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The indispensible supply chain leader.

Many individuals in the organization touch core supply chain (SC) processes-from new product development to order fulfillment. These include R&D professionals, engineers, sales and marketing personnel, as well as those managers who have line responsibility for the essential SC activities of planning, sourcing, making, and delivering. All of these managers are involved in defining and delivering the SC value proposition. But only a select few can be described as "indispensible" to that proposition-the indispensible supply chain manager. Indispensability is not defined by functional position or job description. Rather, it emerges from a certain mindset and skill set, as we explore in this article.

Our research into leading companies around the world led us to this conclusion: the indispensible supply chain manager is an agent for positive change who possesses these four characteristics:

1. A cross-functionalist. This individual not only understands the key supply chain functions, but can serve as the "hub" that keeps them rolling in synch.

2. A choreographer. He or she can see the big picture while understanding where individual pieces fit into the pattern.

3. A coach. The indispensible manager teaches, mentors, and motivates others to contribute as part of a team.

4. A champion. Establishes credibility throughout all levels of the organization, thereby enabling the individual to be an effective catalyst for supply chain change.

Few managers possess this combination of attitudes and skills. Edward Davis and Robert Spekman lament this reality in their book, The Extended Enterprise, saying, "It is essential that we recognize that most managers do not currently possess the skills or mindset needed to operate in an extended enterprise [i.e., supply chain] environment."


So why should we worry about this resource deficiency--in this case, the scarcity of indispensible supply chain managers? The answer is simple: without people with the right skills and attitude, winning SC strategies will neither be envisioned nor executed. Jim Collins emphasizes the role of people with the right skills in his best seller, Good to Great. He underscored that the transformation from good to great requires Level-5 leadership (vision, humility, and determination) as well as having "the right people on the bus." Experience shows that the supply chain transformation--going from company vs. company to supply chain vs. supply chain competition--is highly dependent on getting people with the right attributes onto that SC bus. Perhaps even more important is finding people who can drive the bus: the indispensible managers.

Grappling With the Talent Gap

The first step in coming to grips with this human-resource challenge is to grasp the nature of the supply chain talent gap. To help define the disparity between existing abilities and needed skill sets, we interviewed managers at 112 companies in Asia, Europe, and the United States. Our goal was to understand how they are managing the supply chain transformation and what role their people are playing to facilitate a successful transformation. Described below are our findings regarding those four characteristics of the indispensable SC manager that we identified through the research. As you read about these attributes, you will comprehend why these indispensable leaders are so rare. You will also gain insight into what companies are doing (and failing to do) to cultivate the traits of these valuable leaders. Finally, you'll learn how to start inculcating these characteristics within your own organization.

The Cross Functionalist

Not surprisingly, companies in the hiring process place a high priority on people with deep functional skills. Such individuals are relatively easy to identify and evaluate. And importantly, they are necessary to the creation of unique customer value. But functional expertise, in and of itself, is not sufficient. What's also needed are people with cross-functional skills who can lead a collaborative effort. Speaking to this latter quality, a V.P. of Technology and Supply Management told us, "We can find great entry-level people--the ones with strong functional skills. But, finding people who can bring everyone together to work as a cohesive team is a real challenge. They're just not out there." He emphatically called this his company's greatest supply chain challenge, lamenting that the "person in the middle is missing."

Elaborating on this point, the executive depicted his company as a wheel comprised of various functional spokes (see Exhibit 1). Each spoke represents a needed functional expert. Take any spoke away and the wheel wobbles as it moves forward at a slower pace. For the wheel to roll properly, the spokes must be held together with a powerful hub--the collaborative cross functionalist. The VP described the person at the hub as "a holistic thinker with collaboration skills." Absent the hub, the wheel can bear neither the weight of competition nor the burden of collaboration.

Managers everywhere who are seeking to improve their supply chains recognize this dilemma as their own. They know that to win the competitive race (really more a marathon than a 100-meter dash) they must become much more effective at developing the cross functionalist at the hub of the wheel. This is not a task that can simply be turned over to the human resources department. Rather, companies need a comprehensive development approach that emphasizes the cross-functional experience and empowerment needed to solidify the hub and spokes. Indeed, effective supply chain collaboration requires a dedicated investment in building "cross-experienced" leaders.

