Valentina Ericson is the Vice President Indirect Procurement & Head of Packaging at Signify in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She was previously the Global Director Indirect Procurement at Nouryon and Global Director Procurement Strategy at Volvo Construction Equipment in both Belgium and Sweden.
How do you feel the workplace will have changed as we emerge from the global pandemic?
I believe there are a few themes as we look at the workplace post-COVID. An obvious one is the philosophy around office attendance, which is something both companies and employees seem to have mixed feelings about in terms of way forward. You can see both extremes, from companies and people wanting to go back to five days per week without exception, to others saying, let’s just work from home and stop this office thing altogether. In my view, the sweet spot is probably somewhere in between, where we acknowledge that working from home can have its benefits, but equally recognize that coming together is key to feel a sense of belonging, form relationships and allow for more spontaneous interactions.
Based on my own experience of recruiting in the recent months, it’s been clear that many candidates are seeking more flexibility and freedom to manage work-life balance, and want the possibility to partially work from home. This will, without a doubt, be a factor to consider when competing for talent in the market.
It’s also clear that the pandemic has taught us that we can do more things remotely and challenged us to be more creative in how we do things. It’s no longer necessary to travel all over the world every week or month. However, the experience of joining a new company during the pandemic by going through an entire recruitment process virtually and initially only working from home was definitely a different experience for me. Building relationships or even just being able to meet people by only using online tools is clearly more challenging and time consuming than doing it in person.
What do you see as the biggest challenges for:
- Your business? and
- Your own role over the next 12 months?
I think for many industries, including ours, managing your supply chain has been extremely challenging and it continues to be. Facing the impact from COVID-19, the Suez Canal obstruction, component shortages etc. takes a lot of resilience, speed and creativity to be successful. The pandemic also highlighted the risk and vulnerability of many supply chains, where many companies have had too many of their eggs in one basket creating quite some challenges when that supply fails. I anticipate that we need to rebalance the focus on cost with other aspects like risk and availability, but also challenge ourselves to become even more agile and faster in how we respond to different market situations.
Our industry is also evolving at a high pace and, as such, is demanding us to be highly innovative, fast, competitive and customer centric. Digitalization is a big topic across the company, as well as Sustainability, where we have a target to make our packaging plastic free by the end of this year, as one example. Diversity & Inclusion is another focus area, where we have an ambition backed up by hard targets to bring more females into senior leadership roles and hire more young talents into our company.
For me personally, the focus in the coming months will be to build the future Operating Model for Indirect Procurement & Packaging, to ensure we have fast and efficient processes to support the business, and talented people with passion to make the difference and ultimately take this organization to the next level. I’ve spent my first six months getting to know the company, listening to different people to understand what is working well and where can we improve. The work doesn’t stop in the meantime of course, so it’s a bit like building a plane and flying it at the same time, but I enjoy a good challenge, and I’m passionate about change and continuous improvement.
Describe the risks you have taken throughout your career and how did they help you get to the level that you are at?
I think a common theme for me has been to actively pursue opportunities when they have come up throughout my career. In doing so, I’ve many times been forced to get out of my comfort zone, challenge my fears, and leave the easy and comfortable path behind. More than once have I left a position in a company where I felt comfortable and well recognized in favour of doing something completely new and different, simply because I believed it would be better for my personal development.
As a consequence of taking on new roles, I’ve also several times moved between countries away from family and friends, which is not always easy. However, limiting yourself to one specific geographical location will ultimately also limit your career opportunities. It can be a challenge to be a foreigner in another country, but I’ve also found that living in another country is a very humbling experience that gives you fresh perspectives of the world, and on your own country and culture. I would not have wanted to be without this experience and I think it’s also something that has helped me as a leader of a global organization to understand cultural nuances.
The other advice I would have is to have courage to be different and not do what everyone else is doing or always say what people expect you to say. In the early years of your career, I think many people are keen on being perceived as the A-student employee, but adding alternative perspectives or challenging ideas or concepts by suggesting a different solution can sometimes be a game changer and allow you to position yourself differently. Also, try to be strong enough in your own values and beliefs to say, “No, I don’t agree” or, “This is not right” when you feel strongly about something. This can be uncomfortable depending on the situation or even risky, but with the right people you will be seen as honest and gain trust.
