Supply Chain Talent: Insights from CSCMP Annual Conference

“The biggest mistake companies make as they’re growing is leaving supply chain management and human resources behind.”

Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, shared that insight during his keynote address at last week’s Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) Annual Conference. His point was that you need great people and a world-class supply chain to effectively grow a company, but many companies underinvest in those areas until it becomes an issue. That was certainly true at Starbucks, which went through some difficult times in 2008. “Contrary to what many people believe, investing in employees is not dilutive [to a company’s financial results and shareholder value] — it’s actually accretive,” said Schultz, pointing to the company’s turnaround and growth since 2008 as proof. “The person who wears the green apron is the most important person at Starbucks.”

And in contrast to 2008, “our supply chain is a strategic partner in the business today,” said Schultz, “it is the co-author of our company’s strategy.”

Schultz’s comments were a great set-up for the session I led the next day, “Building Supply Chain Talent for 2050,” which featured Angie Freeman, Chief Human Resources Officer at C.H Robinson, and Michelle Godwin, Director of Fulfillment at We kicked off the session by sharing some “food for thought” about the topic with the attendees (see slides below), and then we broke up into small discussion groups where we each focused on a different aspect of supply chain talent:

  • Group 1: Making Supply Chain the Industry of Choice for Top Talent (Angie Freeman)
  • Group 2: The Evolution of the Customer and Its Impact on Talent (Michelle Godwin)
  • Group 3: Exploring the Link between Learning and Leadership (Adrian Gonzalez)

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Angie and I share our takeaways from our respective group discussions below. And a big thanks to Erin Nicole Gordon who attended our session and created this great graphical summary that she shared on Twitter:

Making Supply Chain the Industry of Choice for Top Talent (Angie Freeman)

Both groups talked about the challenge of attracting top talent to the supply chain profession. The attendees were nearly unanimous in their opinion that our industry has an image problem. The group believes that not enough young people understand the importance of supply chain, how it impacts our daily lives, and the breadth of opportunities available. The terms for our industry are amorphous and not well understood. We need to tell our story better– make our work more relatable and relevant. While there are many more university programs around supply chain today that are helping to increase the number of people with knowledge of our profession, we need to continue to raise awareness among college students about the opportunities. We also need to focus our efforts with students even earlier in their education, perhaps more outreach efforts to high school students.

Retention is also an issue that the groups had a terrific dialogue about. This is not necessarily a problem just for supply chain, but something the participants felt was important to address given the high cost of turnover and the lost investment in developing talent and our future industry leaders. Younger professionals in the group talked about what mattered most to them in their careers, and would cause them to want to stay with an organization: clear career path; autonomy; understanding how what they do relates to the big picture; work that is meaningful; frequent feedback, not just in the structured performance review; and a leader who is authentic, takes time to get to know them, and genuinely cares about their success. Another important theme was the importance of mutual trust, between employees and leaders.  

Exploring the Link between Learning and Leadership (Adrian Gonzalez)

I began the conversation by asking the group if they agreed with the following statement by leadership expert and author Ken Blanchard: “When you stop learning, you stop leading.” Not surprising, everyone agreed that continuous learning and skills development are critical for supply chain professionals in this rapidly changing environment.

This then led to the next question: What skills and knowledge will be important for supply chain leaders to have in the years ahead? The attendees shared many different ideas, but here are the three skills/knowledge areas that most of them agreed will be very important:

  • Staying informed of emerging technologies — and discovering ways to apply them effectively to improve supply chain process and deliver business benefits.
  • Learning to speak the language of the CFO. As I’ve written before, whenever I ask supply chain executives what knowledge or skills they need to improve in order to advance in their careers, the most common response I get is improving their knowledge of finance and gaining experience managing a P&L. CFOs rarely know anything about supply chain management. The same is true for CEOs. Yet, supply chain executives need to get their buy-in for their budgets and strategic initiatives. Making the case for a large investment in technology or resources using supply chain terms — “If we invest $10 million in this project we’ll improve on-time delivery from 92 percent to 96 percent” — is meaningless to the CFO. You have to equate the value proposition to metrics the CFO understands and cares about, such as working capital, cash flow, and other items linked to the company’s P&L and balance sheet.
  • Improving your communication skills (writing, speaking, and listening) — in order to communicate ideas, goals, and expectations more clearly and concisely, and to motivate and inspire colleagues and partners.

The conversation then shifted to how and where to obtain these skills and knowledge. Again, many different ideas and opinions were shared (e.g., books, blogs, newsletters, conferences, graduate programs, mentors), but the general consensus was that there is a lot of information out there (“information overload”), so filtering through all the noise to find trustworthy and relevant insights is a challenge. Many agreed that the best source of knowledge and advice are your peers — that is, experienced professionals within your organization, across functional groups, at your trading partners, and that you meet at conferences like CSCMP.

Another challenge, in light of everybody’s busy schedules, is making the time for learning and leadership development — a challenge that is even more difficult to overcome if you don’t work at a company that encourages and supports professional learning and development.

For related commentary on this topic, please read Putting Leadership Development Back on Your Calendar and Supply Chain Learning: Think Beyond Traditional Paths