The goal of cross experiencing is to take functional specialists and broaden their perspectives, helping them understand the roles and responsibilities as well as the opportunities and challenges inherent in managing diverse value-added activities throughout the organization and up and down the supply chain. One company we interviewed has been working at nurturing this type of manager for close to 20 years. Its development process begins as new hires enter the organization in the role of functional specialist (for example, inventory, transportation, or customer service analyst). After a year or two, the manager is transferred to another geographic region and a new functional area, but one with more supervisory experience. The next step in the career progression is a move to corporate headquarters to work with marketing, manufacturing, and information technology teams. During this stint, the manager participates on customer teams, helping to develop new products or design more efficient fulfillment systems.

After 10 years, the manager is well rounded, well connected, and ready for a senior leadership role in one of the firm's regions. This organization's reputation for cultivating cross-experienced leaders has not gone unnoticed-many "graduates" of the process have been lured away to work for other companies in the industry


Unfortunately, few companies are determined and patient enough to spend 10 years developing cross-experienced leaders. Complicating matters, fewer of today's "millennial" managers (i.e., those born in the 1980-1995 timeframe) are willing to invest a decade to become a cross-experienced leader. As a consequence, most leading-edge companies interviewed have developed fast-track programs that compress the initial cross-experiencing process into a couple of years. Many of these companies emphasize extensive management trainee programs for newly hired supply chain managers. Some even begin the process during internship programs. One leading organization we studied believes so strongly in creating cross-experienced managers that it is experimenting with a two-year rotation program that gives new hires four to six different assignments. These assignments, lasting three to six months each, cover the following areas: the assembly line, production control, purchasing, logistics, marketing, accounting, and finance.

A well-designed rotation program delivers multiple benefits to emerging managers. Specifically, it helps them:

* Develop an appreciation for the needs and wants of customers.

* Become intimately familiar with the production and value-added processes.

* Gain a better perspective of what goes on in the different functional areas and how they work (or don't work) together to meet organizational goals.

* Learn the "language" spoken in each area, invaluable in future intra-organizational communication.

* Build relationships with other managers across the company as well as up and down the supply chain that will be useful in future decision-making and collaborative initiatives.

* Develop an appreciation for the workers who make the product or, in the case of service industries, interface with customers.

* Gain an understanding of the role that outside suppliers (both product and service) play in product development, production, and distribution.

Of course, to assure a steady supply of real cross functionalists, talented managers must be given opportunities to obtain diverse experience throughout their professional lives. Yet, only a handful of interview companies do any type of job-rotation for mid-career professionals. At these companies, lifelong "rotations" are justified by a belief that ultimate upward mobility depends on building a well-developed personal network and establishing a proven track record across a range of what some managers would view as out-of-the-functional-box assignments.

As a surrogate for deep-emersion experiences, many of the companies interviewed assign managers to various task forces and project teams to help them acquire and retain a cross-functional perspective. Working on project teams and special assignments in other functional areas helps keep managers in touch with the needs, responsibilities, and constraints of different organizational units. Such assignments should extend to teams that involve both suppliers and customers. Several of the companies use inter-organizational teams as a standard part of new product development efforts.

Professional development training can augment cross-functional assignments to help managers advance their knowledge of and appreciation for collaborative culture, strategy, and systems. At companies known for their superior talent development, training helps managers comprehend:

* Customer needs, wants, and success factors.

* Supplier competencies and capacities.

* The essential tools to improve communication, teamwork, and change management.

* The nature and role of effective performance measurement and reward systems.

As managers gain relevant experience across the functional areas, they also gain the perspective and insight into what's needed to act as the "hub" that keeps the supply chain rolling toward success. Our experience suggests that this type of training is usually done best internally. The "in-house university" approach can bring together managers from diverse functions together more easily and often and it is sensitive to internal cultural and structural collaboration barriers. In addition, the in-house approach instills a sense of commitment to collaboration that is often missing from consultant-based education.

Unfortunately, the development efforts described above are costly and difficult to justify in today's low-loyalty workplace. In one instance, a company with a reputation for developing outstanding cross functionalists scaled back its training program after competitors made a practice of hiring away its newly trained managers. Competitors had found that it was easier and less expensive to "headhunt" bright and capable managers than to establish their own development programs. This reality places a premium on establishing compensation systems that make leaving less attractive to high-performing cross-functionalists and cultivating a dynamic and exciting workplace that makes managers want to stay. Managers seldom jump ship for a few more dollars when they are challenged, engaged, and well compensated.

The Choreographer

Supply chains are complex, dynamic systems. Accordingly, organizations must learn to not only foster internal collaboration but also collaboratively create value with external "partners." Executives underscored this reality as they described the process of executing a supply chain strategy. They articulated two very distinct challenges: (1) identifying the right players to invite onto the SC-transformation bus and (2) getting those players to work cohesively together. Real value emerges only as individual members of a supply chain network bring together the right complementary value-added activities in a synchronized way. In this respect, SC design is similar to choreography. Choreographers audition performers and select the best candidates. They then teach the dancers the right steps and movements so that they can perform together and create a pleasing artistic whole. The indispensable SC manager possesses a like combination of skills; that is, the ability to assemble the right cast of team members and to get them to perform as a synchronized team.