Overall, making tough choices and doing things outside your area of comfort is not easy, and it’s not for everyone. I always say that you need to own your choices and actively make them based on what you believe will make you happy in life.
For someone starting their career in Procurement, what advice would you share?
I would say invest in building relationships. I always say that that Procurement is a relationship sport and you are a bit like a spider in the web working with most functions within the company. I often tell people that, to the outside world, you are the buyer, but internally, you are very much selling ideas and concepts, and typically need to manage a lot of change, so you need to have the skills to do both.
Furthermore, I would advise to get to know your eco system (market, internal stakeholders, suppliers) to build a solid understanding of what their challenges, opportunities, needs, etc. are, because that will tell you what’s important for you to consider when you build your strategy, and for you to find the right way to interact and collaborate with those groups and build relationships to be successful.
What would you say is the most rewarding part of your role?
From a leadership point of view, the first would be to work with my people and see them grow, develop and advance their careers. I’m very passionate about people development and I find it to be the most rewarding part of my role. Seeing someone conquer a difficult task or overcoming a challenge or celebrating their new promotion is just a great feeling that gives me a lot of energy. As a leader, your success will ultimately be defined by the success of your people, so investing in your team should always be a top priority and focus. On top of that, having a global team that all bring their unique perspectives and learning from them is something I very much enjoy and appreciate in my role.
Looking at my role as a Procurement professional, I personally like the ability to have a direct impact on the business. Every day, we solve different issues, find a smarter way of sourcing or doing things, and we are a key contributor to the company’s bottom line. I’m a competitive person by nature, so I like to see that what we are doing is generating results that makes a positive difference.
The third and last one is the freedom, everchanging dynamic and creativity of this profession. I like problem-solving and improving things, it’s part of who I am. In Procurement, there is rarely a day that is like the one before and as such it offers a nice arena for creativity. When stakeholders come to me to complain, I tend to appreciate it because it gives me an opportunity to solve and improve something for the future. On top of that, the appreciation you get back from taking the time to listen and understand the problem and then going and fixing it for them buys you a lot of credibility and trust with your stakeholders.
What is the most surprising thing that has happened during your career?
At least on three occasions in my career, it happened as I was just hired into a new role, that the manager who hired me left shortly after. This can be a big deal, because you don’t just choose a job and company, you also choose the manager as someone you want to work with. Additionally, it has happened twice that the office I’ve been based at has closed or been relocated and, a few years ago, I joined what I thought was a public company, only to learn a few weeks later that the business area I was joining would be sold to a Private Equity Company.
That journey became very different from what I originally expected, but ultimately turned out to be an amazing, fun and rewarding experience. Uncertainty about the future can be very hard on your mind, but for me this was an example that what’s beyond the uncertainly can be something great and, if you don’t pull through, you might miss out on interesting things and opportunities.
Who is the most inspiring person in business for you and why?
There are many incredibly inspiring companies and people in the world today doing a lot of good things, so it’s a tough choice, but I will pick the Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat, who founded the Ocean Cleanup company to help rid the world’s oceans and rivers from plastic waste.
The story began when he was on vacation in Greece and, sadly, saw more plastic than fish in the sea and felt an urge to do something about it. I think most of us feel frustrated with the negative impact us humans have had on the environment, but he actually decided to take it further and started his own company to make a change.
I find it inspiring to see that smart people with plenty of career opportunities in the corporate world choose to deploy their talent and intelligence for a greater purpose, and I like the way he is adapting a business mindset to identify a problem and doing a root cause analysis: Why is this happening? How do we solve it? And then find a clever way to deploy a solution. It’s great to see when people use learnings from the private business sector to tackle Sustainability issues and other important topics in the world.
Do you have any hidden talents?
Not sure if it counts as a talent, but my friends and family tell me that I am extremely good at assembling IKEA furniture. I guess it comes with my Swedish genes and a lot of experience of moving around. I’m also good at making puzzles and, during the pandemic, where we had a few months of curfew in the Netherlands, I’ve made a couple of them with 1,000-3,000 pieces each. I can usually do 1,000-plus pieces in one evening. Fortunately, it’s now summer and no curfew, so I can hopefully develop a new talent.
Thank you to Valentina for speaking to Michelle Ewing, our NL Country Director.
Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment.