Redefining the role of Supply Chain and its future leaders under the 'New Normal'

Redefining the role of Supply Chain and its future leaders under the 'New Normal'
Published: 27 April 2020

What has become clear over recent years is that a global economy, servicing a global consumer base, has forced supply chains to be used, above all else, to prioritize impact on the bottom line. Businesses now operate complex, integrated supply chains linking business from east to west and south to north of the globe. But with price often the main driver, has the current crisis finally forced us to realize that we are not prepared for the unexpected and disruption at scale? Leaders must now act on multiple fronts to protect their workers’ safety while safeguarding operational viability, now increasingly under strain from a historic supply chain shock. Here, we discuss the attributes required by our future supply chain talent.

It is important to recognize that risks to our supply chain are inevitable; after all, the United States has recently dealt with disruptions from a trade war with China and withdrawal from NAFTA. However, there is no doubt that the resilience and robustness of the US’s consumer and industrial supply chains have never been tested in such extreme and unfamiliar circumstances as in recent months.

While vulnerabilities in business supply chain models have been exposed, so too has the critical importance of a well led supply chain. Typically, we expect supply chain leaders to build a strategy which aligns itself to the wider business strategy, but should they have a louder and more influential voice at the top table? Irrespective of size of business, leaders will be starting to look at a world beyond COVID-19; the processes, technology and talent required to strengthen the function; and how to prepare its future leaders for a changing and challenging landscape.

The current crisis, while unprecedented, has highlighted several key attributes that are needed not only in our current leaders, but most certainly in our future leaders:

Leadership judgement and emotional intelligence

Experience combined with insight is a powerful tool. Leaders need to balance analytical data with knowledge and intuition, along with the ability to understand how their leadership decisions impact the end-to-end business cycle.

Agility and pace

Leaders who can build agile supply chains are better placed to meet the diverse needs of today’s consumer, whilst also retaining value for consumers and stakeholders. An ability to ‘gear up’ certain sales channels as required has been demonstrated by several businesses during COVID-19 – with many having to adapt to an ‘e-commerce model’ rather than their usual ‘multi-channel’ approach.

Functional breadth and collaboration

Leaders that can bridge the functional divides through collaboration will have an edge in creating a competitive supply chain that fulfils strategic business requirements.

Digital and data awareness

The pace of change in areas such as automation, AI, blockchain and robotics, in addition to the growing volume of data available, requires strong digital and analytical skills. Leaders do not need to be expert data scientists, but they must embrace the value of digitization and analytics and build this into their strategy. Utilizing the information will bring a number of benefits in areas such as assessing cost complexity and investment opportunities, as well as setting and monitoring performance benchmarks.

Creativity and innovation

The ability to think outside the box, combined with a willingness to trial new systems and processes, will allow leaders to exploit new opportunities more effectively than their competitors, in response to changes in the market.

Effective communication

Leaders need to clearly and regularly communicate, not just across the supply chain function but also across the wider business. During times of crisis, it is important to take others on the journey to ensure a cohesive and collaborative response. As well as sharing information, leaders also need to encourage upwards communication – listening will ensure that all concerns are considered and addressed.

Honesty and transparency

It is important that leaders are open about not having all the answers whilst maintaining transparency about the issues that are likely to impact others, such as sales, marketing and procurement. Being open and transparent will build trust, respect and loyalty among colleagues.

‘People first’ approach

COVID-19 has shown us the importance of caring, supportive and visible leadership. Leaders who can bring a human approach to managing their people and can foster a culture of ‘togetherness’ will have a committed team that will overcome challenges and thrive.

Historically, supply chain has been viewed as a less ‘sexy’ boardroom topic, but in a time of crisis its efficiency dominates, ensuring that businesses remain connected to their consumers and offer exceptional customer experience. By embracing diverse and complementary strengths within their teams, championing the development of new skills and helping teams apply their expertise to real-world business scenarios, supply chain leaders are in a stronger position to enable their companies to react to unexpected situations, retain competitive advantage and have a greater opportunity to help shape longer term commercial strategy and goals.

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