In conducting the interviews among our research group, it became clear that the aptitudes needed to identify the right partners to perform critical roles are different from those needed to get them to be willing and able to work collaboratively together. Essentially, identifying the right players for the SC team is an analytical, left-brain aptitude. Cultivating team chemistry (i.e., collaboration) is a creative, right-brain talent. Few people's brains are wired to do both well, as we discuss below. Experience suggests, however, that with the proper training and education, managers can learn to nimbly operate in both left-brain and right-brain settings. Put another way, they can become effective choreographers.

To shed some light on the challenge of developing effective choreographers, it's useful to briefly review what science has taught us about the physiology of the human brain--and how we have failed to pay attention in many cases. The average brain consists of 100 billion cells. Each cell communicates with thousands of its peers. When functioning as designed, this elaborate network processes information in a way that enables us to find joy in the daily tasks of life.

This network is divided into two halves: a right brain and a left brain. The two sides are almost totally separate. The corpus callosum, a thick cable of nerves at the base of the brain, is the only connection between them. Significantly, the two halves of the brain process stimuli differently--both bringing unique functionality to the thought process. The "whole" brain integrates right-and left-brain perspectives to help us understand the world around us.

The unique functionality of the two halves of our brain was demonstrated in a series of experiments conducted by Roger Sperry, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in this field. Individuals suffering from severe epileptic seizures underwent surgery that sectioned the corpus callosum. The seizures ceased, but the surgery forced each half of the brain to operate independently, creating a few perception problems. By isolating each half of the brain and then presenting visual and tactile information, Sperry discovered that each side processed information differently--the left brain dealing in facts and the right brain providing context (see Exhibit 2). Sperry summarized his findings as follows:

"... there appear to be two modes of thinking, verbal and nonverbal, represented rather separately in left and right hemispheres respectively and that our education system, as well as science in general, tends to neglect the nonverbal form of intellect. What it comes down to is that modern society discriminates against the right hemisphere."

The left, logical side of the brain dominates traditional B-school education, which stresses linear thinking, quantitative analysis, and verbal communication. These are the skills needed to evaluate who should be invited onto the SC-transformation bus. By contrast, the right, intuitive side of the brain tends to be dismissed as "touchy/feely." Not quite rigorous enough to be taken seriously, the right brain is relegated to back stage. Yet to be effective, managers need right-brain choreography skills to instill the right chemistry and promote the collaboration necessary for any supply chain initiative to succeed.

Our interviews revealed that most supply chain managers are rich in analytical skills and possess the ability to identify, evaluate, and select good supply chain partners. But they typically have less experience and facility with the softer, more empathetic and intuitive (right brain) skills required for effective team building. This experiential deficiency creates a disadvantage when it comes to inspiring diverse supply chain members to collaborate to create customer value. So while the supply chains these individuals design and manage possess valuable and complementary competencies, they lack cohesion--that is, they are unable to achieve collaborative synergies that would bring new levels of efficiency and innovation.

The problem ultimately goes back to the paradox we discussed earlier. Formal efforts to cultivate right-brain thinking have taken a back seat to the traditional left-brain educational approach. And while some training programs may include right-brain oriented activities such as those designed to develop the whole person and increase the ability and willingness to work interdependently, they typically don't have any reinforcement mechanism. Further, most measurement systems continue to be left-brain biased. For now, the burden of developing the right-brain perception skills of supply chain choreography rests on the shoulders of the individual. Short of enrolling in an art class, exercises do exist to help us improve our right-brain thinking ability. For example, in his book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink shares a variety of fun activities that cultivate right-brain thinking.

The Coach

The managers we interviewed noted that coaching--the ability to teach and to motivate others to excel not just as individuals but also as contributors to team success--is another essential trait of the indispensable supply chain manager. Coaches are teacher leaders. So are indispensable SC managers. Both promote winning by establishing teaching as the foundation for success. Educator and author Noel Tichy emphasized this connection between winning and teaching as follows:

"Winning leaders are teachers, and winning organizations do encourage and reward teaching. But there is more to it than that. Winning organizations are explicitly designed to be Teaching Organizations, with business processes, organizational structures and day-to-day operating mechanisms all built to promote teaching."

