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Supply chain specialist or generalist: Which is right for you?

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Specialize, and you might get "locked in" to a particular area of responsibility. Broaden your knowledge and experience, and you could move further up the career ladder.

Supply chain management is a complex and challenging discipline. With so many functions involved (procurement, manufacturing, demand planning, inventory, and logistics, to name just a few), there are many potential areas of career specialization.

Specialization can be a good thing, and it plays an important role in supply chain management. By having specialists in key areas of the supply chain system, companies can make impressive gains in efficiency, effectiveness, customer satisfaction, and market expansion.

If you are a specialist, it often implies that you are an expert in a certain area of the supply chain system. In effect, you become the "go to" person for critical issues and challenges related to this specific realm of knowledge. Your particular skills and expertise can make you a valuable contributor to the success of the enterprise. Moreover, your deep knowledge in a key supply chain dimension can position you as a "big fish in a small pond." There is absolutely nothing wrong with becoming a specialist—if you do so as a result of a conscious decision.

However, depending on your career goals, there may be drawbacks to remaining a specialist. You could be cast as a "one-trick pony"—someone who is exceptionally capable in one area but appears to have no desire or, worse yet, lacks the ability to branch out into other areas. Another risk is being perceived as primarily an individual contributor—someone who performs very well in her own role but has limited ability to affect circumstances outside her specialty. In my work, I have often seen this perception arise when an executive has difficulty managing people. That is when you may hear comments like: "Joe is a great individual contributor; however, he really struggles when he tries to manage others. As long as we keep Joe where he is, he should do well."

Potentially the biggest risk of being a specialist is that you could become marginalized as business priorities rapidly evolve. This can happen when an industry's structure, technology, markets, or other dimensions radically change. This type of change may result in your company placing different weight on your particular role and area of expertise. I've seen this happen when companies are acquired, and the acquiring company changes a business's strategy and go-to-market model. A particular specialty that was highly valued prior to an acquisition may end up much lower on the priority list post-acquisition.

When it's time to broaden your credentials
The time will come in your career when you should consciously decide whether you want to continue as a specialist or broaden your experience, perspectives, and impact on your company. If you are currently a specialist but your ultimate goal is to ascend to the management ranks, then you should begin doing two things: 1) develop knowledge and experience in other areas within or outside of supply chain management; and 2) develop your people and leadership skills. Your mindset needs to transition from "I am a supply chain specialist with some generalist skills" to "I am a strong generalist business executive who leverages his supply chain expertise and experience to set strategy, lead people, and develop organizations."

As a general rule, the higher you go up the organizational hierarchy, the more you need to shift from specialist to generalist. While specialists tend to manage a narrow set of processes and information, generalists must be able to see the broader implications of decisions by focusing on strategic direction and on the people and processes needed to win.

I don't wish to imply that it's only management that needs to maintain a broader perspective. The ability to understand higher-level strategy is important in any role. If you don't know how your special area of expertise fits in with your company's ultimate goals, you could miss an opportunity to make a greater contribution to the company's success. Worse yet, your actions could be misaligned with the company's strategic direction and could actually inhibit overall progress.

To move up the career ladder, you will need to broaden your skills and perspectives. If you are in the early stages of your career, you can start by sharing your knowledge and experience with others. Is there someone in your department you can help to cross-train? Are there new hires you can assist in assimilating into your organization? By taking on initiatives like these you will develop leadership skills like mentoring and coaching.

Seek out opportunities to work in less familiar areas within your supply chain organization. This will let you see how your current role and that of other positions overlap or diverge. You can also volunteer for special-project teams at the corporate level and join ad hoc committees. These initiatives will give you insights into the larger strategic and organizational challenges facing the business.

A bolder step toward broadening your capabilities is to move into a completely new function like marketing, sales, or finance. Even accepting a lateral move will provide invaluable experience and demonstrate your willingness to tackle unfamiliar terrain. By doing so, you will evolve into a better-rounded executive.

Managing people directly or indirectly is a must for a generalist. To do it well requires more than intellect; it requires emotional intelligence, or EQ. High EQ is most often what differentiates the best leaders from everyone else. Leaders with high EQ are self-aware and in control of their emotional impulses. They are perceptive and can empathize with others. They have strong social skills and know how to make big things happen through others. This may be the greatest hallmark of strong generalists: They don't define success based on their own contributions. It isn't about them, it is about their organization.

Unlike our intelligence quotient (IQ), which is fixed in our adulthood, our emotional intelligence quotient can be developed with effort and focus. Even if you cannot claim today to be someone with a strong EQ, you can certainly become that kind of person in the near future. It is well worth the effort, because EQ turbocharges your career like nothing else.

Here are some key career accelerators that leverage EQ: 1) learning how to build and maintain strong relationships internally and externally; 2) developing influence skills that allow you to capture the heads and hearts of others; 3) developing exceptional communication skills that allow you to connect with your audience regardless of the setting; and 4) developing your self-awareness by learning how your personality and leadership style can be subtly and quickly adjusted to fit changing circumstances.

For a specialist who has mastered a specific supply chain dimension, one of the most difficult aspects of moving into management is embracing the ambiguity that comes from moving outside his or her comfort zone. But consider again the power of this declaration: "While earlier in my career I was a supply chain specialist with some developing general business skills, I have now become a strong generalist business executive who leverages his supply chain expertise and experience to set vision, lead people, and develop exceptionally strong organizations." Sound exciting to you? If it does, then make the decision to move from specialist to generalist today. If you want it badly enough, then begin working now to make it happen.

Tim Stratman is founder and president of Stratman Partners Executive Coaching Inc.

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