What Qualities Make the Best Supply Chain Leaders?

August 26, 2015

 Written by Kirsten Watson. This guest post first appeared on Kinaxis’ industry blog, the 21st Century Supply Chain.


When considering what attributes supply chain leaders are most likely to possess, it’s easy to think first of hard skills—analytical prowess, technology expertise, and operations and economics knowledge quickly come to mind. But while hard skills may land you a job, many times it’s your soft skills that will keep you there—and accelerate your climb up the corporate ladder. So what attributes from both areas are today’s supply chain leaders most likely to possess?

The APICS Supply Chain Council set out to answer this question in its latest industry report entitled “Supply Chain Leadership Report: Many Styles Generate Success.” The findings were generated from multiple sources, including surveys of APICS members, articles, and external research. With the goal to share a professional capabilities blueprint for current and future supply chain leaders, the report explores pivotal features of a successful supply chain leader, including his or her attributes, leadership style and ability to formally and informally influence an array of stakeholders.

With its focused research of supply chain and operations management professionals across multiple industries and management levels, APICS pinpointed these core themes for successful supply chain leadership:

  • Applying certainty to uncertain situations affecting others, such as in forecasting or decision making
  • Balancing risk and reward in careful analysis using hard and soft skills
  • Aligning tactics to strategy in planning and harmony with organizational culture
  • Maintaining and improving relationships of supply chain partners
  • Satisfying competing priorities and stakeholders on an ongoing basis

Let’s take a closer look at why these skills have undoubtedly earned relevance in today’s supply chain management industry.

Applying certainty to uncertain situations affecting others, such as in forecasting or decision making

There’s no doubt that volatility in the supply chain has become the norm. In the past, supply chain management was based largely on the notion that the best predictor of future events is historical events. Events of the past ten years tell us that unpredictability is here to stay, driven largely by economic fluctuations, increasingly demanding consumers, expanding regulatory concerns, and supplier instability. In this climate, forecasting, budgeting, business planning and other processes must be conducted by practitioners who are comfortable dealing with ambiguity (and we would argue, those who are smart enough to implement technology that removes guesswork).

Balancing risk and reward in careful analysis using hard and soft skills

The word “analysis,” especially in a supply chain context, often implies crunching numbers to arrive at a decision. But that volatility mentioned above requires supply chain leaders to think imaginatively—seeing the big picture without becoming mired in a mountain of data. As supply chain management rightly emerges as an increasingly strategic function within the enterprise, the demand for high-level problem-solving skills among executives, managers, and practitioners will escalate accordingly.

Aligning tactics to strategy in planning and harmony with organizational culture

Even great supply chain strategy is rendered meaningless if you fail to execute a supporting tactical operations plan. Connecting strategic supply chain imperatives—that align with overall company objectives—to a tactical management system necessitates the establishment of meticulous metrics. A supply chain leader must be able to continuously monitor these metrics to determine if productivity, quality, inventory, and other tactical objectives are being met, exceeded, or missed. And, this activity can’t take place in a vacuum. Today’s increasingly collaborative enterprise requires supply chain professionals to work closely with finance, sales, IT, and other departments to ensure company-wide success.

Maintaining and improving relationships of supply chain partners

Those collaborative skills I just mentioned don’t just apply within the four walls of the enterprise. Cultivating mutually beneficial connections with supply chain partners requires both an in-depth understanding of the business operations as well as an innate talent for relationship building. These skills for supply chain leaders have only grown in importance in recent years. After many suppliers went out of business during the last economic downturn, those who emerged from the rubble face tremendous pressure to perform in a continuously evolving business landscape. Supply chain executives must carefully nurture effective supplier relationships to ensure a sustainable business and operational model.

Satisfying competing priorities and stakeholders on an ongoing basis

Conflicting objectives within the supply chain have escalated in recent years as internal and external pressures to both reduce costs and increase service levels have intensified. The purchasing department looks to keep volume requirements steady, maintain relatively large quantities, and ensure flexible delivery times. Manufacturing strives to maintain high quality and productivity while keeping production costs low. And, customers expect vast product variety and quantities, short order lead times, and low prices. Managing these competing priorities and the expectations of key stakeholders requires supply chain leaders to have a tenacious management approach blended with a sophisticated communication style.

In addition to these skills, APICS’ research identified seven core competencies of an effective leader to be someone who:

  • Creates and communicates a vision
  • Promotes and brings about change
  • Builds partnerships
  • Captures and acts on insightful information
  • Seizes and creates opportunity at the right place and time
  • Consistently models honorable behavior and best practices
  • Serves the best interests of the organization without being self-serving

What are the most valuable qualities of a supply chain leader in your organization? Are there any attributes you would add to the list? Let us know in the comments! favicon


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