Do you have the skills in demand for today’s supply chain?

Skills in demand in the Supply Chain Today – How do you rate?
1) Not Just Numbers

Practitioners need a combination of “hard” and “soft” skills to effectively manage in an unpredictable commercial environment. “Supply chain analytical skills are necessary and important but not sufficient; sufficiency comes with these other skills,” explains one senior supply chain executive. The “other” skills he refers to fall into the “soft” category, which includes thinking creatively and appreciating the big picture.

“Not getting bogged down in the numbers,” is how another supply chain leader describes the blend of skills he looks for. Managers must be able to use not only the analytical tools at their disposal, but also the qualitative output, he explains. This is an important observation in a profession that relies heavily on quantitative analysis.

Furthermore, this distinction is reflected in the results of a survey of 350 supply chain managers and executives carried out in 2010 by the Gartner research firm. In the survey, 64% of the respondents valued problem solving as the most important skill for a recruit to have, while only 14% felt being skilled in supply chain technology was the high priority. Yet the study also identified a shortage of problem-solving skills and an excess of technology knowledge.

The demand for higher-order problem solving also relates to the increasingly important strategic dimension of supply chain management. The leader of supply chain talent management programs at a well-known electronics manufacturer cites these capabilities as a “critical component” of the supply chain manager’s skills set, particularly at the leadership level. “This is where we are going to get our competitive advantage in the future,” he points out. “At the same time, it is not easy to nurture these qualities when individuals are steeped in day-to-day operational issues,” he laments.

2) Navigate in a fog

Extreme uncertainty has become the norm in many markets requiring supply chain professionals to be adept at “managing ambiguity,” says a supply chain leader. In his opinion, “suddenly you are looking for people who are general business managers with high-order diplomacy and commercial awareness skills.” The awareness might include an appreciation of the rigors of new product development and corporate finance.

An executive recruiter who specializes in finding professionals for senior supply chain positions believes that there is a demand for top-level managers who can “thrive in ambiguity” and not just manage under such conditions. When assessing job candidates, he looks for “learning agility,” a phrase that “captures a person’s ability to learn from past experiences and apply these lessons in new, ill-defined situations,” he explains.

3) Multi-level communicator

A crucial element of the broader skills base is the ability to communicate horizontally and vertically within the organization, and across communities of trading partners. An example would be someone who can explain supply chain in simple terms to a marketer who does not know what it is, says the head of a global consumer goods supply chain.

The ability to communicate across the company should include top management. A senior supply chain executive explains that he can recruit supply chain graduates from a university, put them through the company’s training programs, and turn these individuals into technically proficient supply chain managers. Whether he can put them in front of a divisional president to pitch an idea or participate in strategy sessions is another matter, he points out. “Finding folks with the sophistication to really tune into what the business leadership needs is tough,” he says.

Nurturing symbiotic partnerships with suppliers is an important part of the communications component. “There is a lot to be said for the long-term relationships you build with your supply base,” notes the leader of a corporate supply chain talent management program. That requires a deep technical grasp of the business involved as well as an aptitude for relationship building. These pressures have become more intense in recent years. Many suppliers went bust during the worst years of the recession, and the survivors are under pressure to take up the slack in an uncertain business environment.

4) Understanding the World

Another sought-after set of skills – and one that is becoming more important – is the ability to manage teams that are located in multiple countries. As companies and their supporting supply chains become more international, managers can no longer assume that all their reports will hail from the same country. In addition to the cultural and social differences involved, there is the issue of communicating across time zones. These problems can require some creative solutions. One supply chain leader sent non-American executives to visit the FedEx hub in Memphis so they could gain an appreciation of the sheer scale of operations in the United States.

But the global dimension not only is encompassing functional teams, it also is changing individual supply chain roles within companies. The head of supply chain at an international consumer goods firm offers this example. His company consolidated a number of European distribution centers into a single distribution center (DC) as part of a centralization strategy. Now the facility distributes product across Europe and oversees certain manufacturing operations in Asia and the United States. The DC manager has to deal with senior executives and other contacts across these regions, a very different working environment than previous. “How does he fit into this global pyramid?” asks the supply chain leader. It is possible that the DC’s global sphere of influence might expand even further. “In which case, do I need to hire from the UN?” he asks rhetorically.

BY KEN COTTRILL – Global Communications Consultant – MIT Center For Transportation & Logistics


Pamela Day