The executives interviewed strongly reiterated the need for coaching. But at the same time, they noted that few within their organizations possess true coaching skills. Again, coaching begins with teaching and motivating. But real coaching also includes the ability to correct and the fortitude to "bench" players who will not accept correction. Unless corrected, mistakes become habits and undermine discipline and respect--enduring features of winning teams. Great coaches correct mistakes in a way that mitigates resentment and engenders change. Reputation and relationship are critical to effective correction. That is, when players trust that their coach's intent is to help them become the best they can be, they accept correction. Of course, great coaches praise course corrections and personal improvement.

Incidentally, a few of the executives pointed out that as millennials continue to enter the work force, the ability to skillfully correct and give appropriate praise becomes increasingly valuable. In the end, great coaches work tirelessly to create a collaborative environment where teamwork is valued and individual contribution and improvement is expected.

Why is this important? The answer: coaching promotes a disciplined empowerment culture, which drives a virtuous cycle of performance improvement (see Exhibit 3). That is, effective coaching and teaching establishes high standards and builds new skills. As employees develop higher levels of competence, they can contribute more fully. As they make visible contributions to organizational success, they develop a sense of belonging and feel affirmed. As a result, they strive to bring to the job not just their hands but also their hearts and heads. When this happens, they begin to perceive problems as opportunities for improvement and proactively move to find creative solutions.


Several managers interviewed highlighted a central reality: "People support what they help create." Pride in organizational culture and enthusiasm for supply chain success become contagious. The bottom line: new and better ideas translate into improved products and processes as well as higher levels of operational and financial performance.

Sadly, we found that most companies are not making the requisite effort to cultivate coaching capabilities. Too often, existing organizational cultures and structures place more emphasis on control than on coaching. In such settings, managers are astute enough to hold on to control. Although coaching and control are not necessarily juxtaposed, managers who need to be in control seldom possess the humility, patience, and mentoring mindset to be great coaches. The good news: leading companies are starting to realize that without better coaching, their people will seldom voice their best ideas, expand their skills, or grow into more capable managers. These leaders are striving to transform the hiring process to stress EQ (emotional quotient) as a complement to IQ. Their belief is that high-EQ managers will be more effective mentors, helping their companies tap into the passion of the entire workforce.

The Champion

Managers at the companies we visited spoke optimistically, albeit cautiously, about their efforts to drive the SC-transformation bus to a more collaborative destination. They portrayed their pace as a crawl rather than a full-speed run. They decried the detours and roadblocks they persistently encounter, describing them as immovably rooted in entrenched attitudes and practices. They repeated the refrain, 'You have to change mindsets before ..."

Acknowledging that organizations could no longer "dictate or command change," they articulated the need for "catalytic" leaders; that is, supply chain champions who act as change agents. They noted that the lack of SC champions--managers with the work ethic, creativity, and personal clout needed to drive supply chain initiatives--is a core impediment to progress. They also warned that because these managers are rare, they are always in high demand--and often stretched to the edge of their capacity.

As portrayed throughout the interviews, the ideal SC champion is someone who is perceived as credible by senior management and admired at all levels of the organization. Over time, these champions compile a strong track record of success. Equally important, they succeed by working with and through other people. SC champions have the self-confidence needed to share the spotlight. When someone of this stature adopts collaboration as a favored project--and proceeds to promote, sell, cajole or prod as needed to get buy-in--supply chain initiatives are far more likely to be supported and embraced as viable business strategy. A champion can make all the difference in garnering resources or obtaining a receptive ear in the CEO's office.

Credibility is the key to the champion's clout. Although credibility is built in many ways, the SC champions observed throughout this research displayed four common behaviors in their pursuit of collaboration. Specifically, they:

1. Scan constantly. Effective champions are relentless scanners. They are always observing their environment, asking pertinent questions, analyzing available data, and then responding appropriately-typically ahead of the competition. A strong personal network helps these highly influential managers stay ahead of the game.

2. Take proactive risks. Scanning sets the stage for exploring new opportunities and testing new ventures. Because of this "newness," SC champions and the people who work for them must be willing to take risks. However, champions mitigate risk through rigorous analysis that makes options and tradeoffs visible. They believe that good risks are always based on sound analysis.

3. Create safe harbors. Asking people to take risks requires that SC champions make it safe to fail. That is, sometimes even the best risks don't work out. When this happens, people must be allowed to fail without blame or penalty. SC champions do, however, expect each failure to lead to learning and improved decision-making (making the same mistake twice is not allowed). In this sense, champions "encourage" failure while demanding excellence!

