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Exclusive interview: Paul Alexander, Head of Indirect Procurement for EMEA, BP

Paul Alexander is an old head in procurement. He’s been at the forefront of the industry for over a decade now, firstly with British Airways, as its Head of Procurement, and now he’s Head of Indirect Procurement for EMEA with BP.

Since undertaking his Master’s degree 20 years ago, Alexander has been a passionate believer that good leadership can very much be a difference maker as far as a business’s success is concerned. With that in mind, he has strived to implement a culture of learning and development at BP so that staff can enjoy themselves while realising their full potential.

There is no doubt in Alexander’s mind that ensuring a happy workforce is absolutely vital in ensuring productivity, particularly within a business function as vital as procurement.

He says: “My view is that inspiration and learning is really what people are turned on by these days and that’s what creates a successful team. Something that compounded my thinking was research by Zenger Folkman. They’ve written a couple of books, the first of which is called The Extraordinary Leader and their research is absolutely fascinating. 

“They’ve found many things in their studies and they’ve used very, very large sample groups to test their assumptions. They have found very clearly that the ability for leaders to inspire interest, and that the resource and sincerity you put into development and learning, are the things that will drive success.

“I’m also immensely fortunate though because BP has a very clear approach to what good leadership is. It’s a very moral, very carefully considered and right-thinking way of doing things – it’s founded in trust and it’s founded in respect for people and driving excellence. So, for me, there’s a happy marriage there between what my own beliefs are, what the research says and what BP wants me to do as a leader.”

Alexander is from what he describes as a “very ordinary, working-class heritage” and admits he has seen the very worst leadership traits demonstrated during some of the earlier jobs in his career.

“When I think back over my career – and I’ve worked as an orderly, as a driver’s mate in HGVs, I’ve done all sorts of jobs – I’ve been victim to some appalling leadership in different organisations,” he explains. “Very autocratic, directorial people not explaining why they were telling you to do things… those days should be behind us.

“I do believe in a knowledge-based economy and a productive economy. You need to have people who want to work for you and are motivated and want to succeed. 

“The research on millennials really underlines all of this,” he continues. “I think what they’re asking for is to be treated with respect, not to be hugely well rewarded, but to be sensibly and adequately rewarded, to be treated well and given the opportunity to learn and fulfill themselves. I think that’s what we all want. The difference now is that a lot of work has gone into listening to millennials who have a loud voice and I think and hope our workplace is evolving the way it needs to do for the benefit of us all.

“Another thing I would point to is the work of Daniel Pink. What he says is three things really turn people on: autonomy, so freedom to do the job the way they want to do it; mastery, give them the support to excel at what they do and the other is purpose, so help them find a reason to do what they do. If I could crystallise everything that I’m saying about leadership into one word it would be: inspiration; and that absolutely applies in procurement. They can be the kind of people who turn up and place orders and do a commodity task, or they can be the people who save the company. 

“A good buyer is worth a fortune to a big business, they are precious, precious people.”

Indeed, Alexander and his team will oversee a spend of something like $2.5bn in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, thus underlining how vital it is to ensure his buyers are at their best performance-wise.

But although it’s all very well saying what you need to do to make sure that the environment is conducive to optimising performance, how do you actually achieve it?

It turns out that necessity was very much the mother of invention in this case, as some of Alexander’s  best techniques were developed when the oil price crashed and wiped out BP’s training budget.

“First of all, I think you need to actively demonstrate as a role model that you’re prepared to do this yourself, so you demonstrably take time,” he says. “I tell my team, for example, that I expect them to give up at least one day a month to do nothing but stand back, learn, think and develop. You know, 12 days a year with which to maintain and cultivate human capability is definitely worth the investment.

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“We all live in a world of constrained budgets for what you can spend on training, but my own view is that face-to-face training is the most effective. 

Alexander continues: “I always make sure that the money I spend is focused on a small number of key capabilities – in my world that’s really negotiation, sourcing and argumentation skills; that’s the kind of thing that marks us out and it’s very much in keeping with our strategy.

“The really interesting thing, I think, is what happens when you’ve spent your training budget…  or, as I found out a couple of years ago when the price of oil fell, when you have no training budget at all. That was a really, really interesting experience and kind of a test for me because I wanted to keep inspiring and wanted to keep the team learning and developing, but I had no money to spend. So, I had another think and did a number of things, things which we still do and which I think have been fantastically successful.

“I tapped people like the Armed Forces, people I know in procurement, politicians… and I invited them in as guest speakers. Apparently, if you go to Eton, what they do every year is get the boys to write to somebody and ask them to come in and speak, and that’s where I got the idea from.

“BP is a well-regarded company and people will come and speak so immediately you get these great speakers who will come in and do what we call ‘lunch and learns’, so most weeks here we’ve got somebody coming in to talk to us about all sorts of subjects.”

It’s not just about getting people to come in and talk though, it’s also about the staff getting out and about and doing new things, which develop their own abilities. Alexander’s team does everything from helping out at local schools to acting as mentors for new start-up businesses to aid their development and keep them on their toes.

“The purpose is to get out of the bubble of oil and gas and BP,” he adds. “Deal with the rest of the world, do something, and mix with people you’re not familiar with. And do you know what? They love it!

“People develop as leaders far more if you give them things that are ambiguous, things that they’ve not done before. It works so well, it costs us nothing and it enhances BP’s reputation, so what’s not to like?”

But perhaps the most vital component of Alexander’s formula to keeping a happy workforce is also the most basic. He adds: “The last thing I’d say is: whatever you do, have a good time. A few years ago, the way I would run a team meeting would be a 30-page PowerPoint and then I’d give business updates and talk about performance and I’d watch as people would look at their fingernails, gaze out of the window and doze off. 

“Now what we do are competitions, we study things, look at external business dilemmas, we look at strategy material… there’s a lot of effort in engaging people. That’s a mix of learning and also, crucially, just having a good time.

“My very strong belief is that when people come to work they should be able to have a good time and I don’t know why so many organisations struggle with that.” 

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