Some of today’s most exceptional business leaders come from a supply chain background. Notable examples include Tim Cook of Apple, Mary Barra of General Motors, and Brian Krzanich of Intel. This shouldn’t be a surprise because the supply chain function is so integral to a company’s success and touches every other area of the business – from sales and marketing, to information technology and finance, to human resources and facilities.
However, developing supply chain talent and leadership skills takes effort, observes Patrick Bower, Sr. Director of Global Supply Chain Planning and Customer Service at Combe Inc.
“Young professionals need to be taught how to lead,” Bower said. “This means companies have to identify the employees with the skills and potential that will benefit a company long-term. But, it’s a two-sided coin. While leaders need to reach out to engage and help them along the way, it is also incumbent on the employee to ask for guidance and show initiative.”
Herein lies the challenge – how do organizations develop and maximize apparent leadership potential in its supply chain professionals?
Create the path and incentives
Supply chain professionals are essential to a company’s success because today’s businesses are more global than ever. The efficient movement of product is no simple task and impacts nearly every part of a company, as well as its customers. Having this exposure creates a perspective unique to other job functions and makes the supply chain a perfect place to begin learning leadership skills.
“It’s important that leadership develops ladders of opportunity for employees with potential,” Bower explained. “This can include formal programs that move employees into different supply chain roles to broaden their experience and skill set. Or, it can be short-term projects that enable cross-training and exposure to new areas.”
Today, job variety and a sense of accomplishment are especially important to employees, both of which fit naturally with this type of approach. The ultimate incentive of pay is helpful too. The median annual salary of top supply chain management executives is $229k according to Salary.com.
It's not one size fits all
Not surprisingly, a survey conducted by SCM World of industry executives found that 99% of respondents feel that having a ‘foundational knowledge of core supply chain functions’ will be required by everyone in the industry by 2020. More interestingly, perhaps, is another finding from the survey — 99% feel the same way about ‘communication and influence.’ In other words, personality and interpersonal skills matter too.
In his career, Bower has managed a wide range of people and feels a company’s approach needs to consider the individual. He noted, “Young leaders need to be coached with the style that works best for them. There are multiple types of skill sets that employers need to look for … is a person a self-starter or are they a good critical thinker? Emotional maturity is important, too.”
“In the end, a lot of leadership skills are learned by observation, which means leaders must also model good behavior for their employees,” Bower added. “Sometimes people don’t want more responsibility and won’t excel even when presented with these types of opportunities. There are times when you just need to invest more focus on people who want it.”
Skills development can start further upstream
The industry shares the responsibility of attracting and developing leaders within the supply chain. But this will only happen when interest in supply chain management degrees grow, and much progress can still be made in this regard.
“A career-path in the supply chain can be endlessly rewarding and presents tremendous opportunity to many types of people,” Bower said. “However, the industry would help itself to become more of a destination career. Right now, most people find their way into logistics and supply chain almost by accident. There are some good college programs, but it really should be more prevalent given the level of importance of the supply chain function.”
The prevalence of supply chain graduate programs is lagging other popular courses of study. For example, there are only 23 business schools listed as having supply chain and/or logistics programs on the U.S. News & World Report ranking, with the top program having only 144 full-time students enrolled.
And of course, formal learning does not stop immediately upon graduation. Investment in education and training is necessary for employees at every age and level. "Even at an early career-stage, professional development and certification, like APICS, can be invaluable because it shows professionalism and commitment to skill development,” Bower said.
Companies with a long-term plan and approach to employee development will find many of their greatest leaders come from the supply chain function. By providing employees who show an aptitude for leadership with opportunities for training, exposure to and mentorship by company leadership, talent development programs can thrive. Generating more interest in the supply chain field and encouraging young workers to pursue these careers is an essential first step.