Finding Purpose In and Through Procurement

Lessons from Ikigai and considering procurement’s true value in the world and the joy that can be found when contributing to it.

By Mackenzie Oakley | March 5, 2024

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Finding purpose, meaning, and balance can bring great benefit to your professional and personal life, but contemplation of this sort often ends up overshadowed by more “important” demands of the day. It’s difficult to think about ‘Purpose’ with a capital “P” when you’re juggling a million balls and putting out fires left and right.

Once we are inspired to take the path toward introspection, we are likely to find that it is the most important work of all. 

In a recent episode of The Sourcing Hero podcast, Kelly Barner spoke with Paul Nilsen, Director of Procurement at Douglas Elliman Real Estate, about what has inspired him to consider procurement’s true value in the world and the joy that can come from contributing to it. 

Lessons from Ikigai

“The book is really about living a purposeful life,” said Paul about Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, which he says can help readers discover the deeper meaning behind the day-to-day of procurement (or, any profession for that matter).

The book helps readers find their sense of purpose by encouraging them to answer four fundamental questions:

  • What do you love?
  • What are you good at?
  • What does the world need?
  • What can you get paid for?

When these four things are in alignment, one is said to have a strong ikigai, or reason for living. From better health and a longer lifespan to a stronger sense of happiness and purpose at work and at home, the benefits of finding one’s own ikigai are thought by some to be life-changing.

Procurement people are used to delivering value,” said Paul. “We can take pride in our accomplishments and the fiduciary responsibility we have to companies, but we can also ask ourselves ‘how can I lend my procurement skills to be more purpose-driven?’

Part self-assessment and part philosophical exercise, having a tool like the concept of ikigai can help shape the personal and professional choices you make. “It can help you figure out what really drives you, and how you can live a balanced and happy existence throughout your whole life,” said Paul. “Sometimes that means making incremental improvements towards where you want to go, and others it means making a big paradigm shift.” 

“[Procurement takes] pride in our accomplishments and the fiduciary responsibility we have to companies, but we can also ask ourselves ‘how can I lend my procurement skills to be more purpose-driven?’”

- Paul Nilsen

Embracing Procurement's Imperfections

If you think happiness and fulfillment can only come from a ‘perfect’ job, organization, or team, you’ll quickly find that is a search with no end. Paul, who got his procurement start in the fashion industry before moving on to financial services and then real estate, says the aspect of ikigai that recognizes (even embraces) imperfections can also be the source of procurement’s greatest creative power.

“In procurement, you have an opportunity to put your stamp on something because your creativity and experiences can imprint on how you approach solutions for the business,” he said. “That, plus variety, creates an environment where there is an element of ‘I wonder what’s going to happen today?’

Sometimes the answer to that question is not what we want to hear, he says, as procurement is full of ups and downs. “But, at least you can wake up and know that you are going to have an opportunity to deliver value to the business, and you will probably have to be creative in how you approach it as well.”

Joy-Full Procurement

Instead of striving in vain for a conflict-free environment, we should pursue the connection between those aspects of procurement that we like (or love!) with what we are actually good at and then, finally, with what the business needs and is willing to pay for.

“Every job in procurement is going to have some amount of work that you absolutely don’t like, and everyone tries to minimize their exposure to that element,” said Paul. “But it’s important to take a step back and think about what creates that ‘spark’ in you … it’s about finding some aspect of it that drives you and focusing on that and cultivating that joy.”

While there may be plenty of “busy work” or administrative boredom in procurement’s day-to-day, there’s also a lot to get excited about. “You have to ask yourself, ‘what are the moments in my day or week that really get me excited and make me go, wow! I love this part!’ Whatever it is that sparks joy in your day.”

By leaning into the tougher aspects of procurement, the ‘hard’ work ceases to be a job and becomes a purpose-filled endeavor… a life’s work. 

For more from Paul, listen to his full episode of The Sourcing Hero here:

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