Women in Procurement Wednesday: Sara Muller of WWF
As part of this “Women in Procurement” series, I often get to interview women who are dedicated to and excited about the field of procurement. My recent conversation with Sara Muller was definitely no exception. She admittedly “lives and breathes procurement” in her role as the Procurement Manager at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) UK. Plus, our talk proved to be a fun and interesting intersection between women in procurement and sustainability topics.
While many of the women I’ve spoken with have “fallen into” the procurement field, Muller chose the career path outright.
“I was always aware of procurement as a profession … only when I was in my final year at uni did I finally research what procurement did, what it was,” she said. “I went onto the CIPS website and learned about the procurement cycle and researching sustainable procurement trends. I just really fell in love with the complexity of it.”
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Muller also loved the versatility of the field. As she noted, you need negotiation skills and to be able to achieve your objectives without derailing your supplier or what other departments want. Her research and subsequent love for procurement led her to a variety of positions in the field that ultimately brought her to where she is now.
To start, Muller joined Heathrow Airport as an intern in 2015. There were 11 interns across different departments, and Muller’s position was the very first internship for the procurement department.
“It was absolutely fantastic, getting to work for one of the biggest airports in the world,” Muller said.
In her first year, she rotated across several teams. She worked in a department of 70 people, in an airport with a staff of 7,000. The whole concept of the airport at the time, though, truly filtered down into the work Muller and her colleagues were doing. They were all working to “make every journey better.” She enjoyed having that tangible goal that helped to prioritize tasks.
After her time at Heathrow, Muller worked also as a Strategic Sourcing Specialist at KPMG UK. While she enjoyed the experience, she missed having that one single-focused outcome that everyone was working toward. As that role was a fixed-term contract, she soon transitioned over to being the Deputy Category Manager for Professional Services at the University of Reading. At the university, Muller saw that one tangible outcome become more prevalent again, which in this case was the student experience.
Soon enough, though, Muller saw an advert for her current role at WWF-UK. She applied and started nearly three years ago. Her experience today is undoubtedly different in certain ways from her days at Heathrow. The procurement department at the WWF-UK office includes just three people. In addition to Muller, there is the Head of Procurement and the Environmental Manager. Muller said procurement has been around for quite a few years at WWF-UK and that it continues to mature.
“We’re two years into a three-year strategy of maximizing the value we get out of procurement activity,” she said. “There’s quite a lot of procurement activity that we’re not involved in. So it’s really important that our colleagues, our stakeholders, have been given the right tools and guidance by us. We’ve been working on that quite a bit in the past couple of years.”
When asked how the pandemic has affected her world of work, Muller noted that she has always had at least one day a week working from home.
“Every time I don’t drive, I don’t have my car emissions,” she said with a smile.
With so many people working from home now, she noted that while it can be quite isolating, it’s nice because everyone is in the same boat.
One side effect of working from home, Muller said, is that it can be difficult to stop working when your laptop is right there. Some people are putting in more hours, and more time is going into having conversations with suppliers. She’s seen a lot more liaising with legal and reviewing parameters and safety measures. Needless to say, there has been no quiet week in the last 18 months or so for Muller and the procurement department.
On the topic of being a woman in the field of procurement, Muller explained that it’s not necessarily the profession specifically that has brought her additional obstacles but more so instances in office workplaces in general. While procurement has traditionally been more male-dominated, that is not as true anymore. She referred to a webinar last March by Beroe that stated the ratios of men to women in procurement are currently 2:1, with a ratio of 5:1 at the C-suite level.
That being said, Muller had some advice for other women looking to get started in the field of procurement.
“Don’t be put off by it being male-dominated at least at a leadership level, because there is always the one who can make it all the way to the top,” she said. “There’s no reason why that can’t be you.”
For women already in procurement, “learn to stand up for yourself,” Muller said. “It’s something that took me a long time to learn.”
When it comes to the best piece of professional advice she has gotten, Muller said it came from her partner at home, who also works in procurement: “If you’re in procurement and everybody likes you, you’re not doing your job right. You’re never going to make everyone happy … it’s great if you can find common ground and a mutually acceptable situation, but like they say, in a good compromise, nobody is happy.”
This advice helped her get over the desire of always being liked. It helped her to learn to say “no” and to make her a much better negotiator. After all, Muller notes, you’re not going to achieve your goals if you are afraid of not always being liked.
Given the nature of Muller’s current role at the WWF-UK, I was excited to pick her brain a bit about sustainability. The topic came up at various points in our conversation, including our discussion about current and future procurement industry trends.
In addition to the trends of digitization, automation of processes and self-service buying, Muller is seeing trends in sustainable procurement practices being even more common for smaller organizations.
While there has been the assumption that “green” means more expensive, Muller doesn’t see that as the case any longer. Plus, it’s not just about cost savings now. There are other benefits, such as when process optimization on the operations team at Heathrow moved a number of processes from paper-based to digital. Through calculations, this allowed her and her team to save the equivalent of two and a half trees per year.
With this kind of reporting and being able to measure different kinds of savings, Muller appreciates that it’s more accessible and easier to understand sustainable objectives.
Toward the end of our conversation, Muller and I touched on part of the mission statement of WWF-UK, which is to work “for a future where people and nature thrive.”
From a procurement perspective, WWF-UK has a sustainable procurement questionnaire for contracts over a certain amount, and they do target-setting for contracts overall. While it’s easy to get bogged down by numbers, she said, every little bit of effort and all of them put together do actually make a difference.
After all, procurement is quite often the link between the stakeholders and the market. And, as Muller noted, for charities such as WWF-UK specifically, “we are working towards the bigger goal of making the world a better place.”
Read about other professionals featured in our “Women in Procurement Wednesdays” series.