drove Dyson to work for 5 years building 5127 prototypes of what became the World’s leading (cyclonic) Vacuum cleaner. He is now estimated to be worth £3bn personally.


“Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee says brother Jonathan threw away the world triathlon title by being a “complete tactical numpty” during his battle with Spain’s Javier Gomez at the Grand Final in London.

Alistair says the younger Brownlee got his tactics wrong by trying to outsprint the Spaniard from 200m out instead of sitting on his shoulder.

Gomez won his third ITU World Triathlon title as he beat Johnny in a dramatic sprint finish in Hyde Park.” – BBC Sport [Read Article]

Both Brownlee’s have been World Champions at Triathlon, and have both been selected for the Rio Olympics.

5. I like being told that I try hard.

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” – Stephen King

Success can be achieved through a combination of effort and intelligence. And whilst many may think that being intelligent is the highest priority here, studies have shown that being called intelligent can act as a de-motivator, rather than something to encourage people to try harder.

“The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are, first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense.” – Thomas A. Edison

When you think about this, it makes sense. If one is deemed as ‘intelligent’, it suggests that they already have the full capability to get to where they need to be without having to exert effort. However, being told that you try hard suggests that there is more you need to do to succeed. Positively reinforcing someone’s efforts motivated them to try even harder. Studies on children have even been used to prove this theory. [Read more here]

6. If my classmates succeed, I’m inspired.

The very best example of this is the recent injury that Jack Oliver faced at the European Championships. This could be applied to so many of these points such as ‘when I fail, I learn’, and ‘my effort and attitude determine everything’, but the most predominant is definitely Jack’s attitude to watching his team go on to represent his country where he should have joined them. Read the quote from Jack’s instagram below:

“This was the moment my Road to Rio became a road to recovery. … It couldn’t have been any more disappointing for me, as the lift where I injured myself would have qualified me for the Olympics and set 2 British records at the same time but that’s sport and we have to move on. I’m massively proud of the guys for qualifying a spot for Rio and as much as I wanted it to be me going, I’ll still be cheering whichever guy does go. The men in the UK aren’t funded. We get no money, no medical treatment. Nothing. So for us to even qualify a spot at the Olympics is a big deal.”

7. My effort and attitude determine everything.

I (Anya) hadn’t trained consistently for 6 months. Work was heavy, my 2 year old decided sleep was really uncool (which, as a full-time working, single mother isn’t the easiest!), and unfortunately, the gym had taken a lower priority. Training one day a week, on my only child free evening, after a long day in the office, energy levels were low.
On this particular occasion, I’d had a really productive day at work and was generally feeling very positive. I walked into the gym, as I normally do, took out my training log and thought ‘I’m going to make today count’. I’d written quite an in-depth workout involving ‘cleans’, ‘front squats’ and ‘jerks’. For those of you unfamiliar with these, check out this video.

After warming up, I loaded the bar with a 5kg weight on either side to do my initial drills moving from 30kg – 55kg. I tripled 55kg and stood there for a minute to recover and thought about this article and how I could stop at 55kg, my comfort zone, or I could embrace the positive mindset I was in and aim for more. So I did. I loaded 60kg on to the bar and cleaned it with ease. Why stop there? I loaded a further 5 kg and cleaned 65kg for the first time in a LONG time. And it felt great. I wasn’t back to my peak, but I lifted a lot more than I had in a long time. And why? Because my effort and attitude determine everything.

The Growth Mindset verses Fixed Mindset was introduced to Ed by Harry, after Ed had a wobble following a late season Ironman race in Turkey. In short his run did not go as well as he hoped (10 minutes slower than expected), and Ed questioned his own capability to improve his race performance. Sage words from Harry and this graphic put Ed back in the right place.

Ed, like a number of high achievers I have worked with was fixated with measuring his improvement as an athlete. After the race in Turkey he asked me if he was capable of being faster; he said he did not want to do something if he wasn’t going to be good at it. I have found people who are successful in their field are often scared of exposing themselves to new situations where they risk being less successful.

Common comments when working with professionals trying their hand at sport are
“I don’t want to do it unless I am going to be good at it” or “I’m wasting my time, this isn’t working.”

Whilst there is of-course a genetic ceiling on athletic ability, these people have got nowhere near that ceiling. I find it useful to ask them to think about the process rather than the outcome. If you follow the best process that you are able to, you will achieve the best outcome that you are capable of. Invariably those who enjoy the process and show long term consistency and dedication to it far surpass what they thought they could achieve. Ed has been a fantastic example of this, he is still desperately competitive, but has made huge improvements by accepting that it is a long term journey to find out how good he can be at something he enjoys rather than an activity he will only do if he can achieve immediate success.

These themes come up time and time again with athletes who are successful in the long term. It is the difference between young athletes who show huge promise then disappear and those who go onto have successful careers. It is the difference between the athletes in my training group who will be competing for their second Olympic medals this summer and those with comparable natural talent who left the sport 10 years ago. It is the grit, which I know makes the difference between success and learned helplessness in sport and I would be prepared to bet that it is the same in business.

Do you have GRIT or Learned Helplessness?
Ed is co-founder of Odesma, a new breed of business advisory firm, one that is uniquely on demand providing virtual procurement through the Procurement PeopleCloudTM. He is a results orientated executive level business leader with 25 years global professional services, consulting and functional experience in procurement, supply chain and change management. Previously with Xchanging plc, Ed had Executive leadership responsibility for running the global procurement and HR outsourcing businesses. He has also held senior level consulting and functional roles with QPGroup, ShareMax Inc. and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Author: Ed Cross & Anya McKenna


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