4. Cultivate and celebrate successes. Demanding excellence means setting expectations. But it can be dispiriting if the expectations are unrealistic or if the enablers to achieve success are missing. Thus, SC champions tend to be fans of incremental improvement initiatives like pilot projects. They clearly define what constitutes a viable project, provide feedback and training, and make resources available. They then hold the team accountable to define and meet milestones. As early successes emerge, SC champions celebrate and publicize them, giving the team the credit.

As SC champions embrace these behaviors, improved performance and a culture of trust follow. The quest for constant innovation and appropriate transformation becomes part of the organizational fabric. Collectively, the behaviors serve to encourage everyone to participate in making the supply chain transformation a reality. Equally important, everyone involved has the opportunity to add new experiences and skills to their repertoires, enhancing their value-creation capabilities as well as their own value within the company. In this way, the SC champion is like the catalyst in chemical reactions--accelerating the pace of supply chain progress.

Today's Talent Paradox

Winning companies have long acknowledged that people are their most valuable asset. After all, people are the only resource capable of thinking, learning, imagining and taking action. People are the source of creativity and collaboration--the lifeblood of SC-enabled competitive advantage. Yet despite considerable investments in education and human resource development, the modern corporation faces a dearth of people with the right attitudes and aptitudes.

Albert Einstein presaged today's talent deficiency, saying, "The world we have today has problems which cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them." Specifically, our educational systems (social and corporate) have been--and to a great extent still are--focused on:

1. Developing the functionalist with deep, but narrow skills.

2. Rewarding linear and logical left-brain thinking.

3. Inculcating command-and-control mindsets.

4. Promoting safe, status-quo behavior.

Although the first two skills are still needed when properly balanced with cross-functionalist and right-brain thinking, the second two traits have too often constrained the work force to settle for "good enough." In a less-competitive, less-global marketplace, we might be able to ignore today's talent paradox--that is, the more we seem to invest in supply chain resources, the harder it is to find the people with the right skills. This paralyzing paradox endures largely because we have not targeted those investments toward developing the collaborative cross-functional, choreographer, coach, and champion competencies of the "indispensible" leader.

The world has changed in so many ways but our skill sets have not. To cite just one example, collaboration remains a scary proposition to many supply chain managers. They are unsure about their ability to manage in a collaborative world. They know how to use power, but lack the skills to build trust--a cornerstone of collaboration. They know how to direct, but fall short on the ability to teach. They can deal in details but struggle to make connections. Ill prepared for tomorrow's decision-making environment, they cling doggedly to yesterday's business models.


Fortunately, some leading companies have begun to think differently about how they develop their people. They have changed their mindset to cope with today's reality: Education must reach everyone and continue all through life. If you stop learning, you become obsolete and cease to be competitive. These leaders realize they must "cross-experience" their management teams and they are experimenting with new hiring and training programs. Their goal: hire people with the DNA to be more inclined toward becoming right-brain thinking coaches and champions. They then provide frequent opportunities to enhance these skills.

By empowering the management team and holding them accountable for improvements in day-to-day operations and business-model design, these exemplar companies are learning to harness the ideation and passion of their workforce. In effect, these companies are developing their own indispensible supply chain managers. And in doing so, they are positioning their supply chains for steady progress while providing the tools needed to overcome any roadblocks along the way.

Authors' Note:

We would like to thank the Marriott School of Brigham Young University and CAPS Research for their generous support of this research.

Stanley E. Fawcett is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Supply Chain Management at Georgia Southern University. Joseph C. Andraski is President and CEO of Voluntary Inter-Industry Commerce Solutions (VICS). Amydee M. Fawcett is a doctoral student at the Walton College of Business, University of Arkansas. Gregory M. Magnan is a professor and MBA Program Director at the Albers School of Business at Seattle University. The authors can be reached through

Functions of the Two Halves of the Brain

       Left-Brain Definers               Right-Brain Descriptors

Logical                             Intuitive
Detail Oriented                     Holistic, "Big-Picture" Oriented
Facts Rule                          Imagination Rules
Text                                Context
Linear or Sequential                Random or Simultaneous
Verbal                              Visual
Rational                            Empathetic
Analytical                          Creative
Objective                           Subjective
Acknowledges                        Appreciates
Looks at Parts                      Looks at Wholes
Makes Deductions                    Makes Connections
Able to Identify Talent and         Able to Cultivate Chemistry
Then Assign Roles                   And Instill Collaboration
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Title Annotation:SKILLS
Author:Fawcett, Stanley E.; Andraski, Joseph C.; Fawcett, Amydee M.; Magnan, Gregory M.
Publication:Supply Chain Management Review
Article Type:Company overview
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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