Category Depth vs Breadth – Which is Better?

If you’re familiar with MRA, you know that we primarily place Supply Management leadership positions, with a sweet spot within Procurement and Strategic Sourcing. I’ve spoken to many practitioners with diverse backgrounds and at various levels, ranging from Buyer to VP Procurement. Some of these folks know all there is to know about one specific commodity/category and others have sourced everything from fasteners to benefits services.

One trend we’re seeing is that many Procurement organizations are transitioning to a category management structure. Within this model, we’ve found that companies have a tendency to only interview and hire candidates with deep experience in the specific category each position would manage, at least at the Manager level and below. There are several pros associated with this school of thought. For example, hiring a category specialist. makes a lot of sense from a company’s perspective; the learning curve will be minimal, thus setting the stage for this individual to hit the ground running in their new role.

From a practitioner’s viewpoint ‘ if he/she can develop a niche within a category over the years, it can make him/her very marketable to any organization seeking that expertise. For example, we had a talented young woman on our radar who made it her personal mission to be the go-to Travel services procurement person. She became a subject matter expert, joined Travel-related professional associations and obtained a GTP (Global Travel Professional) certification. As a result, she has held Travel procurement roles for several companies and experienced rapid career advancement! There’s also a downside to being associated with a specific category as a Procurement professional.

While being a specialist does make you marketable for certain roles, it can unintentionally create a low ceiling for you when it comes to leadership or executive-level roles (ie- CPO, VP, Director Procurement). This thought hadn’t crossed my mind until we had unearthed the perfect candidate. for a Marketing Sourcing opening we were working on. He fit every checkbox our client sought, was at the right experience level and showed consistent career growth in two previous Marketing Sourcing roles! When I asked about his interest level for this position that was seemingly a perfect fit, he explained that he was uninterested. Puzzled, I asked Why?! He explained that he wanted to broaden his skillset and didn’t want to be viewed simply as a Marketing category specialist, since he had aspirations to be a CPO one day.

Due to the broad responsibilities and diverse teams executives manage, he added, companies seek candidates with a breadth of category management experience (among other things) rather than someone who has spent 20+ years focused in one area. In closing, there can certainly be a case to be made for both standpoints in terms of whether it’s better to have breadth or depth. Ultimately, I think having a more well-rounded background will pay dividends in the long run, even if it means losing out on a few opportunities on the way.