Sensing a Supply Chain Career
Rising through the leadership ranks at Ryder System, Steve Sensing stays resilient and collaborative, while always maintaining a sense of humor.
Steve Sensing is a Ryder System lifer. True, he started his career at a different company, working as a private fleet dispatcher. But that company leased trucks from Ryder, and a few years after Sensing joined, it appointed Ryder as its dedicated carrier. Everyone in the trucking operation, including Sensing, became a Ryder employee.
In the 27 years since, Sensing has risen through the ranks at Ryder, holding leadership positions in dedicated contract carriage, distribution management, and supply chain solutions. In May 2015, he became president of the company’s Global Supply Chain Solutions (SCS) business. Based in his hometown of Nashville, Sensing also spends a good deal of time at Ryder’s Miami headquarters, at other Ryder SCS locations, and at customer sites.
Recently, Sensing took time from that busy schedule to discuss how he developed as a leader and what’s top-of-mind for him at work these days.
IL: You started college as an accounting major. What then drew you to supply chain management?
A few into accounting, I got exposed to some of the initial transportation and logistics curriculum at the University of Tennessee. I was fascinated by the analytical thinking required to solve customer problems. I was also intrigued by the ever-changing environment, with all the challenges customers go up against, be it weather, tariffs, or sourcing issues.
IL: Can you point to an experience early in your career that helped to shape you as a leader?
I can’t put my finger on just one. Over the years, you learn a lot that college can’t teach you, especially when it comes to dealing with people—which, after all, is what this job is about. One key thing I’ve learned is to be humble, because you never know everything. And you have to keep your sense of humor. This is a challenging business; you won’t win every deal. So you have to be resilient, bounce back, and keep a level head.
IL: Since you started working in transportation and logistics, what are some significant changes you’ve seen?
When I started, we used fax machines; today we have e-mail and texts. I don’t know how we got things done 25 or 30 years ago, given the length of time we had to wait to get information. Today, customers respond in real time. End consumers often have visibility into their shipments, and they communicate with us in real time as well. We live in a dynamic world.
IL: When you became president of Global SCS, what items topped your agenda and where do those initiatives stand today?
I had five major focus areas. The first was enhancing operational excellence. Second was a focus on innovation. We’re always trying to develop new products and service offerings, such as our e-fulfillment service. A third important item was growth. In 2014, we had historical growth rates of about 4% per year. We wanted to get that to 8 or 10%, creating opportunities for our employees. We’ve achieved that.
Fourth, we planned to focus on attracting the best talent we could and providing training to help employees get where they wanted to be in their careers. Finally, we needed to invest in our technology infrastructure and develop new tools for drivers. We’ve made progress in every one of those areas. But of course, in this business as in most, you’re never done. You’re always moving to the next iteration to stay ahead of the competition.
IL: How would you describe your leadership style?
I’m collaborative, both with peers and with my team. When I’m in a room with my leadership group, an outsider might find it hard to tell that I’m the leader. I give direction, but we need diverse input from team leaders.
Also, you have to hold everyone accountable and it’s important to have a sense of humor. This is not just a job. We have to make it fun and keep things entertaining, so people will stay focused and enjoy what they do.
IL: How do you keep your team motivated?
I don’t really have to. I have about 10 direct reports, and probably 80% of them have been with the company for 20 years or more. Empowering members of my team to have a voice and run their business as if it were their own keeps them motivated.
But people have to be self-motivated. You have to wake up in the morning with the drive to go at things and be creative. If you’re not motivated to try something new or challenge the status quo, the competition is going to pass you.
IL: What’s the hardest aspect of your job?
All the energy is takes to win new business, knowing that you’re not going to win it all. On a personal note, I spend a lot of time on the road. I started traveling 40-plus weeks a year in the late 1990s. It’s hard to be away from the family. You need a great support system at home to be successful and to focus on growing the business.
IL: Which aspect of the job is most fun?
Part of it is watching our teams develop. We have an annual process called succession planning, in which we go through the organization, looking at management on the front line and deciding what each individual needs to make it one, two, or three levels up over the next four or five years. It’s a lot of fun to watch some of our front line management—warehouse supervisors, dispatchers, and others—advance in their careers. The same is true for people all the way up through senior leadership.
IL: How do you like to spend your time outside of work?
Early on, when I got back from time on the road, I just wanted to hang out at home and do nothing. My wife reminded me that she and our two girls had been home all week and were ready to do something fun. We spent several years away on the weekends, with the girls playing club softball and volleyball. It’s important to balance work and home life so I try to spend time with family and friends. Now that my girls have gone off to school, I can also play a little golf on the weekends.
Go With Your Gut
Young people coming out of college might feel that they know everything. “But you realize early on that there’s a ton to learn,” Sensing says. “Even in my current role, I continue to learn every day.”
Still, once in a while it’s important to trust what you know, even if you’re not sure how you know it. “You can analyze data, but when you’re trying to do the right thing for your customers and your people, sometimes it just comes down to a gut decision,” Sensing says. “Thankfully, that doesn’t happen often. But sometimes you have to have confidence in yourself and be willing to take calculated risks.”