Destination: The Corner Office
Got your sights set on the C-Suite? It’s no pipe dream. As the supply chain exercises more influence over business outcomes, its managers are rising to top leadership positions. The journey begins with expanding your skill sets and seeking job experiences that prepare you for the role.
Today’s professionals understand that the supply chain moves more than goods and materials. It also propels careers. It can take a savvy trailblazer into the beating heart of a business—to the negotiating table, to locations far and wide for sourcing products, and even to the C-Suite.
Better yet, it can lead to that coveted corner office. It was supply chain mojo that powered Tim Cook into the CEOship of mighty Apple. It steered Mary Barra into the driver’s seat at GM. And it helped Bali Padda piece his way to the top of LEGO Group.
These supply chain success stories might have seemed downright anomalous not so long ago, when companies looked to more traditional proving grounds—marketing, finance and product development—for their CEOs.
"Years ago, supply chain was like any other function—stove-piped into its own functional aspects of performance and performance indicators. And then it got discovered," says Bob Ferrari, managing director of theFerrariConsulting and Research Group.
It got discovered in part because supply chain leaders became better at calling attention to how their everyday and big-picture decisions affect not just the expense sheet but also business outcomes.
"As company operations became more complex and global—with manufacturing and sourcing dispersed all over the country and over different parts of the globe—it drove home the supply chain’s effect on outcomes," Ferrari says. "Supply chain professionals began to understand that if they really wanted to get the attention of their senior managers, they needed to speak the language of business outcomes: What are we doing in the supply chain that will impact customer service, margins, and return on assets? That emphasis on outcomes has started to come to fruition."
What’s more, says Dan Clark, a transportation industry veteran who founded Massachusetts-based logistics software company Kuebix, supply chain leaders typically have a breadth of knowledge that serves today’s complex and collaborative organizations especially well.
"The supply chain touches every aspect of a company, so professionals in that function are positioned to understand their companies holistically, not just their own silos," he explains.
"If your goal is the corner office, learn how to make the pie bigger for everyone in the supply chain."
—Jimmy Chen, Assistant Professor of management, Bucknell University
Jimmy Chen, assistant professor of management at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, agrees, noting that the supply chain has emerged as a sphere for business innovation.
"Disciplinary knowledge from fields such as accounting and finance is important, but those areas are relatively mature making it difficult to have groundbreaking evolutions," he says. "But supply chain management is still at a young age. We see innovations being reported or implemented in real life quite frequently—examples such as automation, e-commerce and omnichannel logistics, and one-day shipping."
These innovations are radically transforming customer expectations and relationships. That transformation makes supply chain insight increasingly imperative for anyone holding a top leadership post.
"The current marketplace looks nothing like it did even 15 years ago," Clark says. "Amazon’s two-day, free-delivery promise shook up everything and has completely revolutionized customer expectations about when their products should arrive.
"It’s no longer acceptable for any product to be delayed without detailed tracking information and customers want their products quickly, cheaply, and with accurate visibility," he adds. "The pressure on supply chains is only going to get stronger.
"Consumers are starting to think that supply chains can do the impossible," Clark says. "Those supply chain leaders who can make these once unfathomable dreams a reality for their customers are going to rise to the top."
Supply chain professionals determined to rise to the top can chart any number of paths, but Ferrari, Chen, and Clark suggest that they enhance their journey with the following key resume experiences and essential skills.
Spend time in all of the various dimensions of supply chain.
Although it will be time-consuming, firsthand experience serves the rising professional better than a textbook acquaintance with the job’s demands and intricacies. For example, doing a stint in logistics and transportation provides a sense of materials movement, global costs and trade, and the nuances of international business culture.
Meanwhile, some time in product management will refine your sense of how constructing the supply chain in concert with product designers can leverage a successful market entry to create the desired business outcome—"whether it’s margins or whether it’s functionality," Ferrari says.
Dive into supplier relationship management and procurement.
"Procurement is different from all the other functions of a typical company," Chen notes. "Buyers assume a leader rather than a follower position in a supply chain. The influence and reach of a buyer’s decisions could be well beyond the first-tier suppliers.
"Anyone whose goal is to be in the corner office or chief executive role must think beyond their own company’s sustainability," he says. "They need to care about a greater scope—the supply chain’s sustainability."
What’s more, Chen adds, "Part of a buyer’s responsibility is negotiation, which is full of conflicting interests as well as opportunities that need a mature mind to sort through."
That means looking for win-win situations and thinking about "how to make the pie bigger for everyone in the supply chain, especially in our clamorous times," he says.
Collaborate outside your silo and beyond your comfort zone.
"I can’t emphasize enough the importance of collaboration," Clark says. "We live in a highly connected world and supply chain managers and logistics professionals who familiarize themselves with their businesses as a whole will be in the best position to achieve executive positions down the road.
"It’s not enough to be fantastic at logistics or excellent at customer engagement," he notes. "Instead, leaders should be well-rounded and understand how the supply chain touches every department. No section of a company is unimportant and leaders need to understand the role each individual team plays in bringing their product to market."
Get up to speed with technology.
"Our world has become a digital one," Clark says. "Everything from our coffee pots to our doorbells is connected to the Internet of Things, and the supply chain is no different. If you aren’t comfortable implementing and leveraging technology to speed processes in the supply chain and between internal departments, you’re going to struggle to achieve a ‘corner office.’"
Chen also touts the need to interact effectively with technology. "One crucial skill to have is the ability to communicate not only with humans but also with computers," he says. "We can clearly see the trend of businesses integrating robots or artificial intelligence into their operations and decision-making processes. So having some basic coding skills with any computer languages would be helpful."
Learn to listen—really listen—to your customers.
Chen considers this intentional exercise essential for everyone in business leadership but especially so for anyone hoping to command the enterprise. After all, it’s key to maintaining a company’s flexibility and responsiveness to market fluctuations. Customers may well spur significant challenges to the status quo, insisting on, say, sustainable sourcing and products or socially responsible practices.
"Just because things have been done in certain ways does not mean they should be done the same way going forward," Chen says. "Markets change, people change—the way we do business must dynamically adapt as circumstances change."
"Supply chain leaders who can make once-unfathomable dreams reality for their customers will rise to the top."
—Dan Clark, founder & president, Kuebix
That means that supply chain managers determined to lead a company will need to know how to evaluate the pros and cons of different supply chain configurations, all while keeping their company’s sustainability in mind.
Sharpen your analytics skills.
Executives with decades of experience may be able to make decisions holistically or based on qualitative input, but junior or mid-career professionals will need strong business analytics skills so they can "scientifically and objectively convert data into actionable insights," Chen says.
Don’t neglect your soft skills.
Soft skills are"absolutely critical," Ferrari says.
Even with the growing emphasis on analytics and artificial intelligence, "There’s still a human dimension," he says. "Somebody has to manage people. Somebody has to make decisions based on all the data that is available. Somebody has to make tough decisions regarding what needs to get done. And somebody has to have a sense of hindsight and a sense of where a course of action may go."
Acquiring all these skills and experiences takes time and resilience. And while the prospect may seem daunting, Clark offers this last bit of advice to professionals intent on occupying a corner office: "Don’t be afraid of the seemingly impossible. The reality of the supply chain is changing constantly, and new and exciting technologies continue to be announced."
Stay current on trends such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, blockchain, drone technology, the Amazon effect and autonomous vehicles, he adds.
"Twenty years ago, most of these innovations were unfathomable anywhere except for books and TV," Clark notes. "Now, it’s up to supply chain professionals to take these technologies in stride and leverage them for the benefit of their companies."