The Most Important Attribute of a Supply Chain Leader

Last summer, I led a workshop with a group of supply chain executives where we discussed the following question: What skills, knowledge, and expertise must an executive have to lead a supply chain organization effectively in today’s increasingly global, dynamic, and risky business environment?

The group discussed many leadership attributes, but the one that was viewed as the most important was the ability to develop, manage, and grow positive and productive relationships with peers, customers, suppliers, and partners.

Supply chain management is, after all, a relationship business. It’s about people working together to get things done, especially when things don’t go as planned, which is the norm these days in every aspect of supply chain management. You can implement all the technology you want, but if you haven’t earned the trust, buy-in, and respect of the people you depend on to manage your supply chain effectively, especially in times of crisis, then you’re not going to get very far as a leader.

The relationships you develop, manage, and grow can be more valuable to your career than getting an MBA.

When looking to promote or hire a person for a supply chain leadership position, it is important to look at the relationships a candidate already has in place. For example, promoting or hiring someone who already has trusting relationships with the senior leaders of your key suppliers and customers might be preferable to someone who is completely new to your industry and has no existing relationships with your customers and suppliers. The outsider might bring a fresh perspective to the role, but he or she must invest a lot of time and energy building relationships from scratch, whereas the person with industry relationships already in place can get a running start on executing his or her strategy.

And of course, you won’t get far developing productive relationships if you don’t also have effective communication skills — the two attributes go hand in hand.

For more of my thoughts on this topic, watch this recent episode of Talking Logistics where I share several other important skills and experience tomorrow’s supply chain leaders must have.

And here are some other insights from last summer’s workshop:

  • Look first at your supply chain model and strategy before determining what skills, knowledge, and experience you should look for in a leader. For example, if your supply chain is highly decentralized and outsourced, you would probably look for a leader with different skills and expertise than if your supply chain is highly centralized and vertically integrated.
  • Since technology plays an important role in supply chain management, it is important for supply chain leaders to have a good, up-to-date understanding of technology trends and capabilities, and to establish a collaborative relationship with the CIO.
  • The development of “high performance” teams is at least as important (and maybe more) than developing “high potential” employees. The book “Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance” by Boris Groysberg was referenced in the group’s conversation. Put differently, you want to make sure that the loss of a high potential employee won’t significantly affect your team’s ability to execute and accomplish its objectives.
  • As leadership expert Ken Blanchard said, “When you stop learning, you stop leading,” and the best way to develop new knowledge and skills is by doing. This requires prospective leaders to take risks and overcome their fear of failure. It also requires a company culture that encourages risk taking and supports prospective leaders through their learning curve. However, some cultures (e.g. China) view any kind of failure as unacceptable, which hinders risk taking and creates challenges for executives that manage global teams. In other words, “empowering employees” is not easy to implement everywhere. Also, with many entry-level positions being outsourced, there are fewer internal roles and opportunities for young professionals to get the experience they need to grow and move up the career curve.

Do you agree that developing, managing, and growing relationships is the most important attribute of a supply chain leader? Are relationships more valuable to your career than getting an MBA? Post a comment and share your perspective on this topic.