The supply chain world is a-changin', and the skills you need to be successful today are different from those needed by the guy who sat in your seat before you.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. One of the forces driving these changes is growing corporate recognition of how important logistics, distribution, and supply chain operations are to the organization's success. But as people start to see supply chain management as more of a strategic corporate function and less of a technical specialty, supply chain leaders must step up to the challenge and develop more general business skills.
Tim Stratman is uniquely positioned to provide some perspective on these changes and challenges. As founder and president of Stratman Partners Executive Coaching Inc., he has helped many supply chain executives hone their leadership skills and learn how to develop great teams. He has reflected on and shared those experiences in numerous articles, including the "Career Ladder" column in our sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. He has also shared his insights on leadership while serving as a speaker and leading conference track sessions for organizations like the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, the Institute for Supply Management, and MIT Crossroads.
Stratman's work as an executive coach and the advice he gives on career development are rooted in his own experiences at printer and digital solution provider RR Donnelley. While Stratman's career did not start in supply chain, he did spend time as a supply chain executive at RR Donnelly, an experience he characterizes as "revelatory." That stint along with his own experiences working with an executive coach inspired his career shift from practitioner to consultant.
Stratman recently discussed the changing skill set needed to lead a supply chain organization today with DC Velocity Editor at Large Susan Lacefield.
Q: Unlike most executive coaches, you spent part of your earlier career in supply chain management. How did you transition from working in supply chain to becoming an executive coach?
A: Well, I didn't start my career path in the supply chain space. I headed up sales and marketing for different parts of [RR Donnelley]. I then went into supply chain and later became a general manager. The supply chain role really came to me.
While working at RR Donnelley, I was asked to rebuild our supply chain team to align more with building integrated strategic partnerships than simply managing "old school" transactional relationships. (There was a lot of dysfunction in the industry supply chain, which created massive inefficiencies for all players.) It was a great experience that ultimately motivated me to open my own supply chain coaching practice. I was surprised at how strategic and challenging supply chain was and how much it taught you about the entire business system.
And yet, on the other side, it's a discipline that has been stereotyped as being purely operational, tactical, and cost-driven. While we all know that supply chain requires analytical and operational skills, success in the top job is heavily dependent on strong leadership skills. The primary credentials are a history of hiring great people, building strong teams, and demonstrating strong strategic skills.
When you talk to executive search guys, they'll tell you they're looking for supply chain executives who have a track record of building strong organizations, demonstrating outstanding leadership, and impacting business strategy. That's why, frankly, when you look at the backgrounds of some senior vice presidents of supply chain, you'll find they're not always supply chain people. Ironically, they often come from other areas of the company.
I think the opportunity for supply chain people is to really embrace this career path, to embrace the general business side and leadership side of the equation with at least as much rigor as they do the technical side.
Q: Could you give some examples of what it means to embrace the general business side?
A: All supply chain people need to be involved in the strategy development process of the business, rather than just sitting on the sidelines. They need to have experience developing corporate-level and business-unit-level strategy. They need to be seen as major players at the table.
They need to look for opportunities to (familiarize themselves) with other areas of their organization. I think that's one of the last frontiers: the concept of moving people in and out of the supply chain function so they can grow. Supply chain for too long has been considered this specialized function that operates behind the curtain. It needs a "coming out party."
Supply chain leaders need to embrace the language of general business rather than the language of supply chain management, which is rarely understood by executives outside the function. That means steering clear of acronyms and technical terms. Speak to business leaders in a language they get, which is generally focused on customers and financial performance.
Q: Do you have any advice for supply chain managers and executives on how to gain the CEO's ear?
A: Get involved in areas outside of supply chain that not only offer you a chance to expand your horizons but also allow you to showcase your own knowledge. Examples might be corporate strategy development or a large change management initiative—those types of things where you don't stay [in your supply chain silo].
The challenge is to hone your general business acumen. Find ways to gain exposure to marketing and sales. Get more deeply involved in operations and sharpen your understanding of the balance sheet and P&L. These are the areas that allow you to communicate with the business leaders in a more relevant and profound way. Business leaders will begin to see you as more well rounded. Your supply chain knowledge, perspective, and experience will be packaged in a more compelling way—one that others can relate to.
Q: Do you think we'll see more people with a supply chain background becoming CEOs?
A: I certainly hope so. We are beginning to see more and more supply chain leaders running businesses. We are also seeing more top supply chain leaders reporting directly to the CEO and playing an active role on senior management committees. Supply chain leadership is quickly developing a reputation as "the place to be."