Supply chain professionals' skillset of the future

05/25/2021 - by Lynn Torrel

It's springtime! That means the birds are chirping, flowers are blooming, and a new generation of interns and college graduates are preparing to enter the workforce. As a supply chain leader at a global company, I'm frequently asked what skills and tools are necessary to break into and succeed within this dynamic industry by entry-level and seasoned professionals alike. There are no easy answers because supply chain professionals are confronted with an ever-changing environment and an ever-growing list of challenges daily.

 

Dynamic global challenges are a part of the job as seen recently by a global pandemic, component shortages, and a giant ship stuck in the Suez Canal. Globalization has expanded supply chain professionals' purview and requires constant decision-making with imperfect information. It's a gratifying career for a person who is willing to work hard and develop their skill set.

 

Be bold, be confident

Up until recently, supply chain professionals operated more in the background. After all, no one cared about how toilet paper got to the shelf until it wasn't there. Facilitating the delivery of the right product to the right place at the right time in the correct quantity was primarily a thankless job. However, 2020 changed all that. Supply chain professionals were seen as the business enablers they genuinely are, and I expect to see C-suite roles begin to pop up within premiere businesses as a result.

 

All of this attention necessitates exemplary communications skills from supply chain professionals. We need to quickly distill a highly complex narrative into terms that non-technical business leaders can discuss internally and with shareholders. To do this effectively requires equal measures of humility and confidence. Supply chain managers can't be afraid to hop on the phone and ask suppliers a tricky question. Or, perhaps more importantly, they can't be scared to admit when they don't know the answer to a critical problem. Prideful executives that are fearful of looking uninformed set their teams up for failure when they don't ask questions. Supply chain teams operate on insufficient data, so collaboration and an understanding that decisions may age poorly can't be an inhibitor.

 

Wanted: positive critical thinkers

Soft skills are what differentiate good supply chain managers from great ones. A foundational personality trait among colleagues that I've enjoyed working with is a positive mindset and attitude. Supply chain management is a 24/7 job that tests its participants' brains, hearts, and nervous systems. There are daily challenges that must be met and managed with a level head. If you're not comfortable with occasional 3 am calls that warrant your immediate attention, supply chain management may not be for you. This isn't a scare tactic, just a reality of the profession.

 

Analytical skills are also a vital skill for all supply chain pros. The ability to quickly turn information into insights and action is critical to success. There's a balance between art and science within the supply chain, so people capable of quickly taking action on data are highly sought after. Supply chain professionals must be curious, proactive, and work well within a collaborative environment.

 

Data is the means, not the end for supply chain pros

Data management and analysis are increasingly vital skill sets for supply chain professionals. A recent Capgemini study found 97 percent of shippers and 93 percent of third-party logistics professionals (3PLs) feel strongly that improved, data-driven decision-making is essential, and I'd echo that sentiment. However, while the future supply chain will be data-driven, analytical skills are highly prized within the supply chain industry.

 

Flex utilizes a sophisticated supply chain tech ecosystem composed of homegrown and third-party tools to help my team manage all the critical nodes in our supply network. We use the extensive real-time data visualization dashboards to guide our daily decision-making. In this field, it's easy to fall in love with the problem. Many experience "analysis paralysis" when confronted with dozens of wide-ranging inputs, including current and projected inflation rates, crude oil prices, labor costs, and other macroeconomic indicators. Supply chain managers must separate signals from the noise and transform vast swaths of data into quick, decisive actions to help their customers succeed. The data is rarely perfect, but successful supply chain professionals can blend their experience, available data, and relationships to optimize their decision-making in sub-optimal conditions.

 

Relationship management is key

The familiar axiom, "It's not what you know, it's who you know," is particularly true for supply chain professionals. At Flex, we deliver excellence to our customers with the help of more than 16,000 suppliers that our team works with every day. That wouldn't be possible if our talented supply chain team weren't excellent at developing and maintaining relationships with every partner.

 

Relationship management isn't just about handshakes and dinners. In fact, a relationship's actual value typically comes to light during a contentious time. Supply chain managers must be able to work through difficult negotiations and meet challenging requirements. Global supply chain management requires collaboration at speed, so communicating effectively through various channels, including video conference, email, and in-person, is essential.

 

Our duty as supply chain professionals

Current supply chain professionals must make time to help the next generation get up to speed and, ultimately, take our place as leaders. The technologies may change, but the core skillset remains unchanged. Being intelligent, flexible, comfortable with uncertainty, and calm under pressure contributes to success in this field but is just the iceberg's tip. Recent graduates will need training, opportunities, and – perhaps most of all – patience from their managers.

 

Supply chain management is a core function of thousands of global businesses. The ever-changing, fast-paced nature of the job role is exhilarating and offers participants a transparent look into how organizations run. Playing a crucial part in our customers’ success is a big motivation for why I love to come into the office.

Written by

Lynn Torrel

Chief Procurement and Supply Chain Officer

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