Over the years, I have given many presentations about career development at the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals' (CSCMP's) Annual Global Conference. It's a pleasure to be a part of the conference, and I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to connect with supply chain professionals who have a wide variety of experience and responsibility.
At the most recent conference in San Antonio, Texas, I received quite a few questions about career-path and leadership progression:
"When is the right time to assume a leadership role?"
"Given that I don't actually manage people today, is it still possible to develop and demonstrate my leadership potential?"
"How do I progress from a mid-level manager to the C-suite?"
When it comes to leadership development, there is no time like the present. Even the most junior professionals can lead and inspire those around them. I've seen hourly employees whose job is to clean bathrooms and break rooms demonstrate inspirational leadership. Unfortunately, I've also witnessed senior leaders do just the opposite.
Leadership is all about accomplishing important things through others. Whenever you inspire, challenge, and encourage others, you are leading. Whenever you put the team first, refusing to take individual credit, you are leading. Whenever you take a stand, even though it's unpopular, you are leading. You can do these sorts of things no matter what position you hold.
The primary difference between leading at the top of an organization versus leading at lower levels is the scale and impact. Senior leaders impact large numbers of people. They can inspire a company to completely transform itself; they can also drive a company into bankruptcy. In fact the leadership skills that are used at the top are essentially the same as those that are used at lower levels; they are just being applied on a larger or smaller scale. Some basic leadership skills can be used at any time and at any level in the organization. Just by using these skills, you set yourself apart as a leader. But as we will see, effective leadership requires not just skill but also certain character traits and the right mindset.
Leadership = listening + initiative
If you are interested in developing your leadership skills, the best advice I can offer to all supply chain management professionals is to lift your head up from your own work and listen to what is going on around you. You are part of a complex organization with multiple goals. You should know how your role fits into the bigger picture. Listen, ask questions, and listen some more. Listening and asking questions will bring knowledge and insight.
When you combine that knowledge and insight with initiative, you begin demonstrating leadership. Leaders see what needs to be done, and they make it happen. Leaders literally take the lead. When you see an opportunity arise, ask to make the project your responsibility. Initiative demonstrates that you have the desire to increase the scope of your job. It shows that you want to work with others to get something accomplished. It is a sign of leadership that will be noticed by the people who make promotion decisions.
Cultivate healthy relationships
It bears mentioning that I sometimes see newly minted managers exhibit a few negative traits that seasoned executives typically do not employ. Some new managers, for example, think they have to use intimidation, incite fear, and require blind loyalty. Perhaps these new managers are not confident in their ability to produce results by using the finer skills of leadership. I do not typically see these tactics being used at higher levels of management. That's because when they are used, one of two things happens: Either experience teaches these managers that those behaviors do not work in the long run, so they adopt more sophisticated leadership methods, or they do not get invited to the C-suite.
Instead of fear and intimidation, leadership depends on healthy 360-degree relationships with those you work with, for, and among. Leaders will find opportunities to solidify existing relationships and create new ones with peers not just in their own area but also throughout the organization and their industry. I once heard someone say, "Leadership is a contact sport." He meant that being a good leader requires you to be creatively and continuously interacting with others. Good leaders realize that the time to make a friend is not when you need one.
One great relationship for aspiring leaders to cultivate is with a mentor. A mentor relationship can be formally assigned or it can develop organically. If your organization does not have a formal mentor program, ask someone to be your mentor informally. It may seem counterintuitive, but asking someone to help you is an act of leadership, not an act of weakness. Leaders admit they do not know everything, and they always want to know more and become better.
Leaders, in turn, are mentors to others. Starting out, you can informally mentor someone, such as a newly hired peer or someone who you think may ascend to your position someday. Often these relationships are informal and are not explicitly called "mentor relationships." Regardless of the label, you are leading someone else to better job performance.
The fundamental three
There are many more leadership qualities that could be discussed, but three are so fundamental that no article on leadership would be complete without them: honesty, empathy, and tact. Let's consider each of them.
Honesty. It is nearly impossible to lead if people do not trust you. Leaders should be honest in their dealings with everyone around them regardless of how much higher or lower their position may be. Treat everyone as equals. If you do not treat them honestly, your goals and your credibility will suffer.
Empathy. Leaders see a situation from the other person's perspective, and they try to discover the other person's motivations. Leaders convey facts and arguments using the language and perspective of their audience. They acknowledge their audience's situation. The whole idea is to impart information, ideas, and reasoning in a way that others will understand. Some people feel that empathy is a weakness and a sign that someone can be easily swayed. It is not. Empathetic leaders are simply acknowledging their employees' story, not altering theirs.
Tact. All successful diplomats possess the skill of tact. Their success depends on getting differing sides to reach common ground. They have to be tactful while still conveying difficult messages. Likewise, a good business leader can say difficult things in ways that make others hear the message without being threatened. How you say something can be just as important as what you say. Leaders think before they speak.
You do not need to be a CEO to demonstrate honesty, empathy, and tact. Leadership can start now, no matter what your current position. It is a mindset, not a job title.