Lessons from the cherry orchard
Public procurement officers are “ … governed by the highest ideals of honor and integrity in all public and personal relationships in order to merit the respect and inspire the confidence of the organization and the public being served” (NIGP Code of Ethics). The ethical fiber of the code compels us to do the right thing. It might even be construed to mean that we are governed by a strong sense of obligation to mentor those with whom we interact—at all levels of the organization and within our community.
While I haven’t always been guided by NIGP’s Code of Ethics, as a young child I did have the opportunity to glean a few important lessons from my family’s cherry orchard—lessons that remain with me today.
It was the pits! With heartfelt trepidation and gelatinous legs, I spent every summer climbing ladders and picking cherries from the 30-foot behemoths that both my father and his father had planted some 50 years prior. It was a hot job; the deep bruises and indentations that formed in my shins from the ladder’s rungs outlasted the summer, and the days were long—6 a.m. to 5 p.m. I still remember that feeling of intense jubilation when the last cherry of the season had been plucked from its branch and hauled off to the cannery.
While my father passed away seven years ago, and the orchard has since been cut down, the seven lessons I learned have transcended the boundaries of the orchard and continue to provide guidance and enlightenment in my role as a procurement officer. The lessons, and their applications to the procurement profession (in italics), are listed below:
- Damage to fruit spurs affects future crops.
Train your staff/customers today, so you may reap the rewards tomorrow.
- Appreciate low-hanging fruit.
Set your sights high, celebrate your accomplishments, but don’t overlook your immediate goals.
- Murphy’s Law will inevitably occur, if you place your ladder precariously uphill of another.
Strategize, perform risk assessments and expect the unexpected.
- Heavy-gauge aluminum pails falling unexpectedly from high places are capable of splitting scalps.
Cover your assets, implement checks and balances.
- Rocks, dirt clods, leaves and rot affect quality and inspection rates.
- With very little practice, a pit can be spat into the mouth of another while the “catcher” is mid-stream in conversation.
Listen more, speak less.
- Rain—it happens!
From the smell of the dewy morning leaves, to the harsh, blazing afternoon sun, those cherry picking memories are ingrained in me—even 25 years into my procurement career.
Come out of your cubicle
So what I do with these lessons and the subsequent wisdom they’ve brought me in procurement is entirely up to me, right? Wrong. Sharing the lessons I’ve learned as a procurement officer will ensure that my organization’s training dollars continue to be well-spent. It’s an obligation.
We are an aging work force. “According to a recent study by the Conference Board, by 2010 about 64 million workers—40 percent of the nation’s work force—will be poised for retirement.” (Kiger, Patrick J.; Workforce 84, No. 13, Nov. 21, 2005) If you’re one of your agency’s best-kept secrets, perhaps it’s time you came out of your cubicle.
“Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.” (Louis Hector Berlioz) Procurement officers are challenged with an impending shortage of replacements in the work force, mercurial legislation, technological shifts, an ever-changing marketplace and an obligation to share and train the next generation. The lessons and ethics I gained as a picker have outlasted the orchard. What legacy will you leave your agency when you collect the proverbial gold watch?
The rules, regulations, policies, procedures and other riveting material that circumscribe a procurement officer’s daily work might be considered by some to be an insomniac’s prescription for a better night’s sleep. Unfortunately, procurement knowledge, and a heightened olfactory sense for detecting suspicious activities (i.e., passing the sniff test), isn’t a birthright. It comes with training, experience, dedication and knowledge gained from the school of hard knocks, professional development and/or coursework from an accredited institution. Locking that knowledge away equates to burying your money and is contrary to achieving best value for your agency.
The “But For” clause
If you’re a seasoned procurement professional, you may be confident in your ability to detect unscrupulous behavior, regulatory circumventions, collusion, fragmenting or sharp practices, but what about your co-worker, your internal customer or the budget manager who’s just been offered a personal discount on a new four-wheel-drive, candy-apple-red sport-utility vehicle with sun roof, navigation system and leather interior?
Can a public official be found guilty of receiving kickbacks or bribes if they don’t know the laws that prohibit such actions? Ignorance is a weak defense. Internalize and teach the “But For” clause—but for your position as a government employee, you would not have been granted such a price or offer. But for your position as a procurement officer, you would not have been offered tickets to the Seahawks’ playoff game.
Check your local paper for free, scandalous instructional material on the latest improprieties, and use that information to educate. There are plenty of stories published on what public officials should NOT be doing. The training you receive, and the training you provide, may be enough for you or your constituents to receive a “get out of jail free card.”
What will your legacy be?
In third grade, while learning my multiplication tables, I learned the value of one. One times one doesn’t change anything, but one times 10, or 25 or even 50 does!
You can’t train or reach everyone, and the good news is, you don’t have to. Be a wellspring of knowledge, and the ripple effect will naturally occur whether it is intended or not.
What will your legacy be? Will you be remembered as the consummate professional who unselfishly trained and shared experiences with others, whose ethics and integrity were unquestionable, whose procurement prowess was stellar, or will you be remembered as the individual who inadvertently hit the “Reply to All” button on the listserv?
About the author
Eileen Miller, CPPO, CPM, is a purchasing management analyst for Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Ore. She is a member of the Oregon Public Purchasing Association Chapter of NIGP. Miller can be reached at (503) 399-5016 or email@example.com. This essay, originally titled “Far to Fall,” was the winner of the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing’s 11th Annual Ethics Essay Contest.