Supply chains are facing more pressures than ever before. Here’s one supply chain executive’s people-focused checklist for conquering the chaos.
Challenges have always existed in the more than three decades I’ve worked in supply chains across multiple industries.
Supply chain is not an easy gig, making sure the products consumers want to buy are stocked at the point of purchase. Thirty years ago, that was simply on store shelves; today, it’s on store shelves, in fulfillment centers, online, and more. At this moment, there are literally billions more products in the market than in the early 1990s, available to virtually anyone. And they’re sourced and shipped from all around the globe.
Plus, staffing has become more difficult than ever. It was already challenging to attract, train, and retain workers at all levels—but particularly on the front lines—in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, post-pandemic, everyone knows there are more job openings than there are workers willing to fill them, regardless of the role or the industry.
My point is there will always be disruption in the supply chain. In fact, today’s biggest challenge might very well be that all the challenges seem to be changing all the time. For example, what used to be “controlled chaos” at many operations has given way to “firefighting” or crisis supply chain management, which isn’t sustainable.
To me, today’s most significant leadership challenge is figuring out how your business can consistently produce its deliverable—whether it’s a product, a service, or both—amid a constantly changing ecosystem. To deliver dependably and overcome supply chain risks, you must figure out how to be consistently reliable while demonstrating flexibility and agility. Some companies have found a way to do just that in this current state of turmoil. They’re thriving.
While we are always looking for ways to improve and problem-solve, FHI is—in my opinion—on the thriving end of the spectrum. In this blog, we’ll show how our leadership style and supply chain team have contributed to the sustainability of our business and, in some cases, given us a competitive advantage in the market.
What sets companies like ours apart in how successfully we deal with challenges is, I believe, our leadership approach. Leadership sets the tone for all decisions and actions, and it’s imperative to set the right one if you want to build a thriving business—regardless of the challenges it faces. The leadership role has never been more critical because I don’t think we’ll be seeing any stabilization for at least another 24 to 48 months. I believe the global supply chain landscape is going to become more chaotic instead.
What’s our secret leadership sauce? At FHI, we’re not in the supply chain business. We’re in the people business. To successfully lead through challenges, we believe supply chain leaders must pay more attention to the person and less to the position. That perspective has been formed by my own career experiences and that of my colleagues on FHI’s Leadership Team.
Here’s what our leadership approach looks like in practice as we face large and small challenges daily.
Culture is a top priority at FHI. We firmly believe that people are human beings, not human doings. Because we value our team members as people first and a workforce second, we prioritize investment in growing and developing their leadership skills. While it’s difficult to quantify that line item impact on the bottom line, our investment unquestionably paid itself back, particularly during the challenges associated with the pandemic. COVID-19 was a perfect example of how challenges can crush a culture or prove its value. Because we doubled down on our people-first culture and team work, our company repeatedly rose to meet pandemic challenges.
Why do we prioritize culture? We recognize that while people certainly want to make money, that’s not the only reason they come to work. They look for opportunities to grow, advance, and make an impact. But what’s truly important to them are the people they choose to do life with.
Having a culture with that point of view makes it much easier for our leaders to maintain perspective. For example, with supply chain challenges seemingly popping up non-stop, it’s easy to become quickly overwhelmed, anxious, or frustrated. The tactic I use to address this is “The Rule of Five.” That is, I consider each situation in the context of, “Will this truly matter in five minutes? Five hours? Five days? Five weeks? Five months?” and so on.
Usually, when I pause and examine an issue through that lens, the duration of importance is generally pretty short—particularly in a people-focused culture. However, the ability to filter and classify the challenges helps prioritize what’s truly important. At FHI, that means putting the person ahead of the employee, ensuring they have the resources and support they need, the time off they’ve earned, and the flexibility to adjust schedules so they don’t miss the dance recital or the soccer game.
If you don’t trust the people you’ve hired to do their jobs, you’ve got a bigger problem than this post can address. But my more significant point here is, don’t micromanage. I’ve never met anyone who liked being micromanaged; I certainly don’t. Instead, allow your people to demonstrate their competency in the role, the job, or the functions they’re responsible for autonomously. Let them do what needs to be done, with the skill set they bring to the job, and imbue them with authority to make decisions.
Also, be sure your people understand that their opinions count, even those that are contrary to yours. In challenging times, “yes, persons” are not what your organization needs. If you tell someone exactly how to solve a problem, you’ve stifled their creativity, limited their ability to grow and learn, and discouraged them. People who feel discouraged aren’t going to want to keep working with you (and helping to solve your challenges) for very long.
At FHI, we believe a successful supply chain leader works to define a goal clearly, then empowers our people to figure out the best path to get there. As long as we come from the same moral and ethical baseline, I’m not concerned about which of the multiple ways the team or the person takes. If they get to what we’ve defined as the goal, that’s a win.
I’m a huge believer in mistakes being a tremendous opportunity to learn. If we all look back on our lives—whether it’s work, friends, family, or another important aspect—the greatest learnings always come from a challenge, a failure, or a heartbreak. That’s one of the beauties of a 30-year supply chain career. I can look back on my own experience and see that personally. Under my leadership at a past company, there was an enormous Black Friday retail supply chain failure. That fiasco—and the subsequent recovery—wound up being what I consider among my most successful opportunities to learn and grow, both professionally and personally.
As a leader, therefore, it’s essential to foster a growth mindset that empowers your people to take risks without repercussions. There’s freedom in ambition, and you never want to stifle creativity or initiative by insisting on perfection or prioritizing profitability above all else. What brilliant idea or novel solution might your team develop if they work without fear of being fired if they screw up? In my career, I have never terminated somebody because they made a mistake; I have, however, had to terminate people because they made the same error multiple times (and learned nothing). So the growth mindset is critical.
At FHI, we wholeheartedly embrace the concept of servant leadership. While this philosophy incorporates the above-mentioned points, it also includes several other elements. One is that leaders should be both visible and accessible. Be out among your teams, talk with them, and find out what they need to succeed.
Never ask someone to do a task you’re unwilling to do yourself. If your front-line folks struggle to hit productivity goals, roll up your sleeves and help them succeed. Or, better yet, find out the obstacles that keep them from achieving those targets, solicit their ideas for improvements, and then clear the roadblocks. Because no one has a right to complain about something they can either influence or control.
The key to servant leadership is recognizing that your people work with you, not for you. With that in mind, the best—and only—option is to empower those closest to the problem and support them in whatever way they need. Again, trust your people with the freedom to reach the goal their way. If they need guidance or want to bounce some ideas off you as they’re addressing a challenge, great. Check-in periodically to remind them that you’re there to work for and alongside them.
Of course, there will be situations in which a leader has to step up and take charge. But often, people will rise to the occasion in challenging times if they know you’ve got their back.
As I mentioned at the outset of this post, I’ve worked in various industries and markets and worn multiple hats throughout my supply chain career. The increasing evolution and adoption of technology and automation within our field has certainly shaped (and been shaped by) these universal challenges of supply chain disruption, proliferating inventory, diverse distribution channels, and workforce shortages.
Yet, regardless of how many automated material handling systems are deployed in warehouses and distribution centers, the need for labor will never be eliminated. Instead, the type of skills those employees will need to possess will change. So, while I expect tactical changes in how leaders approach technology-based workers over those working in a more manual environment, how you treat them as people should not change. I firmly believe good leaders can successfully lead through any challenge the supply chain throws at a company if they put people first.
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