As I was twirling my pencil thinking about this blog, my mind went back to my own career through the supply chain world. I have worked for a supply chain planning software and services company (Arkieva) for all my professional life. When I graduated with a masters in transportation engineering, I did not even know the meaning of the phrase.

However, as I started to learn a few things about supply chains in general and supply chain planning in particular, I found myself becoming a generalist and not a specialist. As I share a few observations about managing one’s supply chain career, my thoughts keep going back to the idea of knowing a lot of things across a lot of different areas of the business.

First and foremost, I believe supply chain is no longer simply a part of the business. I now believe supply chain is the business. A decade ago, I would not have said that. But today, I feel very comfortable with that statement. Modern companies have products, services, but it is their supply chains making them unique. As a result, I am seeing people who are making the most in the field of supply chains, are the ones who have a well-rounded knowledge of the business. The old line about someone being Jack of all trades comes to mind.

My advice to someone who wants to make the most of their supply chain career is along those lines. Learn the business you are in. Then learn it again. Then do it one more time just to be thorough. Once you’re through with your own business, understand the competitive landscape and the forces that shape your industry. Do not straightjacket yourself into one small area. Instead, make sure you understand the big picture. Understand the flow of materials as well as the flow of information (which incidentally is a very big part of the supply chain now). Understand how your business creates value for its customers and therefore itself.Supply Chain Career

Then, my advice would be to gain some experience in the two big line organizations that control the two flanks of the supply chain; namely the sales or commercial department and the operations department. I think the folks who do not understand the way these two organizations work do not go far in supply chain. I would look for a short stint in these two organizations. While there, I would try and understand what really moves these organizations. What are the financial, interpersonal and emotional forces that make these organizations tick? How are they in conflict with each other? How do they sub-optimize their own departments? What one learns in these stints comes in very handy in the collaboration described below.

A supply chain professional also needs to invest time to learn about the nuances of the various geographies involved in the business. Just as the two departments mentioned above are different, so are the geographies. It is very important to invest at least a little bit of time outside of one’s original region to understand the differences that exist across regions. I have found this is most important for those with a U.S. background.

The supply chain professional needs to learn to use data as well. I would invest time and energy in becoming comfortable with the business’ data. How can the data be analyzed and otherwise used to draw insights from it? Not just in the micro sense of the problem du jour, but also in the macro sense at the business level. A progressive supply chain professional is comfortable with the data and is able to use data to tell stories that can be used to further the cause of the organization he or she is serving. And of course, learning data these days requires having a level of comfort with the software technology.

Last but not the least, a supply chain professional needs to work on collaboration. Since supply chain extends everywhere, it is impossible for a supply chain professional to know everything. It is therefore very important to learn to collaborate with personnel across departments and regions. A lot of shortcomings can be overcome if the person is effective in collaboration.

So, there you have it; my idea of managing one’s supply chain career is to be relatively strong in many areas, and work on things like data and collaboration. This may be different from the traditional thought of one needs to know something in and out in order to succeed. For me, being a collaborative generalist is the key to supply chain career success.

What do you think? Did I miss something important? Let me know.

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