CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly
January 21, 2019
Forward Thinking

Five suggestions for running a successful supply chain rotational program

Early talent development programs that rotate young professionals into different positions across the supply chain can provide valuable cross-functional skills. But participants do have advice on how to make the experience even better.

Many companies these days are looking for senior supply chain leaders who have a wide breadth of cross-functional experience and knowledge. To ensure that they are developing people with that type of talent, however, companies must make sure that they are exposing up-and-coming leaders to different parts of the supply chain.

Some companies have gone as far as creating formal rotational programs for high-potential supply chain professional. Typically these programs rotate participants through different positions every six to 18 months, exposing them to a variety of projects across the supply chain.

At the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) Annual Conference, a panel of five young professionals who had recently participated in such programs offered advice for making these programs as successful as possible.

  • Provide participants with detailed "onboarding documentation." Participants will need to get up-to-speed on their new roles quickly. Departments and functional areas will get the most of out of the participants' time, if they provide them with a document that lays out such things as best practices, key contacts, and systems that are used. If this is a position that is consistently filled by a rotational person, have that person keep this document up to date for the next person rotating in, recommends Anthony Garwood, who participated in Abbott Laboratories rotational program from 2012-2013. If there is not this type of consistency, create a document that will be applicable to multiple different roles and groups, he said.

  • Have a director or sponsor. Even if the participants will be reporting to the human resource department, it is important to have an executive sponsor for the program, said Elizabeth Richter, who is currently participating in contract manufacturer Flex's Supply Chain Leadership Program. She said that a director or sponsor will be able to establish what the benefits will be for the specific supply chain functional areas involved and what the long-term vision for the program is.

  • Make sure you have plans in place for hand-offs and transitions. Not every project that a rotational employee works on will be completed during the time allotted for it. It's important to think beforehand about how and to whom projects will be handed off, so that the work does not lose momentum.

  • Set expectations. To make sure that the program gets the right type of people for rotational positions, it is important to set expectations with them upfront, said the panelists. For example, let rotational employees know that they will need to be flexible and comfortable diving into a position that they may have little experience in. If the position involves moving or an international placement, this also needs to be made clear.
  • Additionally, the program needs to set expectations of what participants' career paths may look like after the program finishes, recommended Garwood. For example, rotational employees might not initially rise up the corporate ladder as quickly as if they would have if they had come out of school and specialized in one area. Instead after completing the program, they may find themselves in a job similar to what they would have gotten right out of school. Participants should be aware of this possibility and reassured that in the long term they will see benefits from participating in these cross-functional experiences.

  • Track the results. Just as with any other initiative, it's important to measure and track the results of the effort to make sure that it is truly successful. Jami Bliss, who went through a rotational program at HP and now works at pharmaceutical company GSK, is currently establishing such a system for the early talent program at GSK. According to Bliss, GSK will be tracking retention rates for participants three years after the program finishes. "We want to make sure [a rotational program] is the right thing to do and that we are doing it in the right way," she said.
  • The panel members all agreed that they valued their rotational program experience and found it provided them with valuable cross-functional experience and the confidence to embrace change and new positions quickly. They have been able to directly apply these skills to their roles post-program and as they become hiring managers, they find themselves looking for new hires who possess similar experiences.
    Susan Lacefield is Executive Editor of CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly.

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