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June 27, 2017
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How Lenovo tackles the global workforce challenge

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The technology giant strengthens its supply chain talent pool by focusing on geographic, cognitive, skill, and generational diversity; its unusual approach to leadership development has created a deep bench of internationally savvy managers.
Lenovo laptop
Lenovo, best-known for its laptops, also makes and sells desktop and tablet computers, smartphones, and servers. Because the company serves customers in 160 countries, its supply chain organization values a diverse, international workforce.

Supply chain executives in North America who are faced with human resource challenges can take heart: they are far from alone. According to Nicole Jefferies, executive director, worldwide fulfillment for the technology giant Lenovo, the supply chain talent shortage and its attendant difficulties in recruiting, developing, and retaining supply chain professionals is a global phenomenon. "It's a very competitive talent marketplace everywhere we do business," she said in a presentation at the Gartner Supply Chain Management Executive Conference, held in late May in Phoenix, Arizona. That is saying something: Lenovo, which provides computers, smartphones, and servers, has customers in more than 160 countries, and employs more than 55,000 people.

As a truly global business—the company even has two headquarters, one in the U.S. and one in China—Lenovo seeks to capture the business benefits of its employees' diversity while minimizing barriers like language. That approach gives the company "access to innovation and thought leadership globally," not just at corporate headquarters, Jefferies said.

The company values other types of diversity beyond geography, she added. One is generational: About 8 percent of Lenovo's employees are baby boomers born between 1946 and 1960; 32 percent are Generation X, born between 1961 and 1980; and 61 percent are millennials born after 1980. Like the talent shortage, intergenerational conflict seems to be a nearly universal problem. Jefferies related a recent conversation with a Brazilian plant manager, who contended that millennials were his "biggest problem." In her view, managers' attitudes are the problem; they don't understand how to relate to and get the best out of their younger employees, she said. Jefferies offered some recommendations:

  • Millennials are easily bored. They like to multitask and are more productive when they have a lot of projects and variety in their work.
  • Adjusting the standard 9-to-5 workday to accommodate millennials' desire for flexibility makes a big difference in their job satisfaction and their level of engagement.
  • They will play by the rules, but only if you define those rules and clearly communicate specific expectations.

Lenovo also values and pursues cognitive, skill, and functional diversity in its global supply chain workforce. Thirty percent of supply chain employees are engineers, valued for their ability to solve problems, analyze supply chain networks, and manage automation. Fourteen percent focus on customer experience; their performance is measured based on customer satisfaction, Jefferies said. The remaining 56 percent fall under the foundational "plan-source-make-deliver" functions.

Talent development occurs through a combination of formal learning, learning through relationships, and "learning by doing." For example, employees may take a class in lean manufacturing processes in the morning and then put what they learned into practice in the afternoon. This lets them get experience immediately, rather than waiting until after a months-long program has ended, Jefferies said.

Lenovo's supply chain organization uses techniques like pairing an experienced employee with a newer one who has "a beginner's mind," a Zen Buddhism term for someone who is completely fresh to an idea or situation and thus has no preconceived notions. Both can learn from and spark ideas in each other, Jefferies explained. Another is a "mentoring circle," a group of about 10 people with similar functional responsibilities and skills. They meet regularly to share ideas, concerns, and advice with each other, an approach that builds a supportive peer group and "allows you to scale up one-on-one mentoring," as opposed to the time-consuming responsibilities of individual coaching, she said.

To develop managers and executives who are comfortable with the global nature of Lenovo's business, the company developed a mid-career rotation program that sends candidates to work in Europe, the Americas, and Asia. "This program helps [participants] to learn how to manage teams everywhere, not just in their home countries," Jefferies said. For such international programs to succeed, she added, companies must pay special attention to how the program is structured and candidates are selected. Lenovo sends its managers overseas with specific objectives for building relationships and gaining expertise. To help ensure a successful experience, participants are paired with a local mentor in each location. Assignments last eight to 10 weeks—"long enough that they will be viewed as colleagues and learn a lot, but not so long that it's disruptive to the individual and the local organization," Jefferies said.

A separate program is targeted to managers with executive potential who are already experts in their particular field. Launched seven years ago, the program sends high-potential employees on a trip together; as they travel, they work on building leadership skills, problem solving ability, empathy, and a network of peers. According to Jefferies—a member of the inaugural group—the program has been effective in identifying strong executive candidates and in improving retention. Currently about 40 percent of program graduates are Lenovo executives, according to Jefferies.

Toby Gooley is Editor of CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly.

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