One of the many challenges professionals struggle with is mastering how to grow their careers successfully — people like Thomas D., who sent me this query:
“I’ve got many years’ experience working in Procurement roles in different companies, and I consider myself to be a good Procurement manager. But I still haven’t been able to step up to a senior or executive-level role as I would like. What do you see as the most important skill I need to make that move up?”
It’s less about being in Procurement than about moving up the career ladder — you could be in Finance, Marketing, Project Management, Engineering, Voodoo Department or any other functional area and still face the same challenge. Everyone with some ambition wants to move up the ladder, whether the ladder is in Procurement or any other field.
It’s an issue many people ponder but never really take action to address.
Sometimes people don’t feel confident enough to ask; or they may have no one — a mentor, coach, shaman or whatever — to explore the issue with and get the career development help they need.
Or, worse still, some people just continue to bumble along without any thought given to their career growth and direction.
I presume that you’re currently in a middle level role. This clarification is important, as the skills needed in middle management can be quite different from those required to step up to a senior management role.
In the same way, the skills needed in a senior management role may by slightly different from the competencies required for an executive role or the C-suite.
I hope your “many years’ experience” means several years spent in different roles building a broad knowledge base and multiple perspectives. This distinction is also important — you should grow your career experience from different stints of work, rather than doing the same thing time and again. Some people have “10 years’ experience”, for example, but it’s actually one year’s experience times 10. This is not growth.
You consider yourself to be “a good Procurement manager”, which may be correct. But being “good” may not be adequate to make the step up. Good often means average or same as most people. What you want is not to be good but to be outstanding — you’ll find it easier to make the step up compared to many others who are good or average.
There isn’t really one “most important skill” required to move up to a senior role, other than your personal effectiveness. This is the single trait or competence that affects everything else.
For example, your personal effectiveness shows in your ability to think clearly about your intents: you must be clear on your career goal(s) and what ‘success’ looks like to you. Do you want to step up into an Operations, Supply Chain or General Management senior leadership role, for example, or to become a Chief Procurement Officer?
Each of these (and other executive roles) may require different routes. You may need to get some exposure to other functional areas beyond your current field, Procurement.
You could do this in any number of ways — for example, getting a secondment to another area; learning from colleagues in other functions; working on company projects that will give you significant exposure to the workings of other areas; making a deliberate job change to another function; etc.
If your decided approach entails a job move, consider it as a stepping-stone towards your ultimate career goal.
Of course, what you learn from any such job move may also impact your subsequent perspectives on your career, and, hence, your goals.
Broadening your experience base will give you a more rounded understanding of business and the wider organisation, and a better grasp of the implications of each function’s actions on other functional areas, which will help develop your strategic thinking and awareness. This is always advantageous in executive roles, even if you remain in Procurement.
I’ve deliberately drawn on your own words to give you some pointers. So I hope you can see that your ability to step up to a senior role starts with your own perspectives — how you see yourself and your worldview.
That viewpoint should include a recognition that your career is made up of a series of jobs or vocations. If you make your job choices or career moves with proper reflection and consideration of your long-term aspirations, and you make a success of each individual job you do, then you’re on your way. Doing your current job brilliantly well is one of the best things you can do to shape your long-term career success.
You should focus your career development efforts less on technical skills and more on what it takes to step up and stay up: soft skills.
It’s not your technical expertise that will propel you upwards. Your technical competencies are simply ‘Qualifiers’ — they qualify you to play in the Procurement sandpit, like thousands of others. But it’s your soft skills that will differentiate you, help you excel and win in your career — they are your ‘Order Winners.’
People with poor soft skills typically have stunted careers.
The higher up you climb, the more vital your soft skills become. And you’re more likely to grow wings and fly if you get yourself a mentor or coach to help you sharpen those abilities.
Other than personal effectiveness, some critical soft skills to hone include;
- Self-leadership. You must be adept at managing yourself — how you think, what you focus on, how you act, and so on. This includes effective use of your time and energy
- People management. In a line management role you must be effective at getting the best out of your people. Aligning people effectively is also important to get results through others who don’t report to you
- Results-orientation. Focus on delivering results; that’s what you’re paid for. If your boss hasn’t defined your objectives, do so yourself — make them SMART. Then deliver
- Persuasive communication and influence. Sharpen your abilities to win people over. This isn’t just about using hard facts and technical lingo; get savvy at ‘connecting’ with folks emotionally and empathetic listening
- Interpersonal relationships. Immerse yourself in appropriate networks of people who will have positive impacts on your growth. Always remember The Golden Rule, and help others when you can
- Brand management. Manage your personal brand sensibly. Learn how to build rapport, communicate your achievements and aspirations, and market yourself; in the right way, to the right audience and with the right message
- Self-belief. Above all else, believe in yourself. You have what it takes to achieve what you want. Don’t let anyone tell you different; not even yourself.