Strategize. Inspire. Listen.
To steer his company through a global pandemic, Andrew Kirkwood rolls up his sleeves, continues to connect with customers and internal staff, keeps learning, and doesn't mind some WhatsApp teasing from his team.
Andrew Kirkwood has been hooked on supply chain management since his university days, when he wrote a dissertation on food retail logistics in the United States and U.K.
"The movement of goods has always fascinated me," says Kirkwood, who in January 2019 became chief executive officer of global supply chain software and services provider BluJay Solutions. "It's a people-centric, complex industry," he says.
He also enjoys the roll-up-your-sleeves environment found in supply chain management. "I love that you can walk factory floors, distribution centers, and rail yards, as well as do all the things you do in an office," he notes.
Kirkwood, who is based in BluJay's Manchester, U.K., office, spoke with us in mid-April 2020. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the central role of the supply chain in everyone's life became more apparent than ever. We discussed the impact of the disruption on BluJay and its customers, as well as his leadership strategies.
IL: Any "war stories" from early on in your career?
In my early 20s, while working at Dallas Systems (now part of Infor), I was thrown into the deep end to help with a challenging technology implementation. My colleagues were working all hours across multiple shifts, trying to make sure the system worked so food could be delivered to retail stores.
With no experience to guide me, I started listening to people and then using the data and applying my intelligence to problem-solving. People believed the system wasn't working, but I established that the system's users were doing things that could be improved with better training. I learned a lesson about listening. And I learned not to assume, but instead to use data to help drive decisions.
IL: When you became chief executive officer at BluJay, what were your goals?
The first was to listen—to customers, employees, partners, the market—to hear what BluJay did and didn't do well.
Second was to develop a clear strategy for the business. When I asked people to explain what the company did, I got different answers. We needed to make sure that everyone understood what BluJay was about.
Third was creating a cohesive leadership group built on trust. To achieve that, we had to encourage an environment of transparency and what I call cross-functional collaboration. When people in one department made changes, they needed to think about the impact on other parts of the business.
IL: Describe your role at BluJay in three words?
Strategize. Inspire. Listen.
IL: What projects get most of your attention these days?
If you'd asked me that eight weeks ago, I'd have given you a different answer. As a result of COVID-19, I'm doing a lot of scenario planning and trying to evaluate assumptions we made about the business months ago. Are they still valid? How should they change?
IL: How has BluJay modified operations due to the pandemic?
We operate directly in 16 countries, and our leadership in the United States is spread out. But when I joined BluJay, the business wasn't leveraging video technology at all. We embraced it from the moment I arrived. And by the time the lockdowns started, we already had a business continuity team set up. So we were well positioned for this emergency.
To maintain engagement and connectivity, we do a lot of outreach. For example, in addition to regular all-company and leadership calls, we have people doing fitness programs in the evenings. In the U.K., we have a cup of tea and a chat.
Prior to the pandemic, I spent a ton of my time traveling to meet with customers. I don't think that will change. What will change is whether I need to get on a plane to do that. Companies have had to learn quickly how to work remotely.
IL: What's your leadership style?
The first thing I ask of my team is transparency. I want the relationships to be collegial. I want them to be empowered and accountable. Trust and friendship are important. I'm the boss, but the people who work for me are far smarter than I am. I just encourage them to collaborate to come up with the right answers.
When we communicate on WhatsApp, we're constantly joking, and no one on the team is shy about making fun of me. That's the culture. If you can't have a bit of fun while you're working hard, then it's just going to be really hard work.
IL: What's the hardest part of your job?
There are two things. One is when we lose business. We hope that never happens, but the reality is that sometimes, despite all the effort we put into winning someone's business, we simply don't. That's painful. The other difficult thing is having a conversation with a disappointed customer. It hurts, but it also motivates us to do better.
IL: If you could trade places with anyone for a day—alive or from history—whom would you choose?
Given where we are at the moment, I'd choose Winston Churchill. He was a man for a crisis and always seemed to have the right words for the right time when the odds looked impossible.
IL: What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
Listen more. You think you know everything, and you know nothing.
IL: What important lessons have you learned from mentors or role models?
One important thing they've taught me is to get feedback from peers. Sometimes it's difficult feedback that you don't want to hear, but you take it in. I'm a big believer in the growth mindset—that you can always teach a dog new tricks. I like to think of myself as a sponge who's constantly learning from people who are looking to improve what they do every day.