Putting Leadership Development Back on Your Calendar

I’m too busy (in meetings, on the road, dealing with operational issues, sifting through countless emails and voicemails…) to invest time in leadership development and learning.

Sound familiar?

Over the past year, I’ve spoken to many supply chain and logistics executives about leadership development and learning, and “lack of time” is by far the most common reason they give for not focusing enough in this area. Research cited in a recent Wall Street Journal article (“Where’s the Boss? Trapped in a Meeting”) underscores the time crunch most executives face today:

“In one sample of 65 CEOs, executives spent roughly 18 hours of a 55-hour workweek in meetings, more than three hours on calls and five hours in business meals, on average,” according to an ongoing study scholars from London School of Economics and Harvard Business School are conducting.

Yet, virtually all supply chain executives I’ve spoken to agree with leadership expert Kenneth Blanchard: “When you stop learning, you stop leading.”

So, how do you put leadership development and learning back on your calendar and budget?

That was the focus of a workshop I led last Friday with a small group of supply chain and logistics executives at a breakfast organized by CSCMP’s New England Roundtable. A big thanks to everyone who attended, especially Coby Blanchard, Chief Supply Chain Officer at Stuller, Inc. who co-presented with me via Skype.

The conversation generated a lot of great comments, ideas, and questions, including a discussion around who to best invest in, young professionals/high potentials looking for new skills and opportunities in other job functions, or career professionals with a lot of experience but who lack certain skills, such as negotiation and analytical skills, that could make them even more productive?

In the interest of time (no pun intended), I won’t recap everything we discussed in the session, but I’ll leave you with my thoughts and recommendations:

Everything about supply chain management is changing so quickly and frequently, that a new model of learning is required. In their book “A New Culture of Learning,” Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown argue that “The major pitfall of the 21st century’s teaching model is the belief that most of what we know will remain relatively unchanged for a long enough period of time to be worth the effort of transferring it…The old ways of learning are unable to keep up with our rapidly changing world.” I believe this is particularly true in supply chain management, where new technologies, business models, competitors, legislation, economic issues, and so on are constantly emerging, which requires companies to continuously evolve their supply chain thinking, processes, and networks. Just look at trends such as social media and omni-channel retailing — neither of these things were likely included in supply chain textbooks or courses developed just five years ago. Thomas and Brown position peer-to-peer learning as a more effective learning model and I agree (more on this point below).

Don’t find the time — make the time! Let’s face it, when you say you’ll “find” the time to do something, it rarely happens. The reason is simple: there is no extra time to find. You have to define your priorities and make the time by eliminating non-value-added behavior and activities from your daily schedule. Consider this point from the WSJ article referenced earlier:

When top executives compare their top priorities to their time use, “they are usually surprised about the mismatch,” says Robert Steven Kaplan, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School.”

How you spend your work time each week? Which activity consumes the greatest percentage of your time, and is the investment justified? What actions can you take to spend more time on the things that matter the most to you and the company and less on the things that matter the least? When it comes to leadership development and learning, my recommendation is to block 30 minutes per week on your calendar for engaging with peers and reading, listening, and watching educational content. If it’s scheduled, then you’re more likely to do it versus trying to squeeze it in.

Align your leadership development and learning investments with your key initiatives. “Leadership development and education are an easy target for cost reductions,” said one logistics executive I spoke with recently. “The ROI is immeasurable or at best difficult to consistently measure, and business tends to frown on leaps of faith.” The best way to address this issue is to link the ROI of your leadership development and learning investments with the ROI of your key initiatives. In other words, if your investments in learning and leadership development can help you make smarter decisions faster related to your key initiatives, then the value is more tangible and measurable. However, it’s important to strike a balance. Every interest or opportunity to learn something new doesn’t have to be linked with an existing project or initiative. In fact, the biggest value could come from the other direction — a learning experience that leads to a new project or initiative that ultimately results in significant business benefits.

Learn by doing…there is no better way. You can’t learn to ride a bicycle by reading about it. You have to get on that seat and start pedaling, and when you fall, you have to get back on and try again. The same is true in the business world. You can take a negotiations class or sit at the head of the table at the next contract renewal with a supplier or customer. You can read an article about social media or open a Twitter account and start micro-blogging. The bottom line is that books, classes, webcasts, and conferences are not enough — the best way to truly learn something is to just do it.

Leadership development begins with new hires — and perhaps all the way back to high school. What skills and attributes will define the next generation of supply chain and logistics leaders at your company? Once you answer this question, work with HR to develop a talent recruitment strategy, as well as a leadership development and training program aligned with those objectives.

Peer-to-peer learning is the most underutilized path to knowledge, but new technologies and services are making it easier. I firmly believe that the best source of practical knowledge and advice are your peers, other executives just like you who have already met and overcome the same challenges and opportunities you face today. Conferences are a great example of peer-to-peer learning in action, but how do you enable peer-to-peer learning and networking on an ongoing basis? That has traditionally been the challenge, but social media, virtual conferences, online courses, and peer-to-peer learning services are all making it easier. In a recent blog posting (“Are You Learning as Fast as the World is Changing”), Bill Taylor, cofounder of Fast Company magazine, writes:

These days, the most powerful insights often come from the most unexpected places – the hidden genius locked inside your company, the collective genius of customers, suppliers, and other smart people who would be eager to teach you what they know if you simply asked for their insights…Nobody alone learns as quickly as everybody together.

If you agree that “when you stop learning, you stop leading,” then you need to make the time and put leadership development and learning back on your calendar and budget, and you should also recognize that a new model of learning is required to keep pace with today’s rapidly changing world.