Defining the skillset needed for Supply Chain leadership

Dec. 20, 2017

Do you know what it takes to be a Supply Chain leader?

Six months ago, I offered some data and insights (both from others and my own), based on my 2016 survey of about 140 Supply Chain leaders on the topic of Leadership and Succession (See HPN’s Periscope, July 2017). That survey clearly pointed out that there is a shortage of new Supply Chain leaders needed to fill the positions vacated by an increasing number of veteran supply chain leaders who are retiring. It is a sobering situation and one that requires intelligent and swift action.

I also suggested that those who are interested in the vacant positions may not yet be adequately qualified for the demands of the positions. Those interested in preparing themselves for positions as the senior leader in the supply chain could and should investigate the many books, articles, college courses and guidance from others that are readily available. But I admit I did not cover everything about what leadership really is that might be learned by those searching, investigating and preparing.

Those readers who did not have time to search might appreciate a little help. I found and reread an article I wrote shortly after completing the analysis of one of my annual national surveys of hospital CEOs and CFOs on the topic of Supply Chain Management. While that article is void of any references to other articles, it is based on primary research – the surveys – that many consider a meaningful and memorable source of information and insights. What follows is a composite of the answers given by those completing the leadership surveys over a 15-year period. The surprise revelation from that ream of data is that there are no surprises. CEOs and CFOs have consistently agreed on the skills supply chain management leaders need to be successful. They include:

  • Integrity and Ethics
  • Innovation/Creativity
  • Honesty
  • Accountability
  • Reliability
  • Ability to communicate: Verbally, in writing, and listening
  • Persuasion/Influence
  • Negotiation
  • Collaboration
  • Quantitative analysis
  • Problem solving
  • Flexibility/Adaptability
  • System’s thinking
  • Tenacity
  • Relationship management
  • Commitment

MaturityFor those of you who did not count but were admittedly stunned by the length of the list, there are 17 skills the “Cs” called out. Note they are not ranked; the survey did not ask them to do that.

However, once again, the only skill that could be related functionally to supply chain management (compared with leader) is Negotiation. Further discussion with many Cs clarified that in this case, negotiation is not that which occurs between a buyer and a seller in a supply chain transaction. Rather, it is what occurs between support services and their customers on a daily basis, not just in a formal transaction process. In other words, Supply Chain leaders need serious skill in negotiating with clinicians, clerks, engineers, physicians and many other groups.

The range of expectations, real needs as distinguished from wants, in the short and not all-inclusive list of categories of supply chain customers above is huge. The associated application of the skill of negotiation varies just as much as the differences in those on that list. In some cases, simple communication is sufficient. While in others, the call is for education, political sensitivity, empathy and use of data/facts (among others). Of course, the latter is what is needed for negotiating with physicians, a key and challenging constituency to any hospital, due to their impact on the care outcomes, safety and satisfaction of patients, plus the success and survival of the hospital.

Consider another skill on the list: Collaboration. This requires an ability to work with the variety of customers on problem solving. Much of the time, successful Supply Chain leaders have found that the customer is the best source of a solution, even if the Supply Chain leader is convinced that her/his solution is brilliant. This brings up another listed skill: Persuasion. I have seen it defined as helping others to have/see it your way! So it might play out that the Supply Chain leader keeps her/his solution silent until an impasse is reached or the customer does not come up with any or any likely successful solution. Then it’s best somehow to introduce the solution in a way that makes the customer feel like it was their idea all along. Exercise care and caution with that suggestion.

Let’s think through another one: Maturity. The mature Supply Chain leader understands that they cannot and will not win every negotiation. They realize they are not the smartest person in every room. They don’t have all the answers, and their proposals are not always going to be accepted. They don’t respond to the situations when it doesn’t go the way they wanted it, by “taking their ball and going home,” pouting, and giving payback. They learn from their “defeats” and use that new knowledge and experience in their next interaction.

Notice any skill that is not on the list? For those who said Strategic Planning, you are correct. This is most recently stated as the top skill a leader needs for any senior position. Without repeating everything in the previous article, this skill is now No. 1 because it is the foundation for the application of all the other skills listed. Without the ability to think and act strategically, a leader is not leading. Thinking and acting strategically involves the following:

  • Defining the future, as it needs to be, for the organization’s success, after careful analysis, conferring with the constituents, brainstorming, etc.
  • Developing a plan that maximizes the likelihood of successful implementation
  • Convincing both customers and staff that it is needed to solve problems, enhance performance, build sustainability, plus support growth
  • Helping all constituents to understand their role and what they must do to execute the plan
  • Developing the milestones and using the metrics that will determine if the plan is working, and if not, taking needed corrective action.

The healthcare industry, especially the provider sector, cannot afford anything but authentic leaders to navigate through the challenging environment and deal with everything coming its way. To some or many, Supply Chain might seem remote from the front line of patient care, but the role Supply Chain leaders and staff play in the care of patients clearly exists. And let’s not forget the role Supply Chain plays in the financial performance and sustainability of the industry itself and each of the individual provider organizations. Lives are at stake. Enormous sums of money are at risk. Real leaders are needed. Are you one now or on your way?