Finding your way to a career in contract management

Published: 15 Jan 2014 Average Rating: 1.5 / 5 Print
This article appeared in Contracting Excellence magazine on 15 Jan 2014 view edition

Author: Interview with Dipesh Tailor, IACCM Advisory Council; and Steve Levett, Director of Levett John Ltd and Ben Arguile, Managing Director of Argil Search

How do you break into a contract management career and progress successfully? It's challenging and can be discouraging, but recent IACCM research suggests encouraging trends that might renew the hopes of candidates who are willing to work hard and move beyond the challenges.  

Dipesh Tailor, IACCM Advisory Council Member, interviewed two recruitment specialists: Steve Levett (SL), Director, Owner of Levett John Ltd and Ben Arguile (BA), Managing Director of Arguile Search.  What follows is their response to IACCM research revealed in a webinar titled, Ask The Expert - A Career in Contract & Commercial Management.  What should research results be telling us?

They focused on the fierce competition for the very few graduate training schemes currently available, and the huge demand for commercial managers who've been through those schemes. Both believe that too few boards of directors understand the unique, all-encompassing role the commercial contracts function plays in winning business, securing profits and saving money.

Q  Dipesh   88% of contract managers would recommend Contract Management as a good starting point in the career.

  • Do you believe Contract Management is a good start for someone considering this field as a career?  Or do you think only those with relevant experience should enter the field?
  • What challenges do you face recruiting for a contract manager who wants to get into the field for the first time?

A Steve  Contract Management is an excellent starting point for a young, intelligent and ambitious individual. I advise candidates to concentrate on companies with an established graduate program or companies that offer demonstrable training development programmes. The challenge is facing talented competition.  Entrants should have at least one degree, law being the obvious one.

A  Ben  That statistic proves the breadth of skills offered by Commercial and Contract Management as a discipline is helping employers see the value of those skills. Early grounding in contract management exposes entrants to the most important functions of a business and typically produces a very rounded, commercially savvy professional whose skills add value across the business.  My best advice is to find a good graduate or training program with a big business.  The best way is to apply directly. Defence and IT companies tend to have the most comprehensive graduate programmes.

Q Dipesh 88% of respondents to the IACCM survey claim the organizations they work for do not have a Contract and Commercial Management graduate scheme (plan).  This suggests a low number of schemes exist.

  • Does the above statistic seem correct to you, given your experience in recruitment? 
  • What would you recommend a Contract andCommercial Management graduate programme consists of? 

A Steve Yes. Graduate programmes in BAE Systems (an aerospace company in the UK) and Fujitsu (a multinational information technology equipment and services company in Tokyo, Japan) are highly recommended.

A Ben I would certainly agree that too few commercial and contract graduate schemes exist. The market relies -- perhaps unknowingly -- on a handful of companies to develop graduates into commercial managers. Competition is huge for the commercial managers who have been through these schemes.

Every commercial professional needs to understand risk, be able to evaluate how real it is, and the potential impact of that risk. Clearly, technical skills are important, but technical skills are only the foundations.

The best commercial people have excellent relationship skills, an ability to influence effectively and they can quickly work out the business pressures. They need to see the bigger picture and be able understand how the terms and conditions interact with the specification and the pricing structure.  A graduate scheme needs to address all of this, and while some can be classroom/workshop based, many will likely develop from working closely with experienced colleagues. 

Q  Dipesh Research points out the following:

  • 32% of contract managers have a good to unlimited career path (a good career path meaning there are 2 – 3 levels available)…
  • 45% of contract managers have a limited (2 levels available) to very limited (1 level available) career path
  • 25% have no clear career path

Based on these results, do you believe Contract and Commercial Management offers good career paths?

A Steve Yes.

Ben   It offers an excellent career path, but commercial and contract managers also need to influence their options themselves. Although commercial managers may have limited career development options internally, they could improve that situation substantially with a well-timed external move. One of the really interesting things about Commercial Management is that it is possible to get almost to the very top of the profession without taking on line management responsibilities.

Q  Dipesh 67.8% of contract managers got their jobs from a manager within the organisation they work for.  This suggests that to become a contract manager you need to be an internal employee; external employees stand less chance of getting into the career.

  • Would you agree with the analysis?
  • What could be done to further promote Contract Management externally as a career of choice?

A Steve In my experience this only occurs at a junior level and therefore internal employees do have the greatest success, although most large companies (specifically IT Services/Outsourcing) tend to opt for a law degree as a minimum so they do seek external applicants also.

The ratio of students attaining a law degree to then receiving placements and/or training contracts in private practice or corporates is fairly low.  Consulting with respective colleges of law to promote Contract Management could be an alternative.

A  Ben As I see it, there are a number of ways of getting into Commercial Management:

  • Joining a commercial graduate scheme
  • Starting your career in procurement and moving intocommercial.
  • Starting as a QS in Construction/Rail/Civils and moving into commercial.
  • Or -- as is suggested by the survey -- being moved internally from another discipline by a manager.

Outside of the ways we listed, no doubt Commercial Management is a tough profession to break into. If you are to secure a first role as a commercial professional as an external candidate then a law degree or an LPC is a huge advantage.

Q Dipesh An observation made from the survey is this:  If you analyse this by segmentation, buy side contract and commercial managers located in EMEA working for $40BN + organisations with 3 to 5 years experience in the oil and gas industry have the highest proportion of good to unlimited career paths.

Conversely, sell side commercial and contract mangers located in the Americas working for $1BN to $10BN organisations with 2 years or less experience in the IT and Telecoms industry have the highest proportion of no clear to limited career path.

In your opinion are there are any industries or geographies providing good opportunities for contract and commercial managers?

Steve In terms of career progression within the same company, stating the obvious, but the larger organisations with a more substantial and mature commercial contracts community do offer the best chance of more than one promotion - though invariably, one may still compete against external applicants.

A  Ben The biggest markets for us are IT & Telecoms and Defence & Aerospace. Oil &Gas, Civils and Rail are also huge markets. The USA and UK are mature markets for commercial, but the rest of EMEA and Asia are gaining fast. There is a buoyant market in the Middle East for European workers.

Dipesh What training requirements would you recommend for Contract managers?

A  Steve In an "ideal world"  induction training would cover 2 weeks of cross-fertilisation within sales, project, legal and finance departments to learn/see how these interact with the business and, more importantly, how they interact with and see the role of commercial contracts. 

On-going training should encompass a number of business matters.  Update on UK law is an obvious one, finance (GAAP, pricing [modelling] for example), project lifecycle, supply chain etc.  Continuous personal development (CPD) on a matrix system should cover the salient points of contract management (pre and post) as well as extra training on presentation/negotiation/drafting skills etc.

A  Ben IACCM certification is the gold standard for us, and might be the only certification purely for commercial and contract professionals.  As far as a candidate's appeal to the job market is concerned the best thing any candidate can do is build a curriculum vitae (CV) that shows they can apply their skills in a broad range of settings. Having a track record in multiple sectors and being able to demonstrate both pre- and post-contract signature experience is a real benefit.

Q Dipesh We have seen from the survey that getting into Contract Management is wide and varied. Do you think this is good for the industry of Contract Management or should there be more structure to enter the field? Why?

A  Steve Entering any field from other areas of the business is a good thing in terms of personal opportunity and best practice. I believe any formalisation/structure is fine as long as it does not limit or exclude individuals or groups.

A  Ben I think this breeds diversity and that is a good thing. However, I would like to see more businesses set up graduate schemes. The industry can never have enough talent feeding in at entry level.

Q Dipesh Contract managers have difficulty in defining their role and demonstrating value. What advice would you give to Contract managers to overcome this?

A  Steve Different sectors use both pre- and post-signature in a varied fashion.  Some focus more on legal; some on finance (pricing); and some on general business.  So the answer isn't necessarily a "one size fits all".  What is apparent -- and has been for a number of years particularly in post-signature roles -- is the defined ROI of a Contracts Manager (or lack thereof).  No mathematical solution exists that can provide an absolute monetary figure – whether it is a pre- or post-signature environment -- although same could be said for every other profession with the exception of sales and some procurement positions.  So, how do you contribute to profits or savings?

In terms of both role and value, the answer -- somewhat paradoxically -- should become more obvious and definitive as the contract becomes more complex.  It seems that the more complex the negotiations or contract, the more obtuse the responsibilities of a contracts manager becomes.  Responsibilities become more pivotal "all-facing and all-involved" with every facet of a contract both internal and external. 

There is no quick fix, however I would like to offer a few points to explore:

  1. Get feedback  If a contracts manager is having difficulty in defining his or her role and value-add, then flip the question.  Ask the business/account director what they see as your role and ultimate value - invariably they're paying for you!
  2. Ramp up existing value  Over the years almost 75% of interim roles I have covered were for post-signature experts.  In almost every case, the client didn't allocate post-signature support and something went severely awry.  I'd say nearly 100% of these placements resulted in recovering the the contract and retaining customer satisfaction, savings, observation of lack of compliance and governance within the business, and a lot of cases ramped up within the existing contract.  That is ROI! 
  3. Prove your worth  The "challenge" is that invariably the business only acknowledges this all-round expertise when something has gone wrong; therefore your role/challenge is to prove that your actions within your everyday routine are both of a supporting, educational and preventative nature resulting in profits and/or savings.  
  4. Dump modesty, sell yourself!  It sounds fairly simplistic, but the more you can say "if it were not for me or my contribution or customer relations…etc." and then show some monetary gain or saving, the stronger your business case will be for additional staff or retention during redundancy rounds!  If you can't do that, then you're far too modest and you won't survive!

A  Ben The achievements of a commercial professional can sometimes be difficult to quantify.  It is hard to define exactly how much more profitable a particular deal proved to be and point specifically to strong commercial and contract management as being the driver for this, although this is often the case. In terms of the job market, one of the most reliable measures of a commercial professional is how they are regarded by their peer group.

Q Dipesh It could be said that Contract and Commercial Management is at a crossroads. Would you agree or disagree?

A  Steve Don't necessarily agree or disagree, I see it more as a recurring cyclic event: 

Today, companies have sometimes switched responsibilities.   Some may be transferring some of the Contracts Management skills/responsibilities into the business while others are actively increasing their staff and giving the Contracts Management teams more responsibility from the business. And they might switch back.  I think we can better define it as an evolutionary change.

Also, differences exist in the usage of basic terminology. In fact, many are confused about what commercial contracts manager means. The meaning depends on the type of business.  As examples:

  • Commercial manager means finance (accountant) or pricing in some sectors (noticeably in both Telco and IT(OS))
  • Commercial manager can also mean salesperson
  • Contracts manager can mean the person who facilitates the contracting process rather than the management of the contracts document.  This happens in the FM sector principally.
  • Contracts manager can mean legal too.

I don't believe the commercial contracts community is at a different crossroads than it was five years ago.  The community has strengthened somewhat with the IACCM and proactive CDs within companies, but in order to determine which road it does take, it needs the board to be educated as to the unique all encompassing role the commercial contracts function provides in winning business, securing profits and saving money!

Having the IACCM as a fully authorised accredited body will help tremendously and, as a result, the IACCMaccreditation would be seen, recognised and valued in the same terms as CIPD, CIPS etc.

A  Ben I agree.  It is not exactly a crossroads.  Certainly the industry has changed but it is an evolutionary process. In some companies commercial reports into finance, in others legal. Some businesses divide commercial and contracts into pre-signature and post-signature, while others involve the commercial team in the whole life cycle.

Our clients regularly go through restructures and they fundamentally change the way they are set up. In turn we have to react to our client's needs, but commercial professionals with excellent technical and relationship skills are always in demand.  


Steve Levett - Director (Owner) of Levett John Ltd (www.levettjohn.co.uk), a specialist recruitment company covering commercial contracts and in-house legal professionals on both permanent and interim assignments. He has been a recruiter for 13 years and within this niche area since 2005.

Ben Arguile, Managing Director of Arguile Search (www.arguilesearch.com), a specialist international commercial and contracts recruitment business. He has been involved in the commercial and contract recruitment market since 2006. He worked for a multidiscipline recruiter for 9 years, running the Commercial and Contracts Division. He wanted to create a business that focused 100% on Commercial and Contract Management, so he established Arguile Search.

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