On the Argentus Blog, we interview leaders from all corners of the supply chain and procurement field – a function that cuts across industries, with a vast variety of skillsets and disciplines. The goal is to share insights about talent, hiring, and career development from the best of the best.
For our latest instalment, we’re focusing on public sector procurement.
Procurement in the public sector goes back a long way. There’s long been recognition that organizations funded by taxpayer dollars need to be fair and transparent in what they buy, and from whom. It’s a matter of ethics. But public sector procurement is evolving. Fairness and transparency are still crucial, but strategic sourcing practices now offer organizations an added layer of value. They’ve also changed the game in terms of the skillset required – opening up new challenges for organizations attracting talent, and candidates working to build their procurement careers.
To address these and other public sector topics, it’s hard to think a more ideal interview than Rosslyn Young.
Rosslyn is the VP of Procurement Services at Metrolinx. Previously, she held the position of Director of Procurement and Document Services at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO). She’s someone whose legal background has equipped her to become an impactful, strategic leader with an exceptional understanding of how to get value from contracts as part of the procurement process.
Among other topics, our interview covered:
- Rosslyn’s background, including the advantages that a law background can provide to a procurement career
- Her thoughts on the key skills needed to become a procurement leader
- The evolution of public sector procurement
- The big challenges in procurement hiring today, and her approach to attracting the right talent to a public sector organization.
We hope you enjoy the interview as much as we did!
Thanks for taking the time to do this interview, Rosslyn! You’ve made a transition from the legal field into procurement. We’re curious how that legal background has been an advantage as you’ve made your career in the field?
I started my career at a small law firm in Toronto, and they supported a number of school boards. They practiced education law, but also provided business law services for their school board clients. That’s when I first got exposure to public procurement.
I moved from there into a series of in-house roles, then back to private practice, always focusing my legal practice on public procurement. After I moved back into an in-house role at LCBO, I had an opportunity to be seconded to lead their procurement department. Most in-house lawyers tend to be sole contributors. Not always, but generally. So this opportunity was a great chance to develop management and leadership experience. From there, I moved into my current role, as VP of Procurement Services at Metrolinx.
I think law provides an excellent background in procurement, especially in the public sector. The process by which you identify a vendor in the public sector itself has legal implications. Whether that’s because you’ve created a binding tendering contract, or if you’re trying to operate your procurement outside of Contract A, you’re still subject to the scrutiny of the courts. Bringing a legal lens to that selection process can help you set up your operations in a way that mitigates those risks.
Ultimately, the only reason you do procurement is to end up in a contract. Whether it’s Purchase Order terms for 7,000 widgets, or a multi-million dollar outsourcing deal, at the end of the day it’s a contract. Understanding what you need to do to have a successful contract with a vendor and working backwards from there is a very useful way to think about the procurement process.
What are the key things you’ve focused on as you’ve sought progressive leadership roles? What advice would you have to, say, a mid-career procurement professional who wants to move up to the Director or even VP level?
For me, the most important thing is being able to build relationships at various levels across the organization. Whether you’re providing legal advice on a specific issue or contract, or you’re providing leadership to your team as they support their clients throughout the organization, relationships are key.
Developing relationships allows you to built trust and rapport – whether it’s with your team, or your clients. Once you have that trust, you can build a platform for real collaboration. To me, the foundation for a good professional relationship is to really put yourself in your client or stakeholder’s shoes, and understand their true strategic and operational goals. With a team, it’s about understanding their unique strengths and what they’d like to contribute, because everyone is different.
There’s a traditional belief that public sector is completely different to private sector procurement – that it’s arcane and highly specialized. Do you think this is the case? And how has public sector procurement evolved over the years?
It has definitely evolved. I think public sector procurement used to be mainly focused on process. You identify a vendor using a specific process driven by fairness and transparency. While those are still absolutely essential principles, I think now there’s a greater focus on, and a greater recognition of, the importance of the outcome. Knowing the public procurement process is now table stakes. When I’m looking to hire somebody into a role, the fact that they know how to be fair and transparent is just the beginning. What I want to know is, how can you support your clients to get the best contract, with the best understanding of commercial drivers?
That’s what you do in private sector procurement. You’re driven by what’s going to add the most to the bottom line of a company. There’s a new understanding in public sector that this is what we need to focus on – and that’s where I see the distinction between public and private procurement as no longer relevant. Spend analysis, strategic sourcing, and more sophisticated ways of doing business – that’s what a more mature procurement department should be focused on. Of course we have to be fair and transparent, but as I said, that’s table stakes.
Best-in-class public procurement starts with asking where the client sees themselves ending up, and working backwards from there to find a vendor who will allow them to execute on their operational goals.
Another aspect of this crumbling line between public and private is that we’re now focused on saving money not just through the competitive process, but also at the enterprise level through consolidated spend, analyzing tail spend, and other private sector strategic sourcing angles. Don’t assume that the value you bring to the organization will only come from the competitive process. It needs to come from an analysis of the enterprise spend.
As the field evolves, the skills needs are evolving as well. What are you looking for when hiring procurement talent, and what challenges do you find in hiring?
To build on the last question: procurement used to be more of an administrative function. Part of the evolution is that it’s become more strategic. The missing gap in the public sector has been that strategic thinking.
Hiring the right talent is challenging regardless of whether it’s private or public. I don’t think it’s any easier to find the right talent in the private sector. But I find it interesting how people are inclined to choose public sector organizations because of what they contribute to the greater good. I think younger people, especially, want to contribute to bigger, broader goals, and public sector is a great way to accomplish that. At Metrolinx, we’re building public transit across the GTA, and that resonates.
In terms of specific skillsets, I’m looking for someone with a strong commercial sense, no matter their background. I wouldn’t be requiring public sector experience. I’m happy to hire anyone as long as they have the right skillset – and, like I’m sure many people say, it’s all about the soft skills. Unless you know someone who comes from a really good reference, or was sourced by a really credible staffing agency, it’s really tough to suss that out based on just a resume or interview.
The soft skills are what make people successful in any role, but especially in Procurement. You need to understand how to engage with people at the right level. You have to manage and communicate with everyone – from front-line staff, right up to the C-suite level and board level.
The right candidate can come from anywhere. I’ve hired from public sector, but I’ve also hired people looking to move into a different line of business. Sometimes they’re looking for a place that gives them the opportunity to move up – which is one of the things I talk about a lot when I try to convince people to join my team. There’s lots of opportunity for advancement in the public sector. That’s why we attract people who are looking to build their careers. There are lots of people in public sector who will be retiring soon, and that’s going to open up a lot of opportunity, particularly in Procurement.
A big thank you to Rosslyn Young for taking the time to share her perspective with our readers! And stay tuned for the next instalment of Argentus’ executive interview series.