CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly
December 19, 2018
Career Ladder
Career Ladder

Why you should never "graduate"

Continuous learning should be a lifelong, driving passion.

There's a good feeling that hits you when you're wrapping up a major negotiation, completing a big project, or even finishing a book. It is very satisfying to tick something off your "to do" list, to get something done. Most of us crave it. Some call it the "completion high," and that craving is one reason why supply chain management (SCM) professionals are considered to be superb at execution. SCM professionals know how to get things done.

But some things should never really be finished. Expanding your knowledge and wisdom is one of them. While I firmly believe that earning degrees and graduating college are pivotal accomplishments, I also believe that they should not mark the end of your education. Continuous learning should be a lifelong, driving passion.

Critical thinking and analysis
Academic study and experiential learning are very different, yet both play a role in business success. Let's start by looking at what formal education has to offer.

Our formal education does two things in varying degrees. First and foremost, it teaches you to focus your mind and think. You learn how to identify problems, investigate alternatives, question assumptions, debate merits, revise processes, and reach conclusions. Learning to order your thoughts in this way (and practicing it regularly) is critical to achieving and maintaining success; it's a capability that stays with you throughout your life.

The second thing a formal education does is give you a set of tools, processes, and techniques. These change over time and are replaced by different tools, processes, and techniques. Why? Think of it this way: just as physicians need to constantly read journals and attend seminars to stay abreast of medical advances, you need to stay current with the ever-expanding body of knowledge and practices in supply chain management.

Learning from life
After a certain age, however, the vast majority of your education will be self-directed, based on your passion for your work and your personal drive for achievement. Your education will evolve from an early focus on academics to the most powerful learning of all: "life experience."

Supply chain management is a dynamic, rapidly changing field. No matter how cuttingedge your supply chain organization may be, you will still need to learn what others are doing, what researchers are finding, and who is blazing new trails. You need to continually upgrade your industry knowledge by reading, attending seminars and conferences, and building your professional network. New relationships are one of the most important learning sources you can leverage.

Not all of your professional growth and knowledge will come from outside sources. Inside your company there are excellent opportunities to expand your knowledge base. However, like picking up a magazine or enrolling in a course, you have to take action if you are to obtain that knowledge. Sitting around waiting for invitations to participate in some initiative or learning opportunity usually results in a lot of sitting and very little participation. If you want your passion for growth and achievement to be noticed and to pay off, then you must actively pursue opportunities to learn.

Opportunities all around
Take a look and you'll see there are opportunities to learn all around you. Here are some examples and advice on how to take advantage of them:

  • In order to make their supply chains better, faster, and more effective, companies need to explore alternate models, especially those outside their own industries. Volunteer to conduct some research, visit some noncompeting companies, and put together a white paper for your executive team.
  • Don't shy away from learning opportunities because they might require a significant time commitment. I recently made this suggestion to a vice president of logistics who had been asked to join a strategy taskforce in the coming year. She was apprehensive about the commitment, saying, "it will require a lot of my time." After congratulating her, I explained that this request was an example of "management by invitation," one of the highest compliments an executive can receive. I also suggested that this would be an excellent opportunity to deepen her knowledge of the company's strategic direction and priorities. Most importantly, by participating in the taskforce she would be in a position to help shape the company's strategic decisions.
  • Remember that while you may think of yourself as a supply chain professional, you are first and foremost a business executive. What are you doing to improve your general business skills and perspectives? While it may not be within your comfort zone, learning more about your organization's marketing, finance, and other strategic capabilities will make you a stronger, betterrounded business manager.
  • Recognize that knowledge is not just a matter of facts or technical details. Your lifelong education includes all those things that make you a better, more interesting person. I often recommend that my clients include an "airport assessment" when considering a job candidate. I tell them to imagine being delayed for hours in an airport with the candidate and ask themselves, "Could I truly enjoy spending time with this person? Is he or she interesting and engaging?" Personal presence and the interpersonal skills you have learned by experience do matter. In fact, they often are the "tiebreaker" in the final hiring decision. Would you pass an "airport assessment"?

Some of the learning opportunities you encounter may not seem relevant at first blush. Back in high school, I would sometimes get frustrated by some of the subjects I was being "forced" to study. "Why do I have to learn this stuff? I am never going to use it," I used to grumble. But I suspect that, like me, you have seen some pieces of information you once thought useless come in handy later in life. For me, at least, this seems to be happening more and more as I grow older.

Learning for a fast-paced world
Change is the only constant in the world today. And knowledge, perspectives, and possibilities keep changing at an almost inconceivable pace. You can only keep up with these and other changes by committing to a life of continuous learning.

To take full advantage of the education, both formal and informal, that will help you succeed in such a changeable environment, try to develop an opportunistic mindset that drives you to remain ever vigilant for opportunities to learn and grow. And never forget to take the time to enjoy what you are doing. We only live one life—be sure to make the most of it.

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

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