Procurement Director Interview: Sharon Cuff, Highways England

Sharon Cuff

Sharon Cuff is a warm character who doesn’t brag easily about her accomplishments but she has achieved a huge amount in her career which has seen her traverse a route to procurement via the NHS and the private sector before landing the job as Procurement Director at Highways England. She is now delivering on the strategy to put safety first and always get value for money and, she does this all whilst balancing a busy home life with three sons and her husband, Stuart of 27 years. When not in the office, Cuff who is a self-proclaimed lover of chocolate, likes to escape to her holiday cottage in Whitby and relaxes by walking on the North Yorkshire Moors.

  • Early career:

Sharon Cuff had no idea what she wanted to do when she left college in 1980 on the completion of an administration course. She applied to a few positions and took the first opportunity that came her way. “I joined the NHS on a training contract and spent my first two years working in medical administration posts. Looking back, I was really fortunate to get this opportunity as the NHS sponsored me to continue studying which meant I ultimately completed an MBA before going onto study for my professional qualifications with CIPS.”

  • The mid-years:

Cuff stayed in the NHS for ten years, working in a variety of posts located in both the East Midlands and the North East. She worked in a range of different roles in hospitals, working in the community as Manager of a number of health centres and then as Contracts Manager in what was then the Regional Health Authority.

A break from the NHS arose in the early 1990s when for personal reasons, Cuff moved location and she felt it was time for something entirely different, that came in the shape of the private sector.

“I spent a short time in the private sector working in BP and Shell before moving into local government where I worked in a variety of commercial roles before becoming the Head of a shared procurement service in 2008 working on behalf of eight local authorities,” she says.

The experience of setting up the shared service was invaluable and gave Cuff a great insight into how to pull disparate bodies together and manage a unified procurement offering.

  • Today’s challenges:

It was time again for Cuff to take on a new challenge, “I’d got such a buzz from setting up the shared service and I’d become quite passionate about reducing waste so I knew I wanted to get stuck into something else.” Cuff joined the highways sector in early 2014 and is now Procurement Director for Highways England.

“I am part of the senior leadership team in Highways England and am responsible for all aspects of procurement from the development of strategies and policy to the delivery of operational procurement services to support delivery of our Roads Investment Strategy,” she says.

Cuff adds: “Collaboration, with our supply chain, our internal clients and our wider stakeholders is a fundamental part of my role and that of my team. I have a small number of direct reports who together manage an extended team of around a hundred procurement professionals who are based in offices across the country from Manchester in the North to Bristol in the South West. I am very proud of the team that I work with and feel very lucky to have a team with such a wide range of experience and different backgrounds from across the public and private sector.”

Cuff’s 100-strong team demonstrates the scale of the job and she says that building those relationships is part of what she loves about the role: “It’s all about getting the best outcome for the tax payer. So all those meetings with suppliers, colleagues, HS2 and Network Rail are all about that. We are always looking at what can be done differently and better.”

Highways England has a massive programme of work and is on track to deliver a major £15 billion roads investment programme. She adds that a large part of the job is the focus upon safety, “We have set up a safety forum from our supply chain and we are working with them to transform our approach to safety. We are looking at how to deliver services to make it a safer place.” Safety is the first priority and Highways published a five-year health and safety plan in 2015 which it put at the centre of its new approach to health and safety making its aim that, ‘no one should be harmed when travelling or working on the strategic road network’.

Cuff says, “Secondly, we want to understand what matters most to our customers and to work with our suppliers to do all that we can to ensure that our network runs smoothly, and that we minimise disruption to our customers as we deliver a huge programme of improvements and build new roads.”

She continues: “Thirdly we have an agreement with the Government to deliver a huge investment programme with over one hundred road projects and initiatives due to be delivered during the first Roads Investment Period (2015-2020). These vary in scale from the circa £1.4 billion A14 improvement scheme to small scale junction improvements and cycling schemes.”

Delivering these priorities is a huge challenge and on a personal level Cuff finds the scale of the challenge hugely motivating, even if she does admit, “It does feel a bit scary at times. For me, the need to attract more talented people with the right skills and attitude to join our team and help us to deliver this is something that occasionally keeps me awake at night.”

  • Top tips for Procurement candidates:

Cuff says she’d like any ‘would-be’ procurement candidates to know it’s not all about processes. “Good processes are important but what really makes a difference is relationships and getting the best out of people.” She adds that it may surprise people to know just how much variety is on offer in a job in procurement.

She advises candidates to: “Be interested in everything and always look at how you can do things differently and better. If you are not working in procurement but want to then look at opportunities to get involved in a project that involves procurement and volunteer to help out by doing some research on market research or being part of an evaluation team. Get involved with CIPS.”

Cuff who is CIPS qualified says it is definitely a plus to have the accreditation and says that whilst it was tough at the time to do the qualification, which she did whilst working full time and bringing up her three children, it was the right thing to do. “I think I felt more pride when I qualified then in anything else I have achieved.”

  • The next chapter:

Cuff has a huge challenge on her hands and despite the odd sleepless night, she loves her job.

“My role is about relationships and people and getting the best out of them. I spend a lot of time meeting with suppliers, with our internal clients, wider stakeholders and with my team and this is the part of the role that I most enjoy. I am very fortunate as I have a great team and I love my job, each day is different and demanding,” she says. 

Cuff who only had ten months off after each of her three sons was born before returning to work, has always relished the chance to get stuck in again. She says that she is delighted with where she is today and, whilst it wasn’t necessarily the result of a carved out plan she does feel really lucky and privileged to have had such a fulfilling career.

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