Put Me In, Coach! Next-Gen Leaders are Ready to Play

Tags: Education & Careers, Logistics, Supply Chain

As next-gen supply chain professionals set their career goals, mentoring by seasoned professionals can help them up their game.

Michael Curran-Hays clearly remembers a challenging situation early in his career with global management consulting firm Kepner-Tregoe. He was meeting with an unusually intense client who squeezed a stress ball so hard it popped out between his fingers.

"He also asked questions I wasn't sure I knew how to answer, so I called my mentor afterwards for advice," recalls Curran-Hays, now a global practice leader at the firm. "Being able to get his input was huge." It's one reason he mentors junior colleagues today.

Senior supply chain professionals have long mentored less-experienced colleagues and students informally or through new-hire orientations or leadership development programs. But, as the profession has grown and become better defined, the mentor's role has become even more important.

The field has expanded significantly beyond basics such as purchasing, inventory management, fulfillment, and shipping to include positions ranging from supply chain analyst to sustainability manager. With the increase in job types comes a more formalized career path that didn't exist until recently.

"Supply chain is becoming a more mainstream career path out of school," says Tisha Danehl, a vice president at staffing firm Ajilon in Chicago, with experience in filling supply chain positions. "If you talk to anyone who has been in the field for more than 10 years, they'll tell you they fell into it after working in marketing, finance, or another area. But that is changing."

The logistics boom and the resulting need to fill more jobs with qualified applicants has contributed to increasing interest in supply chain mentoring programs that help give high-potential but less-experienced employees and students a head start. Industry associations APICS and the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) offer two of the largest mentoring programs. Just a few years ago, both began offering supply chain mentoring programs that pair seasoned pros with students or members who are new to the field.

The CSCMP program began modestly without the benefit of technology. Mentors and mentees complete questionnaires that association volunteers use to make appropriate matches based on desired industry, location, position, and other factors. The program is currently transitioning to a technology platform that will use algorithms similar to Match.com's to pair veterans with novices. The APICS program has always used a technology platform but recently implemented a more powerful system.

Their investment in more sophisticated technology underscores the value of their programs to respective members.

"Mentorship and career development are so important to APICS, and we wanted this program to give members value," says Kathleen Schroeder, APICS director of membership.

"When we saw our program double every year since we started it in 2015, we knew it was something big," says Heather Wood, CSCMP director of conference and event content.

Playing Matchmaker

Both organizations provide an infrastructure that includes not only a mentor-mentee matching service, but also resources that help facilitate conversations and recommendations for how to structure the mentoring relationship. The rest is up to participants. Feedback reveals that pairs meet as needed via email or Skype, and that many pairs try to connect in person at industry conferences, too.

Getting Face Time

When three of APICS mentor Gary Smith's student mentees were selected as APICS conference scholarship recipients last year, he was able to meet with them face-to-face for the first time.

"That was exciting. Most of the time we communicate with email because they're all over the world," says Smith, vice president of New York City Transit's Division of Supply Logistics.

At BlueGrace Logistics in Florida, where there are several in-house mentoring programs, the process tends to be face-to-face. A senior manager mentors all new employees at the company's 11 locations as part of their orientation. One mentor usually has several mentees from different disciplines who often meet initially as a group to learn more about the company and its culture before eventually transitioning to email, in-person, or telephone conversations as needed to address specific questions.

After six months, the new employees may also enroll in the Executive Forum, which gives those at the director level and above an opportunity to mentor a small group of people from outside the mentor's area. The groups of five to six meet informally to ask questions, learn more about other areas of the company, and get feedback.

Sean Butler, the company's chief human resources officer, meets with his group of six twice each month for about 30 minutes. The mentees drive the discussion topics.

"The small group forum empowers employees and encourages them to share new ideas and any concerns, while providing an opportunity to build a stronger connection with company leadership. We talk about anything and everything," he says.

As a mentor, Butler finds the program rewarding.

"Mentoring is truly a two-way exchange. I gain valuable insights from mentees through their comments, questions, and ideas, too," he says.

At AIMMS, a supply chain software platform provider, mentoring initiatives support customers as well as college students. In both cases, AIMMS sets the stage for other parties to mentor, then steps back.

The company is expanding its successful in-person customer gatherings in Europe to the United States, having hosted its first domestic half-day event earlier this year in the Chicago area. At these executive roundtables, customers meet for peer-to-peer education and discussion.

"Our customers love that they can talk face-to-face and learn from each other," says Narasimhan Krishnan, customer account manager.

The company also provides access to its software through the A.T. Kearney student lab at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The program connects MBA students with industry mentors who help them solve problems. AIMMS extended that collaboration last year to a half-day lab session at an analytics conference, where it paired students with the company's client experts who could mentor the students as they solved a problem.

Culture Club

At Kepner-Tregoe, each new employee is assigned a mentor who helps them understand the company and its culture. The mentoring relationship, which begins about six months into employment, continues for about three months.

In addition to participating in that program, Curran-Hays also mentors employees interested in moving into his field from another part of the company. "It often starts with a casual conversation where they're showing interest in what I do, but if it looks like they actually want to explore a change more seriously, I ask them to approach their manager first. If it makes sense for the individual and the company, we'll continue the conversation," Curran-Hays says.

Whether it's an official new hire mentoring relationship or a more informal situation, the value of mentoring to the firm with about 100 employees spread around the world is significant.

"We don't all work together at a central location, so having these sessions where we meet by Skype or in-person at a client location is huge for relationship-building," he says.

Just as importantly, though, is how it allows senior consultants to share institutional knowledge in a meaningful way.

"If I had to sit down and talk with you about how to put together objectives with measures and standards for a supply chain engagement, you would be bored," Curran-Hays says. "But if my mentee called and asked for help with a specific proposal, just the process of working on it together more informally makes that transfer of knowledge easier and more interesting."

Executive recruiter Danehl sees supply chain employee mentoring programs as a way to retain the best and brightest talent, too.

"Having a mentoring program helps companies continue to keep top supply chain talent engaged. It says to them, 'We believe in you and want to invest in you,' " she says. "As an employer, the less turnover you have, the more profitable you are."

It's also good for the mentors.

"I enjoy helping these young people move ahead in their careers," says Smith. "Sometimes they need somebody in their life who's an objective third party to give them a straight story. We can do that for